Restaurateurs are taking Mexican and Latin American cuisine up a notch

If you want to know about the cuisine at Del Pez, then consider the restaurant’s full name: Del Pez Mexican Gastropub. “We try to be creative about the flavors and the plating,” says Javier Acuna, owner of the restaurant on the Wilmington Riverfront. “It’s all about being innovative.”

Del Pez isn’t the only restaurant with a fresh take on the traditional. Agave Mexican Cuisine opened last year in Chadds Ford. “People have been describing us as upscale Mexican cuisine,” says General Manager Rory Hirst.

La Pina Valley Cantina, which features a cowboy ribeye with mint-jalapeno sauce, debuted on Route 202 in Glen Mills earlier this year.

Chorizo hash burger, part of Sunday brunch at Mexican Post. Photo Jim Coarse

Expect more modern Mexican restaurants to come, say those in the industry. But to succeed, they must find diners with an adventurous palate and an open mind.

At the same time, established Mexican eateries are thriving —and evolving. Take Mexican Post on Naamans Road, for instance. A North Wilmington staple since 2001, the bar and restaurant added a Sunday brunch (10 a.m.-2 p.m.) last November, featuring chorizo hash burger, churro pancakes, eggchiladas and chilaquiles. Meanwhile, its margaritas continue to be among the best in Delaware. 

Witnessing an Evolution

In many respects, Mexican fare is following in the footsteps of Italian cuisine, which now covers a broad spectrum. For instance, you could spend $14.95 for chicken parmesan at Mrs. Robino’s Restaurant in Wilmington’s Little Italy one week and $23 for breaded chicken with tomato cream and pecorino at Capers & Lemons the next.

You won’t find chicken parm at Panorama in Philadelphia. But you will see free-range Lancaster chicken, which comes with cauliflower, parmesan, dates and a classic Sicilian sauce.

American diners have accepted this evolution that began in the early-to-mid-20th century, when Italian dishes were found mostly in the kitchens of Italian immigrants or in restaurants in Italian-American neighborhoods. Back then, cooks made do with ingredients they could find in the United States.

Because many consumers couldn’t afford pricier items, the food was inexpensive. As the cuisine developed a broader audience and imported ingredients became more widely available, diners demanded more sophisticated—and some say more authentic—Italian dishes along with Italian-American favorites.

“Mexican cuisine is going through the same stages,” maintains Acuna, who also owns Santa Fe Mexican Grill in Newark and La Taqueria in the Riverfront Market. This spring, he will open Pachamama Peruvian Rotisserie in Del Pez’s old Newark location.

Workers and migrants wanting versions of their homeland’s cuisine led to what Americans now consider Mexican dishes, he says. Think enchiladas, tacos, rice and refried beans.

The cuisine caught on. Once hard to find in the 1980s and into the ‘90s, Mexican restaurants have become increasingly plentiful. Quick-casual chains like Qdoba and Chipotle Grill are easy to find. Restaurants at many price points have some version of the fish taco, whether they identify it as Mexican or not.

Locally, El Toro in Wilmington, a popular takeout on Union Street, opened El Toro Cantina nearby on West Sixth Street. The restaurant, which has a devoted customer base, covers all the expected dishes. Like many ethnic eateries, El Toro promises an authentic experience. But there are other authentic dishes that have yet to make it into the mainstream.

More than Tacos and Beans

Spicy shrimp tacos at La Piña Valley Cantina in Glen Mills. Photo Pam George

Miriam Peregrina is fully aware of the diversity of Mexican cuisine. She grew up in Mexico City. Her mother was from Michoacán. “They cook like angels,” she says of the Mexican state’s residents. Her father was from Veracruz, where seafood is plentiful.

Peregrina’s dinner guests are often surprised when they taste her cooking. “I’ve never had this before,” they tell her. “I love it.” She spotted an untapped niche, and if all goes as planned, she will open Nal Restaurant in Hockessin this month. (Nal is the god of corn, she says.)

Peregrina and her husband have lived in Brazil, and the menu also features dishes from that country as well as Argentina and Peru.

Incorporating multiple Latin-American countries’ cuisines is not unusual, even if a restaurant appears in a dining guide’s Mexican category. Yolanda Pineda, the owner of Mariachi in Rehoboth Beach, is from El Salvador, and dishes from her home country are on the menu.

Drawing inspiration from Tex-Mex fare or Baja flair is also common. El Diablo, which has three locations in New Castle County, specializes in Mission burritos, which originated in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1960s.  Packed with vegetables, a protein, rice and beans, the bulging burritos take two hands to hold.

One clear example of American-style fusion is Cromwell’s Tavern & Taqueria in Greenville, which six years ago began offering a Mexican menu alongside its tavern menu. The idea was in response to the popularity of the restaurant’s Mexican night.

“We said if we can serve this many people one night a week, we can serve this many more people seven nights a week,” says owner Pat Nilon. Cromwell’s offers an advantage: you can enjoy a taco with all the traditional trimmings while your dinner companion tucks into a Philly cheesesteak or Guinness beef stew.

Nilon says most people who order off the Mexican menu gravitate toward the familiar: carnitas, chicken mole, tamales and tacos.  He emphasizes the freshness of the ingredients.

While those dishes are available in most restaurants with a Latin-American influence, the more adventurous kitchens are pushing the envelope.

The Next Level

Del Pez, for instance, has featured Brussels sprouts with applewood-smoked bacon and a Mexican Coca-Cola-raisin reduction. There are fries with chile de arbol-infused truffle oil, cotija cheese and a chipotle aioli. You can have salmon in your tacos and mango and pomegranate in your guacamole.

Del Pez’s Riverfront site benefits from travelers staying in the nearby Westin and newly relocated residents who’ve had modern Mexican cuisine in more urban areas, such as Philadelphia. Still, Acuna says, he’s had a few customers balk at the kitchen’s creative touch.

In Wilmington’s conservative legal district, Cocina Lolo, which bills itself as Mexicali concept, has had challenges with dishes that stray left of center.  “When we try to do adventurous things, they don’t sell very well,” says Andrea Sikora, who owns the King Street restaurant with her husband, Bryan. “At the end of the day, we’re doing tostadas and enchiladas.”

David and Fay Steiger are giving it a go just over the Pennsylvania state line in Glen Mills. They opened La Pina Valley Cantina earlier this year.

“A lot of what’s out there is the traditional rice and beans on a plate,” says David Steiger, who was director of operations for Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar. “Our menu comes from the northern Mexico City area, where there are a lot of influences from a lot of different cuisines.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find the roast suckling pig—layered and cooked in its own fat—anywhere else in the area, he says. “I’ve only seen it at backyard barbecues in Mexico.” The restaurant sells grilled octopus and shrimp with grilled pineapple. Avoiding gluten or corn? Ask for your taco filling to be wrapped in lettuce.

At Agave in Chadds Ford, which is unrelated to the Agave in Lewes, vegetarians can get tacos with cauliflower and chick peas. Hirst, the general manager, says Agave mostly strives for authenticity—but only to a point. He cautions: “Authentic cooking like your grandmother would make isn’t always pretty on a plate.”

For those modern Mexican restaurants charging more than a taqueria, the presentation is part of the experience. “Our dishes have more color, vibrancy and flavor,” Hirst says. “We cut our own meat and fish and make our own tortillas.”

He agrees that Mexican—like Italian—is an ethnic cuisine that is undergoing a transformation. “It’s permeating our culture,” he says. “It’s catching people’s attention.”

Modern Mexican is just the next phase. As Nilon puts it: “Give it time.”

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.

    More in:Food & Drink