Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.
Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.
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How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?
Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.
The real Oaxacan food
She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.
What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.
Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.
She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.
A new start for El Naranjo
In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart. The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.
Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.
“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said. ”Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”
Velvety smooth moles
She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.
De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.
De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.
“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”
Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.