By Dylan Benoit
It was the smell that really brought me to my senses. The unmistakable aroma of melted cheese and barbequed meat snapped me back to reality, and as a familiar voice echoed in my head, I could hear the clinking of glasses and a chorus of “salud!”
When I shook out the cobwebs, I was sitting at a large round table dressed with a technicolor cloth in the middle of a large outdoor dining room. A solid thatch roof stood high above my head but there were no walls, and the warm breeze felt amazing on my face
My friend, chef Aaron Mizrahi, and his sous chef Carlos had picked me up from the airport in Guadalajara just under an hour before. I had been in a food and sleep-deprived daze, my body in full energy conservation mode from a few heavy travel days in a row, but the proximity of hot food and cold cerveza instantly brought me back to life.
Mexican food at its best
When I looked down at the table, I saw that it was littered with clay plates, stone dishes, and folded cloths stuffed with different types of tortillas. Glasses of beer and horchata – a delicious sweet drink made from fermented rice – were scattered in every direction. There was enough food to feed a small army; way more than my two dining companions and I could possibly eat, but we were sure going to do our best to make a dent in it.
Queso fundito (melted cheese), frijoles refritos (refried beans), pico de gallo (fresh chopped salsa), salsa roja (roasted tomato salsa), and the signature dish, birria de ternera (shredded roasted beef), were strewn across the table. There were so many incredible flavors within arm’s reach, I didn’t know where to start. My friends Aaron and Carlos demonstrated the procedure for me, the uninitiated guest, and I eagerly followed suit.
Grabbing a fresh white corn tortilla, still steaming from the basket, I layered on a thick base of refried beans, the smell of which instantly made my mouth water. Next, a large spoonful of melted cheese, then a few tender, delicious chunks of the shredded beef.
Topped off with fresh pico de gallo, spicy salsa roja, some diced white onion and a fresh squeeze of lime, and boom – a masterpiece was born. Beauty in its simplicity, nothing fancy, just great quality ingredients prepared perfectly, as they have been for decades.
Chat and chow
Build, eat, drink and repeat was the mantra. The silence of feasting was kept at bay with constant cheers, tales of kitchen lore and international adventures. Every moment Aaron’s mouth wasn’t full, he spent translating my questions and Carlos’s stories, as Carlos didn’t speak much English and my grasp of the Spanish language wasn’t much better.
I had met Aaron a few months earlir while on a beef education seminar in Omaha and we hit it off instantly. His charisma and shoot-from-the-hip approach to every situation makes him as honest as he is comical. When he says something, he does it, and he never cuts corners when it comes to quality.
When we parted ways from that trip a few months prior, he looked me in the eyes as we stood in the lobby of the hotel and told me that I would be in Mexico soon to cook with him in his restaurant. And there I was, three months later, sharing this incredible meal with him and Carlos at a roadside cantina called Birria “El Chololo” just outside of Guadalajara city.
We had a lot of work ahead of us in the next few days. I had come to Mexico to assist Aaron with a cooking contest, host a charity dinner for children with autism, as well as prepare items from the Craft Food & Beverage Co. menu for a media dinner to be attended by food writers and bloggers from in and around Guadalajara. After lunch, I was told we would be heading to the Mercado de Abastos, an open air market in the heart of the city to stock up on ingredients for the dinners. I could not have been more excited about the prospect of wandering down endless rows of fresh produce, hopeful of discovering something I’ve never seen or tasted before, and I got goose bumps trying to fathom the hundreds of varieties of dried chilies for which Mexico is so well known.
However, in that moment, sitting there with my friends, fresh off the plane, my ravishing hunger slowly subsiding, the only thing that mattered was good food, good drinks and good company, and there was plenty of each to go around.
Chef Dylan Benoit is the former chef at Craft Food & Beverage Co. on Seven Mile Beach. Check out Dylan’s blog at dylanbenoit.com and follow him on Instagram @dylanmbenoit to see food, drink and travel photos from his adventures around the world.