Deadly bullrings, pristine beaches, lush tropical forests and lively streets: Chef Scott Linquist has explored Mexico inside out. He’s seen much of what’s there to see and he has, of course, eaten all that’s there to eat. Now, in his most recent stint as a partner at XICO, a Mexican eatery that launched in September in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills, he has curated a menu that ventures beyond tacos and burritos.
Linquist has years of experience to back his offerings. He was the executive chef at Dos Caminos, New York’s fine dine Mexican restaurant, for nine years, and is also chef and partner at Miami’s quick-service taco shop and speakeasy tequila bar chain, Coyo Taco.
In a culinary career spanning three decades, the Los-Angeles born has made countless trips to Mexico, some of them month-long and each undertaken to hunt down the best of Mexican food. He has cooked a whole pig in Yucatán, downed mezcal or ‘the mother of tequila’ in Oaxaca and gorged on sea urchin tostados in Baja California. His most cherished souvenirs over the years, then, have been the dishes he has added to his menus, inspired from the street food sampled and meals shared with Mexican in their homes.
“Mexican cuisine is very interesting. Unfortunately, it is poorly represented outside of its original location,” says Linquist, 51. Most people even in the U.S.A., he rues, have only ever seen the food eaten along the border town, which is typically roasted and grilled meats, and tortilla, cheese and beans. “I want more and more people to go beyond that and try the food that the locals there eat,” he adds. “Not the Tex-Mex version.”
Here, he talks about his trips to Mexico and the special bond he shares with that country and especially its food.
You have been to Mexico more times than you can remember. What is the place like and what is its cuisine like?
I’ve been travelling to Mexico for over 20 years now. I go at least thrice a year, and I have been to all the regions, cities and villages that are significant from a food perspective. The food there varies according to region. In Yucatán, home to indigenous Maya people and located in south-eastern Mexico, the climate is tropical and the food has Mayan influences, while the small state of Oaxaca has Zapotec, and even a few Spanish and French influences. Oaxaca is also the culinary mecca—it is where mezcal, ‘the mother of tequila’ that’s distilled from the local agave plant, comes from. Oaxaca is also popular for its mole sauces. Every time I visit, I try to share a meal with locals in their homes—that’s where you find the best of Mexican food.
You have not only eaten on Mexico’s streets, you have also cooked there. What’s that one Mexican dish you had the most fun experimenting with?
This one was not on the streets, but I had great fun cooking cochinita pibil in the Yucatán jungle. It’s a traditional Mexican dish with Mayan roots, which involves roasting a whole pig in a hole in the ground. The meat is marinated with citrus, garlic, spices, and achiote (the orange red condiment that gives the meat its colour). The pig is then wrapped in banana leaf and laid in the ground for 12 hours beside coals. The resultant sweet and smoky dish is incredible, one of the best I’ve tasted. It’s served with hot habanero chilli and chilled serveza (beer).
When it comes to weird foods, Mexico is no China. But it does have its share of bizarre foods. What all have you tried?
I have one food philosophy: I’ll eat almost anything at least once in my life. I’ve caught and savoured sea urchins and eaten roe. Mexicans also eat a lot of insects. In Oaxaca, for instance, they also relish chapulines. This dish is essentially grasshoppers toasted over wood fire, and then some chillies, lime and salt is tossed over it. It is eaten as a snack with mezcal, or inside tacos. I’ve also tried gusano, a fat caterpillar that’s roasted till it turns crispy. It has an oozing and gooey centre. But to be honest, I didn’t like the texture. I prefer escamoles instead. Larvae from a giant ant, they look like maggots and are cooked with chilli, garlic, and butter, and are eaten with tortillas. They’re simply delicious.
What have been some of your most memorable meals there?
There are just so many of them. But my first choice will be the tacos served at El Villamelón. Located across the street from Monumental Plaza de Toros México, one of the world’s largest bullrings, this 56-year-old restobar cooks the bull that’s slaughtered in the ring. The dish is called Taco Campechano, which has cecina (beef jerky), longaniza (sausage), and chicharrón (pork rinds), and is served on a corn tortilla. This is a heavy and flavourful meat dish, full of different layers and textures. Definitely the most delicious tacos I have ever had.
Another tasty or rather unique dish I tried was Lamb Barbacoa, in this small town called Zaachila, about 14 kilometres from Oaxaca. Zaachila is known for its Thursday market. Vendors from nearby villages flock to this open-air market to sell flowers, fruit, vegetables, pots and such knick-knacks. But on Sunday, if you’re there when the cooks at La Capilla restaurant remove the steaming roasted lamb, coated with avocado and enveloped in banana leaves, from the brick and dirt pit where it’s left to roast for a day—it’s a sight to behold. They chop up everything, the bones, the insides, and the meat together and you can make yourself tacos using tortillas and condiments. This is served with a consommé made of vegetables and meat juices.
You have led culinary tours in Mexico. How did it feel to familiarise a bunch of tourists to a cuisine you feel so passionately about?
Let me tell how it started. In 2002, when I started the Dos Caminos, we had a research and development budget. Since I was the corporate chef, I started to pick good chefs to take them with me to Mexico. We would fly down for six to 10 days and explore different regions and their specific dishes. Soon, other chefs, interested in learning about Mexican food, started to call saying they’d like to join. A year later, a culinary tour group approached me. I thought why not, and so I started taking people to restaurants and to people’s homes. Together, we’d make mole sauce, cheese and tortillas. I did it for a few years and then stopped once my workload increased. I do intend to start again, though.
The thing is Mexico has a bad reputation… because of corruption, the drug culture. But besides food, there’s still a lot to see and do there. There’s culture and history, and the people are fabulous.
Do you think culinary tours help countries pin their cuisines on the global food map?
Culinary tourism is becoming a big deal. Maybe not so much in the U.S.A. because we don’t really have a food culture but it is indeed prevalent in most European and Asian countries. Food is a really important part of the culture of most places. Not everyone wants to just see the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. Most want to get down and dirty, go into the backstreets and eat the food that locals eat. On my first visit to Mumbai, I visited this tiny stall near the Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba and tried goat brains and kidneys. Now I’ve eaten brain before but it’s always been beef. This, though, was tastier.
The story first appeared in National Geographic Traveller, India.