Delicious Mexican meal sparks look at Jewish culinary traditions in Mexico

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

It is not often that a restaurant excites my palette and my curiosity. And not just mine. Indeed, Bon Appetit recently named this St. Louis restaurant as a finalist on its Best New Restaurant List.

When most of us are asked to describe Mexican cuisine, the dishes we are most likely to name include tacos, enchiladas and guacamole. And those are Mexican, although Americanized versions are what we find on the menus of most Mexican restaurants here and elsewhere in our country. But genuine Mexican cuisine can be a sophisticated and refined gastronomy. In the hands of a master chef, Mexican cuisine, with its nuanced flavors and technique-driven preparations, rivals our experiences with high-end French cuisine. 

Nixta, the restaurant located on Tower Grove Avenue in the Botanical Heights neighborhood, is a wonderful example. This most recent addition to our town’s Israeli chef and restaurateur Ben Poremba’s impressive line of restaurants (the others include Olio, Elaia, and Parigi), Nixta offers a Mexican fine dining experience only tangentially familiar to most of us. 

Nixta’s chef, Tello Carreon, was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and his menu incorporates the rich traditions of his native country while using modern techniques fused with Mediterranean flavors to challenge everything we think we know about Mexican cuisine. Together with the superb food, service, and warm and colorful atmosphere, a meal at Nixta is a symphony for the senses.

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While you will see tacos and guacamole and enchiladas on Nixta’s menu, Carreon’s versions bear little resemblance to the typical Mexican-American fare. Call it a creative spin on Mexican heritage cooking. 

As Chef Carreon told me, “Traditional Mexican cuisine has many cornerstones, such as mole, cochinita pibil, and barbacoa. I grew up with the guacamole. My mother made it for us kids all the time. She would coal-roast the tomatoes, onions, and peppers to a char.”

Carreon emphasized that everything on the menu is traditional, except he’s added some novel elements. “For example,” he explained, “the ceviche has a twist of South America, specifically Peru. The Tlayuda includes a carrot salsa that has a lot of Middle-Eastern ingredients. Ben (Poremba) says it reminds him of a sauce from his country.”

One of my favorite dishes on the menu is Mole Negro de Abuelita Conception. Mole sauce is a multifaceted combination of charred or roasted peppers, nuts, fruits, and spices. It can take hours, or even days, to make.  Each family has its own version and, like a few other authentic moles I have tried, Carreon’s version is rich and complex. I was eager to know its history.

“The mole negro is my abuelita’s (grandmother) recipe,” Carreon told me. “My grandmother learned from her grandmother and taught my mother. It is passed down for centuries. I used to taste it as a child. I recreated the dish by remembering it. I experimented with the ingredients until the flavor matched what I had in my mind.”

I asked whether he had access here in St. Louis to all of the ingredients his mother and grandmother used in their cooking.

“No,” he said. “I have had to use some American ingredients as substitutes for a few traditional Mexican ingredients that aren’t available: good Mexican chocolate, multi-colored corn, and so many varieties of peppers that are not grown here locally. Some things have no substitute, like Huitlachoche is simply unavailable fresh here.”

In addition to Carreon’s version of guacamole and his heritage mole (available with chicken or beef), Nixta’s menu includes other fish, seafood, meat, and vegetarian selections equally as exciting and unique. Many of the dishes are perfect for sharing, with three or four selections creating a nicely-sized meal for two. Trust me, you will want to try everything on this menu, including some of the fabulous cocktails from the bar. And if you happen to be a night owl, Nixta becomes Bar Limon after 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. In addition to a lighter late-night menu and cocktails at Bar Limon, you can salsa the night away.

Which brings me to the curiosity Nixta triggered. The genuine tastes of tradition in so many of Nixta’s dishes got me thinking about the culinary traditions of Mexican Jews. There are approximately fifty thousand Jews living in Mexico, most in Mexico City. 

Where did they come from? Jews began immigrating to Mexico some five hundred years ago to flee religious persecution. The Sephardim were first, coming from Spain and Portugal. Later came the Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe. They brought their own culinary traditions, which would inevitably evolve to reflect a different environment, culture, and climate than from where they came. Surrounded by a whole host of new grains, spices, fruits, and vegetables, these newcomers would need to adapt some of their heritage recipes.

To better understand the influence of Mexican cuisine on traditional Sephardic and Ashkenazi foods, I spoke with Pati Jinich, a two-time Emmy Award and James Beard Award nominee for her PBS series, “Pati’s Mexican Table.” Jinich is also the official chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. She and her husband are second generation Mexican Jews who now live in Washington D.C. with their three sons. 

Jinich’s paternal grandparents came to Mexico from Poland in the early 1900s to escape the progroms, and her maternal grandparents from Austria and Czechoslovakia to escape Nazi persecution.

Jinich is the youngest of four daughters and grew up in a family that practiced what she describes as “light Judaism.” Her family went to Temple on high holidays, and had Friday night Shabbat dinners at their grandparents’ house.

“Though my grandparents did not have a lot,” Jinich explained, “they put what they had into those Shabbat dinners. All ten of their granddaughters and their families sat around a big table and my Bubbe made lots of food. They built bridges between the traditional cuisine they came with and Mexican cuisine. “

A staple on their Shabbat menu was a Mexican-style gefilte fish known as Fish a la Veracruz.” Jinich explained that Veracruz was the point of entry for Jews who tried to get to the United States but couldn’t. “Our gefilte fish was bathed in a thick tomato sauce made with onion, garlic, olives, capers, and pickled chilies. It was served hot rather than cold, accompanied by a slice of challah and pickles.”

One of Jinich’s favorite dishes was her grandmother’s egg salad. She would mix it with avocados and serve it wrapped in either warm corn tortillas or on top of challah and garnish it with gribenes (chicken skin and onions caramelized in the rendered schmaltz).

And dessert, I asked?

“We enjoyed my grandmother’s babka,” she said, “which she rolled with Mexican chocolate. What happened with Ashkenazi food, which is sort of bland, is that it got blessed with all the warmth and colors and flavors of Mexico. It was a gift to Ashkenazi cuisine. There is a great relationship between the Jewish and Mexican communities, and the mix in the kitchen has been a happy result.”

“On Hanukkah,” she told me, “we have latkes with either sour cream (crema) or Mexican salsa. Our sufganiyot  (traditional Chanukah jelly doughnuts) might be filled with cajeta (dulce de leche) rather than jelly. On Passover, my father made matzo brei with soaked matzos and eggs, along with onions and jalepeno peppers that he cooked in schmaltz. And our matzo ball soup was spiced with steamed mushrooms, jalapeño peppers, and fresh cilantro.”

Jinich is the author of two cookbooks: “Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchen,” and “Pati’s Mexican Table.” She was delighted to share the following recipe below. A dish with Sephardic origins and Mexican influences, a version of the recipe was given to her by a cook of Syrian ancestry. 

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].