Neal Brown has been trying to get to know Juanita. This is what he'll tell me about her: she's relaxed but she's going to make sophisticated food. She'll be dressed-down while drawing in a foodie crowd. She's got flavor and nuance. And hopefully, she's going to be the taco restaurant that will seriously change the game when it comes to Mexican food in Indianapolis.
Just like artists and writers, chefs sometimes need to get out and soak in a little inspiration by way of research. In this case, the Libertine and Pizzology owner had to break out of what he knew about Mexican cooking, which was a lot by most folks' standards, but still paled in comparison to the complexity of the dining scene that awaited him across the border. Mexican food to most American diners involves a lot of heat, queso blanco, and a lot of grease without much subtlety. In reality, however, Mexico, like America, is a pretty large country spanning a few different biomes and growing zones, producing massive variety within those "basic" ingredients — including several hundred varieties of pepper. That's what Brown went down there learn to do.
"Coaxing flavors out of different combos of chilies. I had played around in my kitchen and I couldn't quite grasp it. So I went down really to understand why they use certain chiles in certain applications," said Brown.
This would not be the first instance of the chef's American palate receiving a Sin Cara style smackdown south of the border. What consistently surprised Brown was the subtlety of how the same ingredients were remixed and remade according to what that food needed to do.
"The other reason was to learn about masa and tortilla making and the different ways in which they use varying quantities of certain ingredients to yield different types of tortillas." It makes sense, but also illuminates how limited Americans' exposure to real Mexican dining is. "That was a big revelation for me when I was down there, to learn that a little more water in the same recipe and it yields a completely different type of tortilla for a different application. That was sort of mind-bending because I think we're all used to just sort of tortillas,"
That would be like walking into a bakery and demanding "that one kind of bread," when they're all made of flour, water, and yeast but have such different styles.
"Mexican cooking is as nuanced as French cuisine, I guarantee it. The diversity of the regions of Mexico — the food in Puebla and Oaxaca and Yucatan — are all wildly different and use different ingredients. The food in Mexico is a regional cuisine, much like it is in France and Italy."
Similarly, the whole nation isn't just one lawless narcotrafficers paradise as the stories we often see out of the regions bordering our Southwest states.
"In Mexico City, there are very few issues. The City is a totally sophisticated megopolis. It's the second-largest city in the world. I really went there to get the most bang for my buck. I could have spent a month traveling around these different regions, but who's got a month and who's got the money?"
If you're wondering if the chef was concerned about safety in Mexico, the short answer is "no more than anyone would be in a dangerous neighborhood in America." Aside from the northern border towns, the police and military presence, said Brown, made the city itself feel a lot safer than other parts of the country. Brown's driver told him that many of the best taco shops in Mexico City are in the close-crowded barrios filled with tin houses. His driver also said that it was too bad he couldn't taste them and still come out alive.
The barrios of Mexico City: where that bucket list becomes so real.
"There aren't the problems in Mexico City that there are in Northern Mexico," he said. "But there are plenty of places in America where you wouldn't go because they're in dangerous neighborhoods. It's the same there."
In bringing back that authentic cooking, Brown hopes to similarly infuse the authentic dining style he picked up in the country.
"It's going to be a fonda style restaurant. It's going to be really casual. I ordinarily would say 'cantina' but I'm afraid it's going to give off the wrong [idea]. In the US, the word 'cantina' has a different meaning. In Mexico, a cantina is the equivalent of a bistro. And in a cantina in Mexico, they would actually wear what most would recognize as sort of classic bistro uniforms: black pants, white shirts, black aprons. But in America, it comes off meaning 'bar.' So we're like a fonda: we're casual, we're going to specialize in Mexican antojitos, which are small plates, and tacos. I've always loved ceviche, so we're going to be doing fresh fish preparations from all over Latin America."
"It won't just be Mexican food and tacos. It'll be a little bit more wide-reaching, but it will all fall under a sort of Latin Food umbrella. Mostly influences from Peru and Mexico though."
And if you're wondering if the Libertine owner has plans to bust out another outstanding bar program with a Latin twist, the answer is, "Well, duhhh."
"Lots of tequila, lots of mezcal. Obviously pisco, cachaca and a full craft cocktail program. We likely won't have whiskey, gin, any of those things. We're working through the cocktail program right now."
As for the person coming up with the bar program, Brown will only give me a hint.
"I can't tell you. All I can say is it may be a past Libertine employee, someone who knows tequila and mezcal very well."
We'll keep you updated on when this new joint finally opens its doors (because mine will be the face pressed against the glass), but for now, you'll just have to take our taco recommendations and soothe your craving at another restaurant until Juanita finally comes to town.