– Chef Esdras Ochoa
Born and brought up in Mexico and the U.S. border town of Calexico, CA, I spent most of my childhood crossing the border to partake in the culture and street food of Northern Baja.
I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in fashion design while working in a casino as well. During the recession that hit the US in 2009, I lost my job but soon found my calling when I introduced the food I grew up eating to the city I now call home. In 2009 I started Mexicali Taco & Co. as an illegal street food stall in Downtown L.A with no culinary background. My food gained popularity and transformed the area, drawing in crowds; this soon got busted by the health department due to being illegal in nature. Seeing the success of this venture, I started Mexicali Taco & Co. as a brick-and-mortar restaurant with my partner Paul Yoo in 2012. Mexicali Taco & Co. went forward to garner numerous city & national awards, as being a favorite of critics like Jonathan Gold and fans alike.
I am also the co-founder and partner at Salazar, a wildly popular restaurant in Los Angeles. The restaurant is an outdoor oasis for Mexican food & drinks, of which he crafted the culinary style & direction of the restaurant. In the summer of 2017, I opened 11 Westside in Hong Kong to critical acclaim. The restaurant brings Northern Baja flavors to the area and is introducing Asia to his home-style cooking. I am also the founder & partner of 8A Hospitality, a restaurant management-consulting company that also has a division specializing in special event catering.
In 2018, I collaborated with Kyta Hospitality’s Chef Amninder Sandhu to relaunch Sancho’s. The journey and collaboration between Chef Amninder and I began on Netflix’s culinary competition show The Final Table where we bonded over the common elements in both Indian and Mexican cuisine. Our passion and love for food steered us towards getting to know each other, and where Amninderdecided to bring me down to Mumbai and open Sancho’s.
My core of Mexican cooking comes from Northern Baja cuisine, and specifically the Sonoran type since that is where I grew up and the food that I ate most. However, in recent years, I have traveled extensively throughout all of Mexico to study the history of our cuisine as well as improve my knowledge of my own heritage, culture, and food. There are so many states in Mexico whose food varies by geography, topography, and proximity to the ocean. Northern Baja cuisine really focuses on flame-grilled proteins and vegetables, as well as hand-made flour tortillas. That is a foundation for my cooking as I love the smokey flavors that are brought out of the produce and ingredients I work with.
These days, it seems like some chefs and cooks want to “fuse” and introduce sometimes foreign ingredients into a certain cuisine to create something “new” rather than have it be organic over time. Immigrants bring their food to regions they move to, and often times, local ingredients are mixed in to create hybrid cuisines as a result. Tex-Mex is popular in the Southwest like Arizona, New Mexico & Texas. Californians aren’t as familiar with that cuisine. We have a different type of Mexican cuisine that has also been influenced by other Central American cultures that all mix in Los Angeles. Is one more authentic than the other? As long as the cuisine isn’t bastardized too much, “authentic” is a difficult word because everyone’s own experience is authentic to themselves. My experience I try to bring to my restaurants is the Northern Baja/Sonoran cuisine that I have experienced throughout my life. I want to make my hometown of Mexicali proud, and be a true son to that region of Mexico.
Mexico is a big country with vast landscape scenery, culture, and food. Every region is very different from each other. Depending on the weather, early settlements and traditions food can be very different from region to region. But the common vase of a lot of Mexican cooking is what I call Mexican mirepoix which is made using chili, tomato, cebolla, onion and peppers. When it comes to the pepper there are endless possibilities which impact the flavor and make it either bold, spicy, smoky or mild.
Salsa de molcajete is one of the northern Mexicos most popular salsas. Fire roasted tomato, onion, garlic, cilantro, serrano or jalapeño. The char on the vegetables is what makes it very unique, adding a hint of smoke to it. In the north, we cook it directly over hot coals.
Salsa roja& salsa verde is the staple in most of Mexico regardless of region that is used as a base for many dishes like enchiladas, guisados (braises) and in all taquerias.
If you’re visiting Mexico there are a few must-visit places and I’m listing down what you should get yourself a soon as you touch down.
Monterrey -Cabrito (baby goat) is a staple of Monterrey and is roasted slowly over a bed of fire accompanied by salsas, tortillas and a beer. To get the meat super tender and juicy the kid has to be no more than 40 days old. If you haven’t tried Cabrito then you haven’t visited Monterrey.
Sonora–Sonora has been labeled as the capital of Carne Asada and if you’re there, you have to give it a shot. It is something that identifies the region and that the locals are proud of Sonora is known for its beef as they rear some of the finest cattle. Being next to the American border Sonora gets a lot of influence from the American side, especially their flour tortillas.
Yucatan– CochinitaPibilis a suckling pig which is slow cooked in a smoker under the ground atop hot stones. It is rubbed with achiote and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and makes for an exceptional dish. It is one of the few Yucatecan dishes that you may come across outside the city and sometimes even internationally but I guarantee you it’s best had in Yucatan. Traditionally it was a dish that was had on a Sunday however now you will find it on most days.
Puebla– Mole Poblano is one of the most complex dishes in Mexican cooking. Mole is a sauce consisting sometimes of more than 100 ingredients like pasilla chilies, ancho chilies, almonds, overcooked tortillas, peanuts, spoiled bread, chocolate, bananas, sugar, raisins and much more.
Mexico, especially where I grew up in the northern part has a newer and much more modern food culture that has only cropped up over the past couple of decades and it is something I embrace. If you visit any of my restaurants the food is a mix of traditional Baja style food, my travels across the world, and mostly the flavors from the places I now call home.