Aguas frescas, carnitas, tortas and other street food all inspired Jared Cannon during a recent visit to Mexico City.
The chef of Paco’s Tacos & Tequila in Charlotte, N.C., visited Mexico’s capital with restaurant owner Frank Scibelli, and came home ready to transform the restaurant’s menu.
He liked the aguas frescas so much he decided to develop a cocktail program around them.
“It’s like a blended, strained water,” he said. “They use burnt milk, corn, any kind of fruit you can think of.”
One of his favorites is tamarind, which is boiled in water. Then the water is strained, chilled and served cold straight or poured over ice.
“It’s kind of like an infused water,” he said.
Spicy mango and watermelon aguas frescas are “as average as peanut butter M&Ms are here,” he added.
Now he’s trying to decide what will work in the Charlotte market, where he’ll use the drinks as mixers at the bar, and perhaps design some cocktails around them.
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Cannon also was taken with the process he saw for making carnitas: pork cooked in its own fat, called manteca, with milk, cola, spices, orange juice and other flavorings poured into the fat while it’s cooking.
“At the end, they dump in fresh caramel,” he said.
He also saw carnitas-style turkey in Mexico, which he thinks could be, based on the current popularity of deep-fried turkey, a big hit in Charlotte.
As a particular bonus to this type of cooking, when applied to turkey, the caramel turns the skin “a gorgeous golden brown, and the flavor’s to die for,” Cannon said.
He’ll likely serve the carnitas in tacos or as a torta, a type of thick sandwich common in Mexico City, served on Telera rolls and generally topped with refried beans and a smear of avocado.
“We went to a place that was known for their tortas that has been around since the 1800s,” Cannon said.
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At Paco’s Tacos, he’s been featuring a torta of the day since he returned from Mexico.
“We’ve done a Philly cheesesteak-style torta, fried fish, Milanese — the options are endless,” he said.
A big hit was a Cubano torta, made with pork carnitas, medium-thick ham, chipotle mayonnaise, pico de gallo, avocados and refried been purée.
“About 80 percent of the staff got them for the employee meals because they liked them so much,” Cannon said.
He also plans to integrate a Mexico City breakfast dish into lunch. It’s a mixture of fresh fruit picked by the customer and tossed in a salted citrus-chile sauce. Yogurt can be added, too.
“I want to integrate that into lunch, as a side option with a torta. The customers can decide themselves whether they want pineapple or a mixture of jícama, mango, melon, whatever,” Cannon said.