A Modern Take On Mexican Cuisine
Jason Thomas Fritz eats tacos for a living. Sure, he’s also trained as a journalist and takes some incredible photos of people and places throughout Mexico, but his main gig is as cofounder of Club Tengo Hambre, "a roving supper club that explores the food, wine, spirits, and craft beer of Baja California and Mexico City.”
Yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds, and we got to see Jason’s expertise in action as he took us on a street food tour of Mexico City this past spring with the fine folks at Richer Poorer and El Camino Travel. Once we’d recovered from our food coma, we talked to Jason about how he came to Mexico, changing food trends, and his favorite taco in Mexico City.
Missed our first story in the Richer Poorer series about famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán? Read it here, and keep an eye out for part three of our DF adventure coming soon.
Huckberry: Tell us about your background. How’d you get to where you are today?
Jason Thomas Fritz: I’m trained as a journalist and I worked as one for a number of years. I went to grad school at San Diego State, and when I was there I found that I didn’t like San Diego very much, so I moved to Tijuana. I’ve always been a food lover, but I think when I was living in Tijuana there was a really interesting movement happening with the food there, and since I was a journalist I started to write about it and pay attention to it.
There weren’t many people writing about it, and I knew the few people who were writing about it, so we were a small community. Those were the people I started Club Tengo Hambre with: Kristin and Antonio Díaz de Sandi, a wife and husband powerhouse, are the cofounders in Baja, and Bill Esparza, another cofounder, is in LA. They were also food bloggers and food journalists and we just started to write about it, and basically that’s how we came together and started Club Tengo Hambre. And that was about five years ago.
How did you make your way to Mexico City?
I was living in Tijuana for a few years and Club Tengo Hambre had started to do pretty well. I had always wanted to move to Mexico City – I’d been coming here for more than 15 years, and it’s a city that I’ve felt was flying under the radar for a really, really long time. But I’d fallen in love with it when I first got here and I always wanted to figure out a way to move here. I also think Tijuana was a little small for me, and the opportunity came up to expand the Club Tengo Hambre project to Mexico City, so I jumped at the chance.
What do you do for Club Tengo Hambre in Mexico City?
I’m one of the co-founders, so I do a lot of the un-fun stuff. A lot of the back-end stuff. I do host tours on occasion when we get so busy, but we have a local guide who does most of the tours. But I do a lot of the back-end stuff, I eat a lot, and do a lot of Instagramming. When I do get to guide tours, it’s a lot of fun. We get people from all over the world.
Eating for a living isn't a bad way to make your money.
Exactly. Although I’m probably headed towards a heart attack at 40 with the food I’ve been eating. But we’ll see.
This is a cuisine that goes back a long, long, long time, but a lot of people who are not from here are finding out about it for the first time.
What’s happening in the world of Mexican food right now?
It’s really interesting. I don’t think much has happened – people are doing what they’ve always done, essentially. Some chefs are certainly doing more interesting things. But I think it’s more that people who never knew about Mexican are finally figuring it out, and finding out about it, and finding that it’s a very, very complex cuisine and it’s one of the world’s great cuisines.
I’m from the Los Angeles area, so this cuisine was always a part of growing up for me – Mexican food is essentially Californian cuisine at this point. But a lot of places in the world are finally starting to find out about it. There’s a lot of places in New York and on the East Coast, for instance, that just suddenly discovered it, so I think a lot of people are paying attention to something they didn’t know existed or had such a misinformed idea of what it was. This is a cuisine that goes back a long, long, long time, but a lot of people who are not from here are finding out about it for the first time.
Also, I think there’s been a trend among more affluent classes here in Mexico to think that other cuisines were better; that going to a fine Italian restaurant or a restaurant where food from Argentina was served is better. But people in those affluent groups are really starting to discover the ingredients they’ve been using here for so long. Before, a lot of the ingredients like huitlacoche or some of the insects that a lot of the indigenous communities used weren't taken seriously in some more affluent classes. I think what a lot of this chef-driven movement has done has really shown people that Mexican ingredients are absolutely amazing and some of the best in the world. People are starting to pay attention to that again.
But that said, other people have always been loving and eating Mexican food. They don't need to rediscover it because it never went away.
A lot of these Mexican chefs are starting to conquer really food-obsessed cities.
So the change is coming from people paying more attention, and not from any specific difference in Mexican food itself?
People are definitely starting to pay attention. Also, I think some of the “rediscovery” of Mexican cuisine is the influence of how it’s been perceived in the States. For instance, the best restaurant in New York last year, by the New York Times, was Cosme, which is Enrique Olvera’s restaurant, and he’s a Mexico City chef. In San Francisco, the best restaurant last year, by the San Francisco Chronicle, was Cala, whose chef is Gabriela Cámara, a Mexico City chef as well.
So I think that what’s happening in the food world outside of Mexico City, is that a lot of these Mexican chefs are starting to conquer really food-obsessed cities. They’re getting called the best chefs in these food-obsessed cities. And therefore the entire world is starting to pay attention to Mexican cuisine.
I think some of the best chefs in Mexico will tell you that their creativity and their influence comes from the streets.
I hate to use the word “authentic,” but which do you feel would be more authentically Mexican – food from a fine restaurant or a street food stall?
I also find the word ‘authentic’ problematic. People always want something that’s authentic, but anything – whether it’s on the streets or it’s fine dining – that Mexicans are doing is authentic. They’re just two different ways to see a beautiful cuisine. I don’t think that one is better than the other, I just think they’re different. And in fine dining now, they’re really started to emulate what you find on the street. It’s plated differently, but it’s essentially the same combination of flavors that they’re working with. I think some of the best chefs in Mexico will tell you that their creativity and their influence comes from the streets. If you had to choose and you have a gun to your heard, I’ll always go for the streets. But to truly understand Mexican cuisine, you have to do both.
Mexico City has three restaurants on the world’s best list: Quintonil, Biko, and Pujol. Paris has three, New York has three, so the restaurants here are competing against the best in the world, and I’ve had people come on the tours and say, “Oh my gosh, Pujol was so amazing – but so was the food we had today on the streets." It’s just different. Different prices. But both are essentially really, really beautiful expressions of Mexican cuisine.
It’s your last meal. What would you eat?
It would probably have to be a green chorizo taco. Because it’s the best taco I’ve ever had. With a bottle of mezcal, too. I’d definitely bring that with me. [H]
Jason's Mexico City Picks
Hungry? Headed to Mexico City? You're in luck. Here are Jason's top five food picks for this sprawling city, complete with street food stalls and fine dining alike.
A modern take on Mexico’s classic fondas, traditional taverns. Chef Juan Cabrera applies fine dining techniques to traditional, regional flavors resulting in a menu that’s just as homey and comforting as the space itself.
This casual dining spot is the child of Eduardo García, award-winning chef at Maximo Bistrot and one of Mexico’s most celebrated chefs. This popular Condesa restaurant serves food until 11:30 pm, so swing by to line your stomachs before you hit the mezcal bars.
The best al pastor taco in Mexico City, according to Jason. Enough said.
Calle Ayuntamiento 21.
Considered one of the best restaurants in the world, the tasting menu at Enrique Olvera’s restaurant is a bucket list item for foodies from Europe to Asia. Fun fact: Olvera was featured in this season of Chef’s Table, a Netflix series.
Calle Francisco Petrarca 254.
Churreria El Morro
This company has been making traditional churros in the Centro Histórico for 75 years. Order your chocolate in one of seven varieties, including the classics: the bittersweet especial, the thick Francés, the sweet Español, or the milky Mexicano.
Río Lerma 165.
Check out Club Tengo Hambre's upcoming outings throughout Mexico here.