It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday night, and the back room of Ole Mexican Grill is filled to the brim with raw ingredients. Vegetables have been slow roasted all day for salsa, and bowls of spices litter the counter spaces. Meat is lined up on a tray, ready to be sliced. It looks like we’re either on the set of a cooking show or getting ready for a very large party.
But no, we’re just getting ready for a marketing meeting with Erwin Ramos. Needless to say, he went above and beyond what we expected for a “beyond the dish” interview. But if he’s game for this big of a production, so am I- so we strapped a GoPro to his forehead and had him get to work showing us the stories behind three very popular dishes at Ole:
1. Tacos al Pastor
I challenge you to find a more savory taco then Erwin’s al Pastor (except, of course the legendary chicharron, which I could wax poetic about all day). Chef Ramos’ take on al Pastor is simple but extremely satisfying:
“Mexican food is all about the basics,” Erwin says. “If you start with quality basics, you can build out your meal from there, and you end up with a quality result. Mexican cuisine is not complicated. You’re building many different dishes from a handful of building blocks. But you have to start with quality.” Erwin’s al Pastor is no exception to his “simple, but high quality” rule. The dish builds on achiote marinated pork, and has just a few toppings- red onions, pineapple, bacon and a little salt and pepper. But when chopped and grilled together, the simple ingredients’ flavors swirl together to create intense flavor.
Erwin is all about staying faithful to Mexican cooking traditions, so (naturally) I called him out when I saw him toss olive oil into a pan. I tried to sound innocent: “Erwin, would you be using olive oil if you were in a village in Mexico?”
He paused his work to give me a raised eyebrow and a simple answer: “No. I would be using lard. But pork on pork on pork (we can’t forget that the tacos include bacon, too) is too much.” Moral of the story: we keep with traditions, within reason.
Watching Erwin cook is like watching a well-choreographed dance. He doesn’t move in the quick, flighty way I’ve seen some chefs work. His hands don’t flutter between tasks, but know exactly where to go. Erwin is sure of his work, and it’s a pleasure to see him in his element. And before I knew it, we were on to the next dish:
2. Pipian Mole Sauce
Next up, we had green mole sauce from Oaxaca (click here to read more about Erwin and his love for Oaxaca). “This sauce is great for fish and chicken,” Erwin yelled over the vita-mix blender (That’s right, Erwin uses a blender for sauces at Ole. Slightly less romantic than the communal stone grinders in the center of Mexican villages? Yes. Is using a stone grinder to create the sauce worth waiting two hours for your meal? Probably not. Remember: traditions within reason.) I asked him what was in the sauce. Here’s the list:
Salt & Pepper
Sounds a little like…..pesto, right?
“Exactly,” said Erwin. “It’s like a Mexican pesto, and it’s very healthy.” In fact, most Mexican sauces are very healthy. Unlike in other cultures, Mexican chefs generally use chilis and seeds as the thickening agents instead of dairy products.
And what makes this sauce uniquely Oaxaca? “The focus is on vegetables,” says Erwin. “Oaxaca is the Tuscany of Mexico. The soil is fertile and perfect for growing many, many crops.”
Speaking of vegetables, although Erwin cited the Pipian sauce as a go-to for chicken and fish, he simply poured it over some grilled vegetables for us to taste. And it was delicious. I never knew vegetarian Mexican food could be, or look, so good. In fact, when I commented on the beautiful presentation, Erwin acted as though it was second nature: “I always refer to what I call the trinity of food: aroma, taste, and presentation. Without all three, a meal isn’t appetizing”. This simple dish definitely had top marks in all three categories.
3. Spearfish Veracruz
Our final dish was a treat, and it let us see Erwin’s creativity at work.
Erwin didn’t have a lot planned for this dish, keeping it intentionally simple. The spearfish was high quality on its own and didn’t need anything more than oil, a little butter, and pepper. This last dish was a true cooking lesson:
“You have to make sure the oil is very hot before putting the fish in the pan,” Chef Ramos insisted, “or it won’t cook quickly enough and will be too done.” He even spooned hot oil over the fish as it cooked to keep the fish evenly cooked at the “barely seared” level. Off the record, I’m tempted to say that this is how we should all cook fish, but I think I’d better say “don’t try this at home” when it comes to spoonfuls of hot oil. So don’t try this at home.
After some garnish, including a bed of polenta, charred greens, and a sweet pea puree (sounds strange, tastes great, especially after being light toasted with a blow torch. Not kidding.), the fish was finished. Perfectly seared and simple, this last dish more than lived up to Chef Ramos’ “simple, but high quality” standards, and left me wanting to try to make it at home, hot oil hazards and all.
What about you? Would you want to try to make any of these dishes at home? If you’re not ready to actually give it a shot head on over to our youtube channel and check out a first person view of Erwin at work!
Here’s to the simple (but delicious!) things in life,