It’s vibrant. It’s colourful. It’s a cuisine that not only has gathered international accolade but has become quite a pop culture sensation as well. (Taco Tuesday, anyone?) But beyond the trend, Mexican cuisine spans centuries, a rich portfolio of dishes full of depth and flavourful nuances. And it’s flourishing in popularity in the Cayman Islands.
It seems quite natural that the Caribbean would so exuberantly embrace Mexican cuisine, as there are many similarities between the two regions’ culinary repertoire: a love of dynamic sauces, meats and fish, and of course, all things spicy. Not to mention it’s food fit for celebration, which is totally synergistic with the energy of the Islands.
It’s that sentiment that draws Jason Moir, owner of Bandidos Cantina, to the cuisine. “The best part about Mexican food would be the culture, the idea of fiestas and events. It all revolves around food. It’s a fun, exciting vibe. Great for sharing, and a lot of different options.”
A lot of different options, indeed, and many of them revolving around a foundational ingredient: maize, or corn. It’s been served as a staple in Mexican cuisine for thousands of years, not only cooked and eaten in its natural, harvested state but also ground into a dough called masa. The dough is most popularly used to make tortillas — tortillas themselves being a vessel for many a fan favourite — and served as an accompaniment to nearly every dish.
Though its individual dishes may appear simplistic, perhaps one of the greatest triumphs of Mexican cuisine is how effortlessly it pulls off complexity. Authentic Mexican cuisine imparts time and technique. Meats are marinated for hours or even days, many going through several processes, from steaming to braising to roasting. Sauces and salsas combine a plethora of herbs, veggies and citrus, all melding together to give dishes that perfect zing. Dishes like tacos and tamales incorporate not only layers of flavour but textures as well.
Max Hillier is co-owner of Casa 43 and, along with fellow co-owner Chef Lloyd Brown, celebrates Mexican food’s rich intricacies. He likens the operations of his restaurant to a Broadway show, where just as a performance is backed by months of rehearsals, each dish is supported by time, heart and creativity. “We’re crafting these different flavours together, where you’ve got soft and crunchy, something savoury, a little sweet; and all those things are going together to make the perfect bite.”
In addition to its robust flavour palette and unexpected nuances, perhaps another surprise of Mexican cuisine is its bevy of healthy options. Whilst those accustomed to the world of Tex-Mex or mainstream chains might envision Mexican food as simply fried or smothered in cheese, Executive Chef Ron Hargrave of Taco Cantina explains that authentic Mexican cuisine offers many lean options and a celebration of superfoods.
“A lot of it is great comfort food, but also a healthy aspect as well. Avocado, for instance, very good for you. Lots of olive oil that you can use in the salsas. The leanness of some of these meats. You eat good cheese, proper stuff.”
And a showcase of Mexican cuisine would not be complete without mole. The decadent and, at times, highly complex sauce has captivated the mainstream market. To pinpoint mole is a nearly impossible task, as there’s debate about its origins. And though many key elements are found in its various forms — like nuts, seeds, chili peppers and chocolate — they can vary greatly depending on where in Mexico they hail from.
One thing is for certain, though: Diners are mad about mole. There are entire festivals dedicated to it, with the various regions of Mexico each boasting their own interpretation of the celebratory dish. Perhaps most reflective of the heartiness of Mexican cuisine, the list of elements needed for a proper mole can be quite extensive indeed.
For Chef Ervin Horvath of Agave Grill, his team’s mole contains over 30 ingredients. And with dishes that require so many different components, he’s thankful for the farmers market community in Cayman and the opportunity to source ingredients as fresh as possible. He explains the value as a chef of knowing where his ingredients are grown and having those connections between local farms and businesses. “It’s priceless. This renaissance in farm to table is welcome, and it’s a must. It’s something we as a species must do to help alleviate all the by-products.”
Joyful cuisine, a thriving dining scene and an island locale where key ingredients are in abundance? The flavours of Mexico and the culinary community of Cayman are quite the perfect pairing.
Bandidos Cantina: Bandidos serves up hearty Mexican plates, with a dash of Caribbean inspiration woven throughout the menu as well, exemplified in dishes like the jerk pork carnitas taco. On the weekends, swing by for breakfast, with bites like huevos rancheros and breakfast tacos, where eggs meet chorizo, guacamole and a pickled jalapeño roasted salsa.
Casa 43: At Casa 43, roasted corn with Cotija cheese, chicharron chips and tacos de lengua, or beef tongue, all offer glimpses into the various culinary regions of Mexico. A wide variety of tequila and mescal is available, and for dessert, tres leche cake or fresh-to-order churros end the meal on a perfect sweet note.
Taco Cantina: Taco enthusiasts can choose from a broad spectrum at Taco Cantina, ranging from classic, like ground beef or pulled pork, to a more eclectic variety infusing international flavours, like the peanut shrimp taco, with a sweet peanut and chili sauce. The menu also includes flavourful dishes like chicken mole and carne asada.
Agave Grill: Agave’s Mole de Oaxaca is served with vegetarian steamed rice with toasted nuts, and a choice of speciality meats. For lighter fare, there’s fish tacos and burritos, and fresh ceviches bringing both tangy and spice to the table.
Author: Jessie Gilmartin