In anticipation of Cinco de Mayo next month, we tapped into the amazing Mexican cuisine Alberta has to offer. Full of flavour and tradition, we soon learned that there is so much more to it than tacos, burritos, and guacamole.
There’s an element of time and care with each dish that is created, some of them taking more than 24 hours to prepare. It’s a complex cuisine, with flavours ranging from spicy or sour to fresh or savoury, but one thing is for certain: those who cook it are excited to share it.
Perhaps it’s because of how they learned to cook – with close family sharing recipes and techniques passed down over time. There’s a beautiful sense of community built into Mexican cuisine, and all four Alberta chefs we spoke with encourage everyone to experience it. From personal takes on tradition, to dishes created in honour of spring, here’s just a taste of what Mexico in Alberta has to offer.
Calgary’s Tu Tierra was opened in 2006 as a small Latin market. Co-owners and childhood friends Hector Delgado and Diana Palafox saw an opportunity to draw more customers by cooking and serving items such as tacos and burritos. “People were always asking for more and more food,” says Delgado. “We switched the business from a store to a taqueria, and then moved to a bigger place.”
Delgado grew up watching his mother and grandmothers cook. “My mom is from northern Mexico, so my sisters and I grew up on those regional recipes.” He also has fond memories of family gatherings at his grandparents’ home, where dishes like mole and barbacoa were staples. “I’ve always had a love for cooking,” he says. “And I knew I wanted to do it for a living.”
“Mexican food is about the flavours,” says Delgado. “It’s about the aromas and the textures.” It’s also about tradition. “Pozole is an antique dish and is often eaten during festivals and parties.” While there are variations for each region of Mexico, his recipe is like those found in northern Mexico, with his own touches of pork and chipotle.
Find Hector Delgado's recipe for Pozole de Frijol here.
Originally from Mexico City, Chef Alli Said came to Calgary over 10 years ago with a degree in culinary arts, and experience cooking in Spanish, Italian, and Mexican restaurants. He quickly became partners with Mike Clark, owner of Mikey’s Juke Joint (now closed) and together they opened Mikey’s on 12th.
“When there are family events, everyone helps with the cooking,” says Said. Catering was the family business, where his mother and aunts cooked in the morning, and Said DJ’d at night. While he studied for his degree, he got more involved with the business. “My grandmother and mom taught me amazing techniques,” he explains. “And every time I go to Mexico, my mom is still teaching me!”
“I really invite people to learn about real Mexican food – the spices, the chilies, and the tomatoes right from Mexico,” says Said. “It’s complex at times, but it is so good.” His recipe for ceviche, created with spring in mind, is something that can be recreated with ease. “Practice your knife skills,” he adds, “And have fun with it.”
Find Chef Alli Said's recipe for Chipotle Tuna and Mango Ceviche Tostada here.
Chef Mariel Montero-Sena is the owner of Edmonton’s Huma Mexican Comfort. “Well, owner-slash-dishwasher-slash-server,” she explains. “Anything that is needed.” From Pueblo, Mexico, she earned a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and spent time traveling the world and experiencing different cultures before coming to Edmonton.
“My grandmother is my inspiration, and her kitchen was my happy place when I was growing up.” Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain was another guiding force. “I realized that food is a way of connecting with people. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. We can all share a meal and have a good time.”
“Mexican cuisine is not just tacos and guacamole,” she adds. Many dishes require hours of preparation and attention to detail. “If you don’t know how to deal with dried chilies, take your time and do some research.” Her take on Sopa de Tortilla has a chili-based broth as opposed to tomato-based. “It’s different compared to what grandma does, but I wanted to be adventurous.” In the end, it earned her grandmother’s approval.
Find Chef Mariel Montero-Sena's recipe for Sopa de Tortilla here.
Giovanni Vasquez, of Calgary’s El Chefe, always knew he wanted to open a restaurant. Starting as a dishwasher at Salsa Restaurant, he wasn’t afraid to speak up when he thought something was missing from a recipe. “I’d tell them, ‘Hey, I think your salsa verde is missing something. Maybe add a little cumin.’”
Those instincts quickly landed him in kitchens of several Calgary restaurants, where he gained more experience with different cuisines. “When I’m in the kitchen cooking, the day just goes by so quickly,” says Vasquez. “I wasn’t really into sports like soccer, or anything else,” admits Vasquez. “So I’d watch my grandparents or my mom cook. For me, it was exciting to sit down and eat something that I cooked with my mom.”
Vasquez prefers acidic sauces like the one here made with tomatillo. The recipe, first made by his mother, quickly became one of Vasquez’s favourites. “When I’d visit her, it was either cooking, or already on the table. And every time she would make it, I’d have to have the first bite.”
Find Giovanni Vasquez's recipe for Entomatado de Res here.