When St. Louis Post-Dispatch restaurant critic Ian Froeb first visited the original location of Mariscos El Gato on Cherokee Street in late 2016, he had no idea what to expect. He was greeted – as is every guest – with a complimentary plate of Nayarit-style ceviche. The restaurant, which focuses on cuisine from the northern Pacific coast of Mexico, serves it with tostada shells and crackers.
“On the side, to add to taste, are lime wedges and a blistering salsa verde. There is more to this salsa than heat, though,” he wrote in his review for the Post-Dispatch. “The flavor is verdant and sparkling with citrus, and each time I finished my ceviche, I kept dipping my remaining tostada shells and crackers in it and, when my main dishes arrived, my french fries, too.”
Reflecting back on his first meal at Mariscos, Froeb still sings the praises of that Nayarit-style starter. It was incredibly simple, yet unlike anything he’d had in town. “The fish ceviche was certainly an eye-opener,” he says.
Such eye-opening flavor is a departure from the Tex-Mex favorites served at so many restaurants across the U.S. “I’ve noticed in the last few years an explosion of people talking about [regional] Mexican cuisine,” Froeb says. “Mariscos El Gato is the perfect example of something that was wholly new and different in the style of the restaurant and specifically the coastal Mexican cuisine.”
Interest in and appreciation for regional Mexican cuisine isn’t just a trend in St. Louis – it’s part of a larger wave in the restaurant industry. Froeb points to the opening of renowned Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera’s Cosme in New York City in 2014 as a turning point for regional Mexican food in the U.S. “This was proudly, unapologetically, Mexican cuisine, done by a Mexican chef – not translated, not dumbed down – and people were flocking to it,” he says. “Partly because it was a ‘scene,’ but also because it was great. You see something like Port Fonda come up in Kansas City; you see these seeds start arising of greater interest in Mexican cuisine.”
In the 12 years Froeb has been reviewing the St. Louis restaurant scene (first for Riverfront Times and now the Post-Dispatch), he says he’s seen a shift: Where once Tex-Mex restaurants were the most prevalent example of south-of-the-border cuisine in town, diners are now seeking out more authentic regional flavors. “There was certainly a knowledge starting to bubble up [a decade ago] that it wasn’t just what we lump together as Tex-Mex or Americanized Mexican food,” Froeb says, “and I think it’s only grown.”
Although Tex-Mex standards such as queso dip and fajitas are incredibly popular across the U.S., you won’t likely find them on most menus in Mexico. This fusion of Mexican, Spanish and Texan cuisine is based on Tejano home cooking. In the 19th century, Tejano referred to pre-statehood, Spanish-speaking Texans; British writer Diana Kennedy’s seminal 1972 cookbook The Cuisines of Mexico “drew a line in the sand,” as historians like to say, between “true” Mexican food and Tex-Mex.
Tex-Mex is generally identified with beef (a favorite of Texas ranchers), mild Cheddar or processed yellow cheese, flour tortillas and cumin, which traveled to the U.S. by way of England and India, as well as Spanish settlers from the Canary Islands. These ingredients – which are used liberally in Tex-Mex-style tacos, enchiladas, burritos and fajitas – rarely show up on menus in Mexico. On the contrary, in Mexico, you’ll more often find dishes made with pork, corn tortillas, white queso blanco and chiles.
According to author, former food critic and Tex-Mex authority Robb Walsh, Tex-Mex as we know it goes back to chili con carne and the “chili queens” of 1880s San Antonio, who had people lining up in open-air plazas for chili and tamales. By the turn of the century, German-born entrepreneur Willie Gebhard invented the mix of dried chiles and spices that many people (erroneously) attribute to Mexico: chile powder.
The wave of processed and packaged food in America – as well as fast food – helped spread Mexican cuisine north of the border during the 20th century. In 1991, salsa overtook ketchup as the best-selling condiment in the U.S. Today, Mexican food is the second most popular cuisine in America, with only Chinese ahead of it.
Yet like Froeb, diners are increasingly interested in expanding beyond familiar Tex-Mex flavors to get a taste of authentic regional Mexican fare.
“Veracruz-style seafood – that’s where you get your huachinango a la Veracruzana [red snapper], that’s where the shrimp and seafood cocktails originated,” says Gustavo Arellano, former editor-in-chief of OC Weekly and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. “Seafood from Veracruz, I would argue, is more complex and is more of a chef’s food: It takes longer to prepare and there are more ingredients.”
You can find that approach at chef-owner Carlos Falcon’s Jarocho Pescados y Marsicos in Kansas City, Kansas. Falcon hails from Veracruz, a coastal city on the Gulf of Mexico. What makes Veracruz-style seafood stand out are the multicultural influences on the city’s cuisine. Thanks to its bustling port, local ingredients and techniques fuse with those from the Middle East, Spain and the Caribbean. “We have a little bit of everything from Mexico in Veracruz,” Falcon says. “It’s very, very diverse: Gulf shrimp, red snapper, octopus, jackfish, blue crab, oysters – you name it.”
At Jarocho, the huachinango a la Veracruzana, or Veracruz-style red snapper, for instance, brings a strong Spanish flavor with capers, garlic, thyme and olives alongside steamed fish. Falcon stresses that some of his dishes are traditional, like the red snapper, and some aren’t, but even in the nontraditional dishes, he and his team always use traditional techniques or ingredients.
“We don’t [use] stuff to speed up the process," Falcon says. "No – we respect every single technique in the original recipes, no matter the ingredient or how expensive. We follow the rules when it comes to Mexican techniques.”
As Veracruz is well-known for its fresh ceviche, Falcon appropriately serves your choice of shrimp, octopus, blue crab, conch (or all of the above) in a housemade lobster broth with onions, cilantro, olive oil, housemade ketchup and avocado.
The Spanish and indigenous flavors of Veracruz are beautifully illustrated in the pulpo encebollado – sautéed Spanish octopus with garlic and onions – as well as the pulpo en su tinta, or octopus in ink. Here, Spanish octopus is sautéed with garlic, onion, cilantro, oregano and fresh tomatoes and served with octopus and squid ink topped with microgreens.
Falcon’s wife, Sayaka, hails from Okinawa, Japan, so you’ll see a few Japanese influences on Jarocho’s menu, as well, like fried charales (smelt) dipped in rice flour, or his suppliers at the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, from which he can get seafood from the ocean to his kitchen in 16 hours. “A lot of people [said] this wasn’t Veracruz cuisine,” Falcon says. “But I tell them it is, because it’s very diverse, especially the city where I’m from. It’s a big, industrial port and people all over the world and all over Mexico come to that city.”
It used to be that the best-known seafood joints in Kansas City were Bristol and McCormick & Schmick’s, and none were focused on Mexican food – something Falcon hopes to see change. “I’ve been living in Kansas City for 25 years, and people get tired of the same things. Now with TV shows and social media, time gets shorter, distance gets shorter. We’re exposed to more information, so people are willing to explore a bit more.”
Froeb agrees that food media has been a big boost for regional cuisines, including Mexican. “I think back to the food television when I was a kid, watching PBS with my parents in the ’80s,” he says. “It was Julia Child, great chefs and food personalities, but compared to the range of stuff you can learn about now – it’s mind-boggling, in the space of 25 to 30 years, what’s changed. And it reflects in the restaurants that open.”
At Mariscos El Gato (which has moved to St. Louis’ Bevo neighborhood since Froeb’s review), the eponymous El Gato, or cat, is chef-owner Pedro Diaz, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Nancy. Pedro hails from Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico. While working in Chicago as a teenager, Pedro befriended an older chef who took him under his wing and taught him traditional Nayarit-style cuisine, helping Pedro work his way up to chef. Nayarit is a coastal state on the Pacific Ocean, just north of Jalisco, with nearly 150 miles of coastline, just across the Gulf of California from Baja California. The state of Sinaloa, which is also known for seafood, is to the north.
“Sinaloan and Nayarit [seafood] is more straightforward. You have fish tacos, aguachile, tacos gobernador, [which] is basically a shrimp quesadilla,” Arellano says. “Veracruz is night and day compared to Sinaloa and Nayarit seafood.”
Pedro calls Nayarit-style food “regular” Mexican seafood: fresh, citrusy, salty and spicy, particularly with the use of chiles de arbol, small, bright red Mexican peppers which Pedro uses in his seasonings.
As Froeb reported, each meal at Mariscos El Gato begins with ceviche. It’s more aguachile, which is a spicier version, usually with scallops or shrimp. “It’s this incredibly spicy but cold dish that’s perfect for a summer day, or to wash down with beers,” explains Arellano. That’s why there’s been a trend across Mexico of marisquerias serving Nayarit-style food; it’s sort of like coastal pub grub.
“That's been the trend going across Mexican diasporas across the U.S.,” Arellano says. “You don’t have to have Mexicans from Nayarit [in your city] to have a Nayarit-style seafood restaurant.”
Nayarit’s most famous dish is pescado zarandeado: Fish (at Mariscos, grey mullet) is butterflied and slowly grilled over mesquite until smoky, buttery and flaky. Pedro also serves a siete mares seafood stew, which Arellano says is as ubiquitous in Mexico as chicken soup is in the U.S.
Not all of Pedro’s dishes are traditionally Nayarit, although he always uses the same chiles de arbol seasoning; a house-developed standout is the piña rellena. Half a hollowed-out pineapple is stuffed with shrimp and octopus in a pineapple sauce, topped with cheese and then browned under the broiler.
Pedro got the idea for mammoth seafood platters, which feed up to six, when he saw families come in and each order separate entrées. It’s easier for him that way, and although the trays are meant to share, he’s had solo diners eat the whole thing, he and Nancy recall, laughing.
“[Sometimes] people coming in, they think they’re coming to Red Lobster,” Nancy jokes. “They’re like, ‘Hey, can we get some cocktail sauce?’ No, that’s not familiar in Nayarit. I didn’t even know what cocktail sauce was! We tell them [Mariscos] is a little bit spicier, a little saltier – it’s the style. A lot of people are surprised at how different we are when they get here.”
A few months ago, a diner from Kansas City posted a video on Facebook of the mega platter, which features mussels, shrimp, crab legs, prawns, octopus, red snapper and lump crab meat. It went viral, with more than 130,000 shares and 8 million views; as a result, the Diazes say they have had people driving in from Kansas City to try their food.
“Those hole-in-the-wall places [used to be] you knew a guy who knew a guy that knew a place where they did real tacos al pastor,” Froeb says. “Now you find the places that have real tacos al pastor, and [suddenly] there’s 25 Yelp reviews and lines out the door. Once you’ve had really good food of any tradition, whether it be Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese – anything that’s outside of what your own background is – it just makes you want to try more. It becomes addictive.”
Diners at Mariscos certainly seem addicted to Pedro’s cooking, with plenty of regulars visiting alongside those from out of town. “He’s very shocked how people are reacting to his food,” Nancy says. “He never thought he’d see that." He’s definitely seen an uptick in interest in regional Mexican cuisine; Pedro says he’s doing almost double the business he was in their original location.
The couple first opened Mariscos El Gato on Cherokee Street in August 2016, but moved to Bevo last year; their former business partner still operates the original location. The restaurant joined a spate of Mexican spots that have recently opened in Bevo, including Mariachi’s II, Salina’s 2 and Mi Lindo Michoacán. “There’s a big Mexican community in south St. Louis,” Nancy says. “And since [Gravois Avenue] is a busy street, a lot of people drive [by]. Pedro would like to have a Cinco de Mayo festival like on Cherokee and join all of us together.”
Pedro says that although his cooking style is Nayarit, he’ll make seafood in whatever style a customer requests. Sinaloan customers, for example, like a lot of tomato juice in their seafood. “You don’t have to go to the beach in Mexico or the coast,” Pedro says. “You can find it here."
Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos, 719 Kansas Ave., Kansas City, Kansas, 913.281.7757, jarochokc.com
Mariscos El Gato, 4561 Gravois Ave., Bevo, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.282.0772, facebook.com/mariscoselgato01