This Mexican Chef Has News For You: Margaritas And Tres Leches Aren't Mexican

Chef Angel Medina is decolonizing Mexican cuisine in America, serving a history lesson with each plate.
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Voice In Food: Angel Medina
Photo: Olivia Bartruff
Voice In Food: Angel Medina

Angel Medina is a Mexican-American restaurateur who is passionate about showcasing a version of Mexican cuisine that existed before colonists came to the Americas. He started sourcing Mexican coffee to raise money and awareness for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients ― immigrants who came to the U.S. as children ― and founded an unconventional restaurant in Portland centered around education and conversation.

Medina currently owns two coffee shops, La Perlita and Esperanza, as well as four restaurants: República, La Fondita, Los Ponchos and Lilia (which opened October 5). In this Voices in Food story, Medina shares some common misconceptions about Mexican cuisine and why we need to talk about them.

I was born in Southern California and at the age of 4, I relocated with my family to Guadalajara, Mexico. From there, I was sent to live with my grandmother in Tijuana as my parents were struggling to make ends meet. That is where I got my first introduction to food. Instead of saving pocket money to buy baseball cards, I would use it to get on a minibus and go eat Chinese food. I was a kid who loved to eat everything!

My grandmother also believed that if I drank more strong black coffee, I would do better at school. Needless to say, I was a wired kid and got hooked to coffee for life, so much that I ended up traveling to coffee farms, writing about them and starting my own coffee company.

In 2010, as an adult, I moved to Portland for work. During that time, I got involved with DACA (my brother was born in Mexico and wasn’t able to legalize in the U.S.). I knew about other kids who could not get a driver’s license or tuition assistance in the new administration. I started raising funds and awareness for an organization called United We Dream by roasting coffee at my apartment. My employer, Airbnb, asked me to roast 75-100 pounds a week for their office and that’s what led me to start my first venture. In July 2017, I opened a cafe featuring only Mexican-grown coffee with proceeds going toward DACA recipients.

“I get annoyed by this because the margarita was created when a Mexican bartender was trying to appease a white woman because she had restrictions on what she could drink. That’s not a story we want to tell or continue that tradition of appeasement.”

- Angel Medina

Within a year, I opened three coffee shops in Portland: KIOSKO, Con Leche and La Perlita. Then, I parted ways and moved to Mexico to learn more about the dynamics, economics and life at fincas (coffee farms) there. After a few months of consulting and writing, I returned to Portland. That’s when I had the urge to tell more stories through food.

In October 2020, executive chef Lauro Romero, pastry chef Olivia Bartruff and I pooled $12k each from our savings to start República restaurant with the idea of “being a guest at a Mexican household.” We were tired of the disconnected representation of Mexican cuisine we had been seeing in the U.S. and wanted to share a different version of history. So we got rid of the menus and asked people to trust us to eat what we served them while having uncomfortable conversations, but in a fun environment.

Most people have a misconception that the Spanish came to Mexico and destroyed everything, but that was not always the case. The Spanish made mezcal, exposed us to sour ingredients that are typically found in Asia and imported ingredients we had not seen before. These later became known as “Mexican” but I feel we need to separate those histories and talk about what is truly Mexican and what is not.

I saw that no one was doing the research to trace the origins of where each ingredient comes from, why we are serving it a certain way, what is ancestral, or what was brought here to create the Mexican cuisine we know of right now.

For example, if you ask around what is the most popular Mexican dessert, people will say tres leches, but the truth is that the response is coming from a place of nostalgia and not the country’s culinary history. When Nestle couldn’t sell their condensed and evaporated milk cans in Mexico, the PR companies invented the recipe and published it on their cans to increase sales. So tres leches was developed by a product company that is not even Mexican.

Most Mexican restaurants follow the same formula, feeling the pressure to sell margaritas, chips and guacamole – things that are marketed to a particular demographic to make them feel comfortable. I get annoyed by this because the margarita was created when a Mexican bartender was trying to appease a white woman because she had restrictions on what she could drink. That’s not a story we want to tell or continue that tradition of appeasement. Instead, I created a cocktail called “What happened in 1519,” which makes you acknowledge the beginning of colonization, and frankly, tastes better than a margarita.

I feel most Mexican cuisine in America is unintentional. Cilantro, which is not even native to the place, is used in every dish. A wedged orange is garnished alongside rice and beans. No one can point us to who started these trends, yet we keep following them.

“We cook with ingredients that are native to what is now known as the Americas, and sabotage them by adding what we have stolen from other continents, such as olive oil and cheese.”

- Angel Medina

Another thing that frustrates me is when ingredients are used for shock value vs. flavor. Tourists go to Oaxaca and ask for bags of grasshoppers and bartenders add insect proteins to garnish drinks ― it’s a cliché. It not only is an unpleasant experience, but is a misrepresentation of the ingredient.

My personal parameters for each dish I serve are: It has to tie into the culture and the story we are telling, be seasonally and locally produced, look beautiful on a plate and taste even better than it looks.

The people who work at República have to first learn to be storytellers who can translate food, factual history and its interpretation. A server will come out and tell you what a dish is, but ours also talk about the components, its lineage and its inspiration. We cook with ingredients that are native to what is now known as the Americas, and sabotage them by adding what we have stolen from other continents, such as olive oil and cheese. The important thing is that we also acknowledge our own sins (the stolen goods) and not blindly call what’s not ours Mexican.

I know this concept is not for everybody. For some diners, it is an eye-opening education they can’t find in a history class, but for others it is unacceptable and they don’t think our food is Mexican. I tell them that your grandmother probably never cooked this unless you come from native origins and continued 200-plus- year-old traditions. In any case, my goal is to offer the best interpretation of my culture through food.

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