Silvana Salcido Esparza Explains What Mexican Food Is Not and Discusses the Food Term That Makes Her Skin Crawl

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See also: Silvana's Changing It Up Again at Barrio Queen See also: Chef Salad: Jeff Kraus Explains What's Cool About Food Trucks

Silvana Salcido Esparza Barrio Cafe 2814 N. 16th Street, Phoenix 602-636-0240 www.barriocafe.com

Barrio Queen Tequileria, Restaurant and Tiendita 7114 E. Stetson Drive, Scottsdale 480-656-4197 www.barrioculinaryconcepts.com

This is part one of my interview with Silvana Salcido Esparza, chef-owner of Barrio Cafe in Phoenix and Barrio Queen in Scottsdale. Come back on Tuesday for part two, when Esparza muses about being a badass and names three places she loves to eat Mexican food.

If you've ever met Silvana (who, like Cher and Madonna, needs no last name), you already know that this fierce, heart-on-the-sleeve-wearing chef and restaurateur embodies the term "larger than life." She's warm, funny, quick to laugh, and even quicker to express an opinion. And she has a lot of them, especially on subjects that really matter to her. Mexican cooking would be one of them.

Growing up in Merced, California, Esparza began working at her family's bakery at the age 6, cleaning corn husks for tamales, stocking the display cases and going on the delivery route with her father. When she was 15, she talked her parents into letting her sell carnitas in the bakery. A year later, she started her own tortilla and bread route, selling to country stores that catered to farm workers. One year into community college, she left California to follow a boyfriend to Miami, where she got into the international banking business. She married, divorced and realized, seven years down the line, that banking wasn't for her, so she moved back to California, this time to Bakersfield, where her parents had relocated their bakery. She opened a little restaurant inside the bakery, later starting her own catering business called Full Moon Gourmet-on-the-Go.

Realizing she needed formal training, Esparza enrolled at SCI but delayed school when her mother fell ill with cancer. Esparza spent the year with her mother, learning family recipes all the while. By the time she was ready for SCI, the school granted her a full scholarship. As an intern, she worked under sous chef Matt Carter at Christopher's Bistro, and after graduation, landed a lucrative (but "shitty") job at Sun Devil Stadium for Super Bowl XXX, where she was the "It Girl" from 1995-2000, meeting countless celebrities and politicians along the way. In 2002, the same year she was writing a column called La Calle for New Times, she opened Barrio Cafe, earning rave reviews for her unique take on Mexican cooking. In 2004, she was inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame and last year -- around the time she opened Barrio Queen -- she was nominated for a James Beard Best Chef Southwest Award. This year, she opened Barrio Cafe at the airport.

If you were a food, what would you be?: Cochinita pibil -- slow-roasted, a little fat, and full of flavor!  

What people don't understand about Mexican food is: Everything! Fajitas are not Mexican food. They're America's version of Mexican food. Real Mexican food is not Tex-Mex, Southwestern, New Mexican, or even California-Mexican. Mexican is Mexican. When I first started serving cochinita pibil and chiles en nogada in 2002, people would look at me and say, "This is Mexican???" The sad thing to me, is that no one really ventures past the border anymore; therefore what they eat here in the States is what they call Mexican. 

What are other Arizona-Mexican dishes you don't consider Mexican food?: Fried ice cream with a cereal crust, chimichangas, sopaipillas (New Mexican) and basically anything on a chain restaurant's menu.  Don't get me wrong, I love a well-made chimi.   Why no chips?: Chips and salsa are another one of those Mexican-American traditions. If you find chips and salsa in Mexico, it's because they're catering to the gringos. Besides I'm a baker's daughter! In my household, bread was the queen and tortillas were king.

Something you'd put on the menu if you thought people would eat it:  Gusanos del maguey. They are little worms that are harvested off the maguey plant. They're served fried with blue corn mini tortillas, tamarind salsa, onions, and cilantro.  Damn, wish I had some now! How did your family's bakery inform/influence your cooking?:  It was over 100 degrees outside and probably 120 inside my father's bakery when the thought crossed my mind, "Fuck this shit. It's too hot. I have to find a different career." So I did, but I hated it. I came back crawling, begging to be taught everything. It's in my blood, part of my soul.

Describe your style of cooking: My style of cooking is reflective of the influences in my life: my family's baking legacy, my travels and explorations. If I had to describe it, I guess it would be chef-inspired Mexican cuisine at Barrio Café and chef-inspired comida de mercado at Barrio Queen. I hate the term "modern Mexican." I started using that back in 2002, a term I borrowed from Luis Baragan's Modern Mexican Architecture of the 1930s. Now I can't stand it. When I hear "modern" anything, it makes my skin crawl.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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