Want something unique to eat? Head to the suburban neighborhood of Olmos Park north of downtown San Antonio. Find a former train yard turned parking lot with a stubby row of shops, a bar, an asian noodle house. And a blue, windowless 40x10 foot railroad boxcar sitting behind a coffee shop at the end of it all. Not a place where one might expect to get a good meal, right? But this is San Antonio — one of America’s “new cities,” which is to say it’s an old city, small and for decades known but largely overlooked. It's one of those cities that in recent years has suddenly awoken and grown up into an enclave that, though small in stature, is large in offerings of things that people today really want. Including food. Really good food. And one place that stands at the front of the pulsing line of unique, outstanding eateries run by starbound chefs is Mixtli.
From the very name obscurely painted on the blue boxcar you know you’re in for something unusual. Mixtli (pronounced “meesh-li”) means “cloud” in the ancient Aztec dialect of Nahuatl and seems to represent not just the influential memories of Mexico but also the modern winds of change. Walking through the door you encounter just one table for twelve stretching down two thirds of the narrow train car. The other third is the small kitchen, as pristine and well organized as any fine dining establishment not in, y’know, an old train car.
Once you sit down and meet your tablemates with whom you will share the next three hours you begin to realize that Mixtli is, indeed, something different. Which is exactly what chefs/co-owners Diego Galicia and Rico Torres want you to realize. Because it is different. They don’t accept reservations for dinner at Mixtli — they sell tickets. Just twelve for each day. They are non-refundable and non-changeable, though they can be transferred to someone else. This way Galicia, Torres and their tiny crew of three know precisely how many will be joining them each day. From a creative chef’s perspective this gives them the freedom to cook exactly what they want in exactly the right amount. From a restaurant business perspective it enables then to control their costs to the dollar with virtually no wastage. Smart.
But how does a twelve seat establishment stay in business when it's not in a central location — even if they have conquered the cost overrun problem that cripples so many restaurants? Because just serving damn good food — which Mixtli certainly does — is often not enough. For Galicia and Torres it’s the dining experience combined with that damn good food which is key, and these chefs have forged their own formula for such a combination. Mixtli is for diners who enjoy not just what they put in their mouths, but the story behind it. Because Galicia and Torres believe that a good meal starts before the food is ever tasted. It begins with an understanding of what is to come, or in this case, the history that led to it. Like the explorers and historians that perhaps deep down they are, the two chefs study the region, state or time period that their cloud hovers over, learning the origins and history of the food, the best of the ingredients and the way they have been cooked by indigenous people forever. They play with it and develop it into something new and innovative yet entirely true to its roots. And then they serve it in the boxcar for just six weeks.
That’s right, after forty five days everything changes. Like a drifting cloud, the culinary climate at Mixtli shifts to another part of that wildly eclectic expanse of geography, culture and food that is Mexico. Galicia and Torres choose a new concept of Mexican gastronomy and start all over again. That’s no small task — every six weeks they create more than ten new courses, each tied to the one before or after it by an inextricable thread of continuity and history. The ingredients are sourced locally and prepared old school. They roast their cacao for their own chocolate and moles, they dry grasshoppers and roll them in charred onion skins, they grow indigenous herbs and soak corn in a limestone alkaline solution to bring out its true flavor, nutrients and texture. Then they take those ingredients and reinvent recipes with a reverence for history combined with the brilliance of cutting edge cookery. The presentation is beautifully simplistic, the food passionately revealed and explained. Each dish is paired with complimentary, chef-donated wine, spirits or other libations that enhance what is on the plate or in the bowl. And the result leaves you feeling like you have learned a secret about Mexican cuisine that few others will ever know. Which, of course, you have.
The chefs’ mixtli has drifted over unusual themes, places and periods since the restaurant’s opening in 2013. Like La Conquista, an interpretation of a Spanish conquistador’s journey from the motherland to Mexico in the 1500’s (including ibérico ham, smoked fish and sherry matched with local ingredients). Over Chiapas, Torres and Galicia made their own Spanish chorizo sausage, roasted and pureed plantains, and had diners sear Wagyu beef on heated rocks at the table. As part of the Jalisco cloud they deconstructed street foods like tacos al pastor and birria lamb stew with modern techniques, like sous vide, and explosive powders of pineapple and green salsa.
Nearly everyone who talks about Mixtli mentions their specific six week menu (La Huasteca; Mexican City Market; Spanish Inquisition; Puebla; Origins; the list goes on…). And they speak as if it was their own personal discovery of food and place, guided by passionate masters and shared among just a very few. Which is exactly what Torres and Galicia want.
My mixtli menu hovered over not a place but a time (Mexico 1810 - 1910), reaching back to food from the nation’s first 100 years of independence and up to its revolution. Each dish reflected the influx of immigrants from around the world; a mestizaje of cultures, ingredients and flavors which merged with the local cuisine to form something new and unique. I previously had little idea of such non-Spanish influences in Mexico’s culinary world, so some of Chef Torres’ dishes surprised me. Things like Welsh Rarebit (with brioche, chorizo and queso Oaxaca); Boxty (a St. Patrick’s battalion of potatoes with yogurt and smoked bacon) and Raviolo ala Aragosta (an Italian lobster tortellini with chiles and cotija). Torres lined them up in geographic or chronological order amongst more traditional concepts of Mexican cuisine like a delicate bowl of Sopa de Tortilla with chicharron hidden within; Piment Vert (green chilies with pork and kale) and Mole Poblano (paired perfectly with a short rib resting atop a pool of the glistening brown elixer). The rich, earthy mole, with hints of cacao, cinnamon, smoke and more than thirty other ingredients had been infused, developed and tended to daily by the chefs for more than six months. Its taste instilled a sense of gustatory maturity — almost ancient wisdom — in my palate unlike any mole I’ve ever before experienced, and I at once had a private epiphany of mole enlightenment.
With their attention to detail and precision in the food and their creative approach to historical and regional culinary accuracy in the context of a regularly-changing menu, it is no wonder that in April 2017 Food & Wine magazine named Galicia and Torres two of the 12 Best New Chefs in the United States. Their unique approach to informative dining has helped energize the culinary scene in San Antonio. And now Food & Wine’s prestigious global attention will give the duo traction to do even more. Wonder where their mixtli will drift to next….
Mixtli Progressive Mexican Culinaria 5251 McCullough Ave San Antonio, TX 78212 restaurantmixtli.com