How A Mexican Couple Is Bringing The Culture Of Oaxaca To Texas
by Claudia Alarcón
Published in Forbes Magazine
Mexican-born chef Iliana de la Vega grew up immersed in the kitchen. Her mother was an incredible home cook and Iliana would cook with her often, going to markets for fresh ingredients and learning traditional recipes from her. Her father loved going out to eat at restaurants - they would travel to different states to try their regional cuisines and cultures. Even at a young age, de la Vega was enamored by the idea of being in the back of the house instead of being a guest at a restaurant, a feeling that stuck with her and shaped her career.
By the late 90s she’d won worldwide acclaim for her interpretation of Oaxacan cuisine at El Naranjo, a restaurant and cooking school in Oaxaca City which she ran with her husband, Ernesto Torrealba, for over 10 years. El Naranjo was a trendsetter, adding a modern twist to traditional recipes and featured in prestigious newspapers and magazines. The restaurant flourished until 2006, when the community experienced a period of political unrest, causing Iliana and Ernesto to sell their restaurant and move their family to the United States.
From 2007 to 2012, de la Vega served as the Mexican/Latin Cuisines Specialist for The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in San Antonio, Texas. Here, she conducted research, developed curricula and taught undergraduate, graduate and continuing education courses on Mexican and other Latin cuisines while creating and launching the Latin Cuisines Certificate Program.
At the same time, the couple was working hard to reestablish El Naranjo in their new home city of Austin. They purchased a fixer upper old house on Rainey Street and, while remodeling was underway, they opened El Naranjo Mobile and Catering, a food trailer that introduced Oaxacan street food to the city and was eventually recognized as the “only real Mexican restaurant in Texas” by Texas Monthly magazine.
In May 2012, El Naranjo Restaurant & Bar finally opened, but not without a few challenges. “Mostly, it is the misconception of Mexican cuisine as Tex-Mex,” says de la Vega. For most people, Tex-Mex is Mexican. To me, Tex-Mex is a regional Mexican cuisine, so that can be complicated to explain. Fortunately, we can source a lot of traditional ingredients and produce that are essential for our type of cuisine.”
De la Vega’s menu strives to stick to the traditions, perhaps with a simpler plating to appeal to the eye, but the recipes are as close to traditional as possible. “We believe the American palate is open to discovering new flavors and enjoying them, so we haven't changed anything in that regard,” she says. “Our food is prepared with love and care so anyone who appreciates that will be pleased with our menu.” One of the highlights of the menu is, of course, the mole. Oaxaca is known as the Land of Seven Moles, and on any given day, the menu at El Naranjo boasts at least four of them.
“Making a mole, especially mole negro, is a labor of love,” explains de la Vega. “You don't wake up one morning and decide to have mole for lunch. You need a lot of time and it requires a lot of work. For making mole negro, there are a few rare chiles that are hard to find, and they are expensive.”
The mole negro making process can take up to three days. First you remove seeds and stems from the chiles (saving the seeds), then carefully dry roast them until they are completely blackened, but without burning them. Then the chiles rest for a couple of days before being reconstituted in warm water until soft. Next they dry roast the vegetables (tomatoes, onion, garlic) and toast the chile seeds until black, but not burnt. She fries the plantains, tortillas, bread if used, almonds, sesame seeds, pecans, and any other nut that may be used. Spices, like cinnamon, avocado leaves, black pepper and cloves are dried roasted.
Next, she blends the chiles with water or broth to get a very fine puree which is then strained and fried for about an hour, stirring constantly so it won't stick. Meanwhile she starts blending the rest of the ingredients, add water as needed. Once the chile puree is thick, she passes the prepared mixture of vegetables, nuts and spices through a strainer, adds to the chile puree, and cooks for two more hours, stirring occasionally. Once the mole has the right texture and covers the back of a spoon, she seasons the mole with chocolate, salt and sugar and it simmers for at least another hour.
“By then you should have a thick mole sauce: balanced in flavor, not too spicy, not too sweet or salty,” says the 2019 James beard nominee for Best Chef Southwest. “And you should be able to taste a different ingredient with each bite, so no one should be the major flavor.” So much for the misconception that Mexican food is simple and therefore should be cheap. De la Vega does not cut corners.
“I also sometimes play with ingredients and create recipes of my own, but that is something that we chefs do constantly; for example, taking a classic French recipe like the steak au poivre and tweaking it to create a spectacular dish like our filete de res al chintextle - a juicy cut of beef rubbed with a mixture of spices and dried chiles. Another personal -and secret- recipe is our salsa macha, which is a take on the traditional Veracruz-style salsa.”
It is no wonder, then, that El Naranjo has been recognized as one of the best Mexican restaurants in Austin and named among the top 10 restaurants in the city. In 2014, the Mexican Government granted de la Vega with the prestigious Ohtli Award in recognition of her work in furthering Mexican gastronomy. The Ohtli is the greatest award given by the Mexican Government to Mexican citizens living abroad. In the same year, she was named the Hispanic Female Entrepreneur of the Year by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
De la Vega currently serves as a consultant for the prestigious Stanford University Dining Enterprises and presents in different forums and symposiums in the US and abroad. As a consultant, she creates menus and training for universities, restaurants and hotels. Additionally, along with her daughter Isabel, she conducts often sold-out culinary trips to different regions of Mexico, including Oaxaca and Mexico City, to provide an authentic experience for those wanting to discover the beauty of their homeland.