Last week, chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo spoke with LA Weekly restaurant critic Besha Rodell about their upcoming French-Mexican brunch restaurant, Trois Familia. In the interview, Dotolo was quoted as saying he hasn’t heard of anyone doing French-Mexican cuisine before. OC Weekly‘s editor, Gustavo Arellano, responded sharply as the chefs and the interviewer failed to mention Anepalco’s chef Danny Godinez, whose true French-Mexican restaurant (that even has a French-Mexican brunch) has been around for six years in Orange County. In reality, French-Mexican cuisine dates back to the French occupation of Mexico, when emperor Maximilian I and his wife Carlota brought famed Hungarian chef Tudor to Mexico along with his brigade of cooks.
These chefs became familiar with Mexican ingredients and worked with native cooks to create a French-Mexican fusion that formed the basis for Mexican haute cuisine (or Alta Cocina Mexicana), that flourished among the bourgeoisie during the Porfiriato. Huitlacoche crepes were served with French wine and native ingredients were bathed in mother sauces for such delights as chayotes in béchamel. European fashion, culture, and cuisine continued to dominate the Mexican elite for more than a century before pre-Hispanic culture reemerged. Even then, Mexican haute cuisine remained a dominant style until chef Enrique Olvera and Guillermo Gonzalez abandoned French technique (around 2002) in favor of local technique and traditions, changing the trajectory of Modern Mexican cuisine forever.
Chef Danny Godinez’ restaurant embraces the original French-Mexican fusion that can still be found all over Mexico as well; but the French-forward Mexican cuisine that’s still served by chefs like Estoril‘s Pedro Ortega in Mexico City has been around Los Angeles even longer at places like La Serenata de Garibaldi (1985) , Frida’s (2002), and the only genuine Mexican haute cuisine restaurant in El Pueblo de Los Ángeles, Babita Mexicuisine (1999).
Haute Mexican classics like chiles en nogada (chile relleno of ground meat and dried fruit in a white walnut sauce topped with pomegranate seeds), Babita’s sautéed shrimp Topolobampo (higher end shrimp a la diabla made with habaneros in a white wine sauce), and the ubiquitous enchiladas suizas (Swiss enchiladas) found at places like Frida’s Restaurant in Beverly Hills are all examples of Mexico’s mestizaje (mixture) of French and Mexican cuisines.
As for Trois Familia, their intention isn’t to follow any French-Mexican tradition or invent anything, but to draw on the experiences of the three chefs, their unique approaches, and some inspiration from their travels. “We are just using Mexican and French [cuisine] for inspiration—shit, one of the dishes has sushi rice flavored in Mexican flavors”, said Shook over the phone.
“There’s nothing literal about what we’re doing; we’re not inventing anything; we’re just creating something for the neighborhood and paying tribute to the Mexican food that was served there [at Alegria’s on Sunset],” he continued. “Truth is we don’t know where it’s going. We’ve changed the menu so many times that it’s premature to put it in some box—and we don’t really do that anyway.”
Let’s take this moment to get to know French-Mexican at Anepalco’s, revisit Babita’s for Mexican haute cuisine, and recognize the French contribution to that mouthwatering plate of camarones al mojo de ajo (garlic butter shrimp) or camarones culichis ( shrimp in a jalapeño cream sauce) at your favorite mariscos joint. And the next time you’re picking up some pastries or a chorizo quiche at the many La Monarcha Bakery locations, know that Mexico is just as grateful for the sweet bread and mother sauces, as France is for the tomato, chocolate, and vanilla.
Anepalco Mexican Cuisine, 3737 W Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 456-9642, anepalco.com
Babita Mexicuisine, 1823 S San Gabriel Bl., San Gabriel, (626) 288-7265, babita-mexicuisine.com
Frida’s Mexican Cuisine, 236 S Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills, (310) 278-7666, fridarestaurant.com
La Monarcha Bakery, various locations, lamonarchabakery.com
La Serenata de Garibaldi, 1842 E 1st St., Boyle Heights, (323) 265-2887, laserenataonline.com