Mexico Is Our Canvas

He sits anxiously at the dinner table, starving. The tantalizing scent of the earthy cumin and the lemony oregano wafts into the air and only exacerbates his hunger further. Finally, someone slides him an unfamiliar deep russet soup and a plate decked with diced onions, cilantro and thinly-sliced jalapeños.

The young boy watches his cousins slide the toppings into their bowls. He mirrors their actions and even squeezes a little slice of lime. Unsure, he pokes at the squishy meat and looks up at his relatives for reassurance.

“Don’t worry about it,” his dad says. “Just eat it.”

The moment the soup touches his lips, he’s in love. “What is it?” he asks with wide eyes.

Menudo,” his father responds. The word means nothing to the boy; all he can focus on is the crunch of the hominy, the smokiness of the ancho chiles, the burst of rich, savory flavor. It’s not long before he consumes all of it. One of his cousins laughs and says nonchalantly, “You know what that is? It’s stomach!”

It didn’t matter to the boy — if it tasted good, it tasted good. He got seconds.

Fast forward a few decades. That boy, Omar Rodriguez, is now the head chef at Oyamel, a Mexican restaurant founded by the acclaimed Michelin-starred chef José Andrés.

Located in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood, Oyamel boasts large crowds and small plates. That’s no coincidence: Andrés applied the tapas style of eating from his native Spain to Mexican cuisine. Because of how the food is meant to be eaten, you get to taste everything from ensalada de palmitos to queso fundido.

“Oyamel is my way of telling the story of Mexico,” Andrés said.

And just like the country where it draws its inspiration from, Oyamel is boisterous and vibrant. Faux marigolds cover the ceiling and monarch butterfly stickers flutter on the window. It’s a step away from being tacky or overkill, but with the holographic light fixtures, trendy glass plates and bright murals, Oyamel is fashionable. Hip, even.

Rodriguez worked at Oyamel and other José Andrés restaurants, such as Zaytinya and Chile Chicano, for a total of 10 years with some off time in between. Regardless of which restaurant Rodriguez worked at, the process of collaborating with Andrés — more or less a celebrity in Washington, D.C. — stuck.

“José entrusts us with his vision of the food, and we work on developing new dishes and specials,” Rodriguez said. “We know what within that vision he wants.”

The majority of the menu at Oyamel leans towards certain regions of Mexico, Rodriguez said.

“The entire country is our canvas.” Rodriguez said. “We try to do everything. At times, the menu will lean more towards certain areas. You’ll see a lot of Oaxacan or a lot of Yucatan or a lot from Michoacan. These are regions that have such a rich culinary culture. It’s easy to do. We’ll have some of the more famous dishes because it really resonates with people.”

Mexican cuisine, or any cuisine for that matter, leaves so much room for interpretation. You can have it all: dishes that taste foreign to you but not to others as well as dishes that taste familiar but have a new twist.

“It’s always fun to surprise people and tell the story behind the dish,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the most important thing. You can be modern in the way you portray something, but you really need to understand where the dish comes from before you do that.”

And there is one dish in particular that Rodriguez has complete understanding of: menudo, the dish that ignited his passion for cooking. It’s also the one he fought to get onto the Oyamel menu.

“That was a big passion project for me,” Rodriguez said. “Like, there are dishes that I adore because that’s what I loved growing up. I always want to get something that I enjoyed eating as a kid on the menu whether or not other people like it.”

Perfecting the dish took Rodriguez months to do. He had a scientific approach towards getting it just right: he documented the methodology and the changes he made until he was satisfied.

“I literally worked on that thing for weeks before I was happy with it,” Rodriguez said. “I would make it and be like, ‘This is not good enough’ or it lacked body or it didn’t have the right flavor, whether it be enough ancho or enough hominy or enough of the tripe flavors.”

Making menudo is a tedious process. According to Rodriguez, the first step is to properly wash the tripe. Usually when restaurants order tripe from a butcher, they receive multiple sheets of it since there are multiple stomachs within a cow. The issue is, it’s hard to really know how clean the tripe is going to be.

“They’re supposed to clean it,” Rodriguez said. “But the unfortunate thing in the process of cleaning it is that they sometimes use chemicals. They’re food safe, but it makes like this weird flavor or odor, so you have to take the time to clean it. So you have to take it, wash it, soak it to purge any impurities from it, making sure that there’s nothing.”

Next, you have to slowly stew the tripe to make it tender.

“It depends on the quality, but on average I’d say it’s somewhere between six to eight hours,” Rodriguez said. “You start in the morning and then you let it just sit on the range.”

But with any soup, it’s always about the broth.

“You have to make sure you make this flavorful broth or it’s not going to taste the same,” Rodriguez said. “Here, we made our pork stock using pig head and pig feet, so it’s full of flavor and so when you eat it, it glazes this scrumptious soup over your lips.”

After the stock is made, Rodriguez seasons it with his homemade ancho chile paste, cumin and Mexican oregano. Then, he stews it with the tripe for a few hours.

The result? A menudo so rooted in bold, savory flavor, it’s hard to resist. In fact, Rodriguez’s menudo is so well liked it’s also on China Poblano’s menu in Las Vegas.

“I didn’t really care if people would like it or not,” Rodriguez said, “but I just knew that if I could recreate it myself, people who grew up eating this would come in and be like, ‘Oh my God, this is what I used to eat back home or what I ate when I was young.’”

Then there are the dishes that would be a shame not to include, such as chiles en nogoda. Meant to celebrate Mexican independence, chiles en nogoda represents the Mexican flag with its ingredients: a green poblano pepper is stuffed with a meat filling — often pork or chicken mixed with pears, raisins and apples — and a creamy white walnut sauce is drizzled on top.

Finally, to represent the red on the flag, a few pomegranate seeds adorn the pepper.

“We try not to veer from that too much,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a classic dish, but we wanted to put our touch on it with the ingredients we felt made it ate better. You can’t really mess with it too much because people will get upset. They’ll be like “What are you doing to this dish?” because of what it signifies to people.”

In order to respect and recreate traditional dishes, Rodriguez visited Oaxaca and Monterrey to learn about the regions’ respective culinary scenes. His standard mode of investigation is to hit up everything, from the little taqueria stands to the fine dining restaurants.

“You know what’s awesome?” Rodriguez said. “Walking to markets and seeing what the market vendors are selling. See all the street food, basically. It’s such a cultural difference in general. You realize, wow, maybe I’m not making it as authentic as I should be making it.”

Though one question remains: Isn’t there room to experiment and grow? The answer is yes, according to Rodriguez. For instance, Rodriguez said he loves to create vegetarian dishes because it’s a challenge; either people believe vegetables are not prominent in Mexican cuisine (which is false) or they don’t want to order vegetarian dishes because they’re not “satisfying.”

“I like to play with vegetables just because it’s challenging,” Rodriguez said. “A fun thing, too, is taking something that’s seasonal here, an ingredient where you wouldn’t see them eating that in Mexico — but it’s here, it’s available, it’s an awesome vegetable at the peak of the season — and do something with it and make it fall into line with Mexican flavors.”

For Rodriguez, traditionalism and modernity do not necessarily have to be in conflict. Food is about honoring everyone’s experiences.

“It’s a labor of love,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the idea if you were Mexican and you were here in D.C., how can you take something that’s a local ingredient and make it into something Mexican?”