From quesadillas and burritos to getting the perfect guac to go with your nachos, Mexican cuisine has been dominating the culinary taste buds across the globe for years and here we highlight the top three Mexican restaurants in the region.
How popular is Mexican cuisine in the region?
Ivan Vidal, chef de cuisine, La Tablita Restaurant, Hyatt Regency Dubai Creek Heights: I find Mexican cuisine to be really popular in the Middle East, and certainly in Dubai. Although there are many Mexican restaurants already, we still see the demand growing with more venues popping all throughout the GCC. The reason for this is that Mexican cuisine combines many great elements including informal dining, variety, colour, spices and plenty of flavour. I also think Mexican cuisine is highly versatile, fun and can remain strongly authentic while still being able to adapt to modern trends like healthy eating, using produce sourced sustainably as well as offering great vegan and vegetarian options. Our entire team at La Tablita hails directly from Mexico, from the chefs to service professionals which is why we are able to bring that fun, colour and authenticity to Dubai.
Juan Flores, executive chef, Loca: Since the opening of Loca in 2008, there have been many Latin American restaurants opening proving the demand for Mexican cuisine has increased in recent years across the Middle East. UAE’s F&B scene is growing rapidly and with it the market’s need for authentic concepts. Mexican cuisine is very desired among UAE consumers as they are well travelled and are used to experiencing good Mexican food, served in a simple traditional way, it also means that they expect the same style and taste when dining out in UAE. Here at Loca, we feed this demand, with simple and flavourful ingredients that take people back to the brand’s culture and heritage.
Nadine Benchaffai, managing partner, Taqado Mexican Kitchen: Mexican cuisine has become very popular over the years not just in the high-end fine dining restaurants but also at a more accessible levels like ours. There are now a number of brands competing within this space but rather than taking market share from each other, we have all helped build awareness and create greater demand for Mexican cuisine.
What is your hero dish?
Vidal: If I was to choose one then it would be the molcajete. It is a dish with beef tenderloin, king prawns, chorizo, cactus, morita chili salsa and melted breaded cheese – all served together in a molcajete, a traditional stone vessel. The dish is served with soft corn tortillas on the side to make tacos, which is perfect for sharing.
Flores: It has to be our popular handmade cornhusk tamales, a very traditional dish made with a secret recipe of corn masa.
Benchaffai: Taqado is known for its customised burritos where you get to build your own burrito in a simple four step process ensuring that it’s just the way you like it.
Have you adapted Mexican cuisine to suit local tastes?
Vidal: We have made some adjustments to suit local tastes, for example reducing the amount of spicy chili used for seasoning and by substituting pork products in our recipes. However, overall we really do try to keep all of the dishes as authentic as possible.
Flores: The menu at Loca has been designed to provide guests with quality Mexican food. Our culinary style is a combination of tasting menus, smaller plates and fulfilling dishes that will have taste buds tingling. We also provide tailor-made menus for groups, special events and parties to suit the needs of our guests, including both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink options.
Benchaffai: At Taqado we try to balance local tastes while also remaining true to the Mexican flavour. Ultimately though, Taqado is all about customisation so that in itself allows customers to build their meals to suit their own tastes.
What are the key trends emerging in Mexican cuisine?
Vidal: A key trend I currently see in Mexican cuisine is going back to the roots. In Mexico there is a renewed interest to going back to what your grandmother used to cook and chefs are looking for hidden treasures in the form of traditional recipes from remote villages and small towns with the aim to bring them to light. Everyone is looking for authenticity, simple ingredients with a traditional style of cooking.
Flores: We are seeing a shift to healthy, gluten-free and vegan dishes in Mexican food, using ingredients like hibiscus and nopal cactus and offering meatless versions of Mexican favourites like tacos al pastor. With basic ingredients like tomatoes, corn, fresh vegetables, avocados, beans and rice, Mexican food can be both nutritious and healthy. Earlier this year, we designed a lighter menu for those who wanted a slightly healthier option. After the positive feedback from our guests, we decided to add a few of the dishes to our ongoing a la carte menu.
Benchaffai: Customisation will remain a key trend, not just for Mexican cuisine but for other food categories too. Mexico is cementing itself in the fine dining category as it moves beyond its street food image so I’d expect to see more high-end fine dining Mexican restaurants coming to the scene in Dubai.
Where do you source produce for your menu?
Vidal: The majority of our produce is sourced directly from Mexico since most of the ingredients used are grown in the Americas, from fresh chili, annatto seeds and avocado to corn flour. However, we are increasingly able to source fresh produce from the UAE including vegetables and seafood which allows us to reduce our carbon footprint and do our part towards a sustainable global economy.
Flores: We source from trusted suppliers who only deal with fresh produce. Our dishes including starters and desserts are made fresh in the kitchen and that is why we are passionate about using local suppliers, however due to seasons, we need to import products outside of UAE, to be able to offer high quality, creative and exciting food combinations.
Benchaffai: We use a wide range of suppliers depending on the items, with a few spices and chilies coming directly from Mexico. We’re very picky about our meat from the grass-fed beef currently from New Zealand to our avocados which are Mexican Haas, of course. We could easily source cheaper items but we can’t compromise on quality as even a slight reduction in the quality of onions can make a different to the taste. It’s a challenge when managing the business of course as suppliers can run out of stock and prices can fluctuate.
What products do you find challenging to source?
Vidal: I can honestly say we don’t have great challenges at La Tablita with sourcing products.
Flores: Sourcing suppliers who can consistently provide us with great produce can be a challenge from time to time. Authentic Mexican food is simple, and that is why garden-fresh produce is probably the most important element.
Benchaffai: I’d say our meat and avocados have probably been the most challenging over time but as we’ve grown, we’ve been able to build a more stable supplier network which means at times we may require back up suppliers should market shortages occur.
How do you see your menu evolving over the next 12 months?
Vidal: In the year ahead, one of the projects I will be undergoing is that of refreshing many of the main dishes, looking to incorporate a series of Acapulco inspired recipes where the main ingredient is seafood. We are very excited about these changes because not only are we going to add more variety to our offering but we will also be able to use locally sourced sustainable fresh produce like seabass.
Flores: At Loca we try to take authentic Mexican food and give it a refreshing and contemporary spin. Take our guacamole, we offer a classic version made fresh at the table, but have also added many variations over the years from our frutas with strawberries and blackberries to cangrejo with fresh crab meat, so expect more of the same.
Benchaffai: We’ll be looking to add seasonal specials such as lamb and fish, bolster our vegan and salad options and add more desserts and complementary snacks. It’s always a challenge to increase our offerings to customers whilst still keeping the choices simple enough.
What is the future for Mexican cuisine in the region?
Vidal: The future of Mexican cuisine in the region is very positive. I am certain more restaurants will continue to open their doors and as people become increasingly familiarised with our flavors, Mexican cuisine will become part of their dining-out repertoire. I can confidently say that Mexican cuisine is here to stay.
Flores: We believe the popularity of Mexican food will increase and split into two categories, an emergence of fine dining Latin American restaurants and restaurants focusing on lower price points. We at Loca have launched our own version of this – the Loca Lito, a foodtruck at La Mer, which has been a great success.
Benchaffai: The region is lagging behind in the fast-casual Mexican food trend, so I think that will continue to grow quiet and become more of an everyday option. Some of our biggest fans are teenagers so our future is looking bright.