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A Long, Withering Takedown of Rick Bayless on Occasion of Him Receiving an Award from Mexico, or: Rick Bayless, the Michael Bolton of Mexican Food

Categories: Indigestion

Xoco's torta ahogada comes beached, not drowned. Why? Because the bread is not made to handle being doused with a sauce. The spicy sauce began creeping up the bread on the way over to my table, and there's no hope for the second half of your sandwich. And, enough with the two-whales-sticking-out-of-the-water plating, chef: it's a sandwich! Chef's torta aguada comes with plenty of heat, I'll yield on that point, but there was a powerful herb that came with the spice. Here's the thing--in Mexico our salsas are about the flavor of chiles, while in America chiles often take a passenger seat to the other ingredients driving their gringofied salsas.  It was overpowering, and superfluous. The manager said that Chef Bayless uses hoja santa, which is great for wrapping fish for grilling, and in Veracruz's caldo de acuyo (regional name for hoja santa), but it's too much in the ahogada sauce, which should reflect the beauty and fire of the Yahualica chile, a regional chile de arbol. Couldn't get a sense of the carnitas at all.                  

The whole point of this sandwich is the pan salado, and excellent salty carnitas with the Yahualica heat, but fine: you you don't care about authenticity. So let me refer you to Cook's Tortas here in Southern California, where you'll get an elevated torta ahogada that's better in quality and flavor than the one at Xoco and the bread is made in house, by non-Frenchy bakers. If you must pay more for a torta ahogada, go with Cook's tortas, not Xoco. 

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Bill Esparza
Churros and chocolate at Xoco


The churros and Aztec chocolate suffer the same fate of the multiple grandmother's approach. Bayless--unless you've ever been hit upside the head with a chancla, you can't claim these abuelitas! Churros are about the dough, not the sweeteners; again Bayless overspices the churros with unnecessary flairs, and the Aztec chocolate drink finds no balance between chocolate, spicing, and chiles. I felt a little uneasy for the next few hours from these clashing elements, but held it together thanks to the $5 Victorias--the best thing about Xoco, besides the friendly staff and the lovely Marcela, a hostess from Guadalajara.      

What good is having multiple regions under one roof if the food is lame? Saying you're above Mexican cooks and chefs, the people that teach you how to cook just because you put overpriced churros, pozole, and tortas ahogadas on your menu is not valid. The argument is as pointless as the guitar amp in Spinal Tap that goes to 11!

You want to see Chef Bayless' real craft, try his awkward adventure menus when he's playing with the flavors and not just cooking someone's recipe. He's really an average chef without the stolen recipes. Shouldn't the Mexican government, PBS and Bayless' publishers award the hundreds of uncredited cooks and chefs that have taught Rick Bayless how to make these plates? If some of those abuelitas tasted Xoco's ahogada, Bayless just might actually get a chancla upside his head.

I'm more convinced that Chef Rick Bayless has benefited far more from Mexico than Mexico has benefited from him. Mexican cuisine has conquered America through the mom and pops, through combo plate joints, and even through companies like Frito-Lay and Taco Bell (all inspired directly from Mexicans). In LA and the OC, we've been eating authentic Mexican from day one. If it's just for promoting Mexican cuisine that he's received the Order of the Aztec Eagle, then shouldn't Taco Bell, Pace and El Torito also receive recognition? 

We wouldn't bother questioning this diplomatic nod, if Sr. Bayless showed a little respect for actual Mexicans. Ask the countless Mexican cooks and chefs that have approached him to express their gratitude--obligatory--only to be given a cold stare, or to even be ignored. Ask the poblanos, oaxaqueños, chilangos, and jarochos who've not even received a mention in his cookbooks, or the insulted Los Angeles Mexican chefs and cooks that were told that he was bringing real Mexican cuisine to LA. Hell, ask Gustavo and Jonathan Gold about their unpleasant encounter with Rick a couple of years ago. Bayless wants his tres leches, and to eat it too.

Red O, Frontera Grill, Xoco, and Tobolobampo aren't better than the Mexican mom and pops in LA and the OC, and our handful of Mexican chefs like Rocio Camacho leave these restaurants in the dust, yet they won't receive an Aztec Eagle, nor will they attain the commercial success.

Bayless would be wise to follow the example of the Rolling Stones, who used their celebrity to showcase and revive the careers of artists like Buddy Guy, who they had learned from. A little humility and gratitude would go a long way. Singers Bobby Caldwell and Michael McDonald--known as blue-eyed soul men--always showed respect for African-American soul artists, earning their rightful place in the R & B world. But Rick Bayless chooses to be the Michael Bolton of Mexican cuisine; the American pop singer who just came in and butchered soul classics without any regard for its authors and audience.  

Chef Rick Bayless has a part in this American and global fascination of Mexican food, but as a profiteer, nothing more. He is a successful restaurateur, but is not a great Mexican chef, or a great non-Mexican, Mexican chef. He should follow Wolfgang Puck's lead; smile, be nice, keep your delusions private, and collect the check. As for his receiving the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Insignia class--chale!

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