What’s the history behind Mexican cuisine in the Valley? How much has it grown over the years?

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza says Mexican cuisine can differ depending on the region and state it comes from.
Published: Sep. 23, 2022 at 7:46 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Food is incredibly important to the Latino community, and over the years the options for Mexican food here in the Valley have grown.

As a Phoenix chef explains, Mexican cuisine can differ depending on the region and state it comes from. “I’ve dedicated my entire adult career to the study of my culture through food,” said Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. She opened up Barrio Café on 16th Street in 2002.

“It’s influenced by my travels, the color of my skin, the blood that I carry and the generations of ancestral cooks that have fed me to where I am today. I am trained by my mother and my grandmother, bien Mexicanas,” she said proudly.

She’s witnessed the food scene in the Valley evolve firsthand. “If I take you out to eat right now here in Phoenix, and we go, let’s say 20 years ago. We would be eating crispy tacos, some yellow cheese, some sour cream, some fried chimichangas perhaps. Today, it’s not that,” Chef Silvana said.

One of her favorite hidden gems is in Phoenix, in a seemingly-innocuous building right off of McDowell called El Ranchero. They specialize in Sinaloan cuisine. We ordered manta ray soup with all the fixings, cabbage, onion, cilantro and salsa along with a shredded beef gordita, topped with lettuce, tomato and fresh crumbled cheese. She explained the difference between a sope and a gordita, saying in Northern Mexican cultures, it’s a sope, but when you travel south it becomes a gordita.

With both of these dishes, you can customize the flavors, adding onion and cilantro or even a little salsa. “How elegant is this? This salsa was made only for a few dishes. This one was made only for others. They didn’t just generalize and make one salsa for all the dishes. They care enough, how elegant and culinary,” she said.

Our next stop is both a market and restaurant that has traveled between many different locations in the Valley over the years due to landlords increasing the owners’ rent. They’ve now landed in a strip mall off of Bethany Home Road. The restaurant is called Oaxaca Restaurant, so naturally there you’ll find food and spices unique to Oaxaca, a state in southwestern Mexico. The owner travels to the border every month to bring those flavors to Phoenix.

We ordered a tlayuda, a large, thin and crunchy tortilla covered with refried beans, cabbage, avocado, meat, Oaxaca cheese and salsa. The cheese unique to this region is called “quesillo” in Spanish. “Look at that! The cheese just shreds,” said Chef Silvana as she shreds the cheese in her hands.

We also ordered chapulines, pan-fried crickets, and a Mexican delicacy. “So what we’re going to do, is we’re going to take a tortilla like this. These are chapulines. We take these chapulines that are totally pan-fried. Add some salsa de jalapeno and salsita de tomate,” she said as she prepared herself a taco.

Our final dish at this restaurant was Oaxacan mole tamales, which are wrapped in a banana leaf instead of a corn husk. “Very herbaceous and also very moist. It’s subtle, rich. It’s absolutely delicious,” she said.

By sharing the history of Mexican food, Chef Silvana hopes to show you can find authentic cuisine in nearly every part of the Valley. “We’re everywhere. So there’s no excuse for eating that mediocre Mexican food,” she said.