Starry Eyes and Grim Reminders
The wake-up call was early. We had 350 miles to travel; our first interview was just under two hours away in Iowa City. The morning was a blur of double-checks and last-minute assurances that our gear was together, our research and interview materials were safe and sound, and that our family knew where to find the spare keys to feed our cats just in case.
We were out the door by 6:00 A.M. on our way to grab Madeleine. Rachel, our more industrious teammate, had already been in Chicago for 24 hours on another story. We phoned her, established that everything was on track, and set about our long-haul culinary adventure.
Veterans of early mornings but certainly not fans, we collected our compatriot and excitedly recorded vlog clips and notes on our way to get breakfast before hitting the open road. Our first meal would have been at a truck stop in Altoona, had it not been a victim of Iowa’s restaurant closures due to COVID-19. Even as Iowa restaurants handled the pandemic better than many states, the grim reminders of the food world’s status were not lost on us.
Passing on a real road trip meal for some drive-thru fast food and burnt coffee instead, we pressed on with hopes of much better eating ahead of us. We felt immense gratitude and glee to be on a food tour and at being able to take a trip, any trip, after a year of shutdowns and restaurant closures.
Diners today are feeling similar excitement, and impatience, to get back into the restaurant scene. Restaurants currently face a severe labor shortage, which has harmed all but the most connected or known fixtures in their community. Government shutdowns nearly annihilated the food and food logistics industry, bleeding it of an estimated quarter-trillion-dollars in projected sales for 2020. The restaurant game in 2021 is a strategic one of defense and survival.
As we talked over our hopes and dreams for the industry, we had reached the Iowa City limits, home of one of the most heavily awarded Mexican restaurants in Iowa.
Pork Stomachs, Beef Tongues, and Whipped Potato Tacos
Irvin Mendez is no stranger to positive press. The co-owner of La Regia Taqueria in Iowa City, he has consistently defended his venue’s reputation as Iowa’s best Mexican restaurant. Critics and customers rave about the fresh and high-quality street food the taqueria offers. Attached to a market inside the restaurant, fresh ingredients are received and hand-prepared every single morning for use in their kitchen.
“[The name] comes from a mountain in Monterrey, Mexico, where our family is from,” Mendez says. “We used to be a taco truck.”
Following the 2008 market crash, many restaurateurs opted to continue selling street food from trucks. The movement was popular due to both the low cost operating a mobile store and low menu prices. Food trucks became a national sensation in the 2010s, with movies like Jon Favreau’s film “Chef” highlighting the Latin and Hispanic culinary phenomenon’s success and sense of bohemian adventure. By this time for Mendez, La Regia Taqueria was almost too hot to handle.
“We had way too much business for that truck, people were waiting for so long to get food,” Mendez says. “We had driven by this place multiple times and thought ‘that’d be a great place for us,’ so we set up here.”
The switch for La Regia Taqueria, as it has been for many others, was hugely rewarding. Authentic street food now had a permanent address, with larger kitchens and more cooks and tables. Decades of homestyle cooking that was beloved by neighbors, family, and friends had earned itself a pedestal. Traditions refined by time and experienced hands had gone from nourishing to profitable.
The food’s voyage showcased the kind of adventurousness and nomadism Mexican food has brought to the U.S. and what has made it so successful and award-winning. The food is not simply good, it is a microcosm of a vast culture made tangible to every human sense.
When asked about how La Regia Taqueria maintains such a high energy with top-end food, Mendez had a simple answer.
“It’s a lot of hard work. We like to give the best we can to every customer,” he says. “That’s the number one thing.”
Ever the gracious host, Mendez prepared for us an absolute smorgasbord of delicious customer favorites. While Mendez offered us the fan-favorites, such as beef tacos and enchiladas suizas, I heard George Formaro’s voice calling back to me from our interview at MALO…
I ordered three tacos: one pork stomach, one beef tongue, and one goat. Kaitlyn, the vegetarian, ordered the whipped potato tacos that came absolutely covered in fresh grated cotija cheese. Madeleine shared in the feast with one simple chorizo taco, each of us sampling one of their numerous made-in-house sauces.
Formaro was right. Those were some of the best tacos we have ever had.
While we left La Regia Taqueria full, the five hours of open road travel were enough to replenish our appetites for the next and final stop. We had an eventful stint on the open roads; for the first time in any of our travels to the Windy Cindy, there was no road construction. Instead, all we had to deal with were virtual toll stops, one high-speed police chase that blew past us, and an uncertain changing situation.
Oysters, Citrus Jewels, and Dacquoise in the Library
Celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo is not the kind of restaurant someone decides upon at the last minute. In fact, it is not the kind of restaurant someone decides upon within three weeks of dinner. This is a restaurant where someone should plan upon at least eight weeks in advance, according to US Menu Guide. Then, they’ll need to reserve that $700 table for four, in advance. That does not include drinks.
We hastily swapped our clothes out in a North Wabash Street parking garage to avoid violating the business-class dress code. Despite weeks of effort, we were unable to get in contact with anyone willing to provide us with an interview or a quote. We were not surprised; Topolobampo has been the poster child of Chicago fine dining for over 30 years. Here is what the MICHELIN-Guide said about the venue this year:
The regional Mexican cuisine boasts a panoply of flavors, colors and textures with a finesse that is truly impressive. Lunches are laid-back and may include a quartet of quesadillas stuffed with chorizo, black beans and queso fresco. These are made even more luscious when served with a Veracruz salsa negra. Seasonal or classic tasting menus at dinner demonstrate the kitchen’s haute cuisine approach to authentic items and ingredients. Dishes are also sauced perfectly: the uni-infused spicy yellow mole poured over a single seared scallop is just one example.
Right, well then. That is what we would say, too. Of course.
Immediately, our event was flashily exclusive. There was a private bar, individual gifts, and personal thank you’s from Rick Bayless himself to the patrons who dined that night. Everything was delicate. The fluidity with which the waitstaff danced around each other, the low and polite conversation, the robotic wrist movements of the Sous Chef as she prepared each ingredient for presentation on a plate. This was a far cry from the lively and blithe cantinas we had been to before.
We had ordered a tasting menu as part of our reservations — a set menu with a fixed price that is served in courses. As the head waiter poured several hundred dollars’ worth of fine wines, tequila, and mezcals, we found ourselves positively dazzled by the array of delicacy after delicacy. We were served ceviche made with habanero orange juice and citrus jewels, chayote with lavender goat cheese, cod roast in banana leaves and served with coconut and shiso. The list went on.
Finally, after helpings of roast wagyu steaks, olive oil cake, and a tropical dacquoise served with a highly addictive cream made of guanabana fruits and meringue shards, it was time to depart. We had yet more treats our way, so many so that we simply could not finish. I was forced to accept my last few parting bites in the form of beautiful hand-made chocolate truffles, pan dulce, and hand ground hot chocolate mix imported from Mexico.
Here it was: the top of the success ladder for Hispanic and Latin cuisine. Topolobampo holds accolades chefs spend their lifetimes attempting to earn, many of whom will not get close to achieving. Topolobampo towers above the Hispanic and Latin food scene with authority. That does not mean they are the standard for comparison, however.
Every other restaurant vibrantly showcased the allure of Hispanic and Latin cuisine to the international palette differently. For El Molcajete, it was respect for tradition and authenticity of well-made dishes. For MALO, it was constant study and artful interpretation of common ingredients. For La Regia Taqueria, it was the accessibility and genuine delight in feeding people with delicious food.
Topolobampo exists as a nexus of all these individual aspects not done well, but near perfectly. The lifelong dedication of the staff to cooking, sourcing, and experimenting with ingredients until it simply cannot be improved upon any further is a level of craftsmanship that is unparalleled. The restaurant pours extensive resources into replicating this experience in newer and more creative ways every year.
When 66% of MICHELIN-Starred restaurants remained closed in April, Bayless’ restaurant was not one of them. Topolobampo seems to have mastered yet another fundamental tenet of authentic Mexican cooking: perseverance
The trip back was long and dark. It was soul-crushingly exhaustive, and there is only so much that gas station coffee at three o’clock in the morning can do.
During a breakneck college road-trip in a salvage-title Mazda 3 sedan, we aimed to visit Mexican restaurants in Ankeny, Iowa City, and Chicago as one group researching what lay behind Mexican cuisine’s sudden and international rise in acclaim. We found so many answers, and all of them were delicious.
We found historians trying to keep culinary trends alive. We found researchers and artists putting everything they have into innovation and modernity. We saw restaurateurs fresh out of high-school opening taquerias in Iowa City, and we saw a couple of farmers from Jalisco, Mexico opening a cantina in Ankeny. Awards ranged from Des Moines, Iowa’s best patio to a library with a MICHELIN-Star. We saw all of them impress the hell out of critics and their customers, and we saw them all survive a pandemic most competitors would not.
Mexican food has finally earned itself some staying power in critics’ minds as haute cuisine, and after sampling the work of just a few of these cooks, we understand why. Of course, for those lucky enough to enjoy the Mexican cultural hotspot that is the Midwest, accolades were never really the goal.
From the strangers selling street food to the stars selling cookbooks and dacquoise with guanabana creme, we are simply glad that Mexican food is here at all.
Crew: Madeleine Bonnallie, Rachel James