You won’t find guacamole or tacos at Amparo Fondita when the Mexican restaurant opens in La Cosecha marketplace—Union Market’s 20,000-square-foot Latin sibling—this fall. Chef/owner Christian Irabién, an Oyamel alum, is part of a cadre of Mexican chefs pushing the boundaries of their native cuisine in Washington. Here, the Chihuahua native talks about his first impressions of the area’s Mexican dining scene, of-the-moment food city Mexico City, and more.
What’s the biggest misconception about Mexican restaurants?
While Mexican food is very rooted in tradition, it’s an evolving, organic living being that changes with time. Mexico is a giant melting pot of cultures and people. In Chihuahua, we had Chinese neighbors, Italian neighbors, a big Jewish community. There’s a lot of food being cooked using Mexican products that’s not in restaurants here because anything that falls out of the mold of a taco isn’t considered Mexican. One of our star dishes is ravioli. We’re making pasta every day—and stuffing it with requesón, which is like a fresh ricotta, and huitlacoche [a.k.a. Mexican truffles] and tossing it in a roasted-poblano sauce.
What were your early impressions of Mexican food in DC?
It used to be a Mexican-food desert when I got here. When I ate at Oyamel for the first time, it was eye-opening. I was working at these French and Italian restaurants. I hadn’t seen my own food presented in such an elevated way before. I grew up in Mexico in the ’80s, and it was like everywhere else—a big explosion of convenience. We’d buy mole paste at the market. To be able to eat a tortilla from nixtamalized corn, to see the complicated process for making moles—to take the same type of care and attention as other restaurants but with tacos and ceviches—it was amazing.
Why do you think there’s such an interest in Mexican food right now?
Everyone loves Mexican food. When it’s executed well, it’s one of the most beautiful things you can put in front of someone—from a plate of beans and tortillas to moles that take three, four days. A lot of it started when [Danish chef] Rene Redzepi did the Noma pop-up in Tulum. There’s something about having a large platform and social media like Rene does. Everyone was tuning in.
A lot of restaurants are drawing inspiration from Mexico City in particular. Why the focus there?
Mexico City is like New York or San Francisco or LA. There are big restaurants and big chefs. While there’s a lot of cool stuff happening throughout the country right now, food-wise the largest amount is happening in Mexico City—from the street vendors right up through [the high-end restaurant] Pujol. Also, the number of architects and artists who are living in the city and teaming up with chefs to do amazing spaces.
This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Washingtonian.