By Maya Dollarhide
Chocolate. Uncle Julio’s Mexican Restaurants use it to craft a piñata bursting with fresh seasonal fruit and handmade churros at its 21 locations in Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania.
El Corazon de Tejas uses it in the mole that tops its chicken enchiladas and in the scrumptious dessert called chocoflan an that has won rave reviews in Dallas.
And Julian Medina— chef/owner of New York City’s Toloache restaurants and Tacuba in Astoria, Queens—combines it with miso and uses it as a marinade for fish or pork.
“Usually miso is very salty, so miso sauce recipes often add sugar to the liquid. But I put a little stock, miso and dark chocolate in a double boiler and reduce it, then add chipotle peppers, a little rice vinegar, and some yuzu,” Medina told Serious Eats in the story Hey Chef, What Savory Dishes Can I Make With Chocolate? “I use it as a marinade and then finish the plate with it. The miso is very salty and the chocolate’s a bit sweet, so we’re adding some spice and acid to it, which is great. Salty, sweet, a little acid, a bit of savory, and a bit of spice—that’s why miso and chocolate work so well together.”
The ingredient chefs are using in dishes that range from sweet to savory is a favorite of American consumers, too: The average American consumes 9.5 pounds of chocolate a year, data from Statista show.
Chocolate’s Ties To Mexican Cuisine
When it comes to putting chocolate on the menu, Mexican restaurants are among the establishments that do it best. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering its history.
Chocolate’s origins can be traced to ancient Mesoamerica, home to tropical rainforests and ancient cultures. Both the Mayans and the Aztecs used cacao beans for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. The “chocolate” was cacao ground into a paste and put in drinks. Since it predates sugar production, this chocolate was very bitter.
“Etymologists trace the origin of the word ‘chocolate’ to the Aztec word ‘xocoatl,’ which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans,” information from the Smithsonian explains. “The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, means food of the gods.’”
“After the Spaniards came to Mexico and the missionaries spread the Catholic religion, many new dishes became part of our cuisine,” says Fabiola Palma, chef and director of Vanuato Kakaw Chocolates, a 100 percent Mexican chocolate company. “For example, this is how mole was created. Mole is a mixture of many types of dry peppers and spices; but the main ingredient is traditionally Mexican dark chocolate.”
“Cacao was so valued the Aztec’s used it as currency, and only the privileged could indulge,” says Mario Aguilar of MJA Imports, importers of CLASICOAXACA, made-in-Mexico bars of chocolate with almond and cinnamon used to make hot chocolate.
Today, that culinary “currency” is valued for the flavor it adds to appetizers, entrees, desserts and drinks, and for the profit opportunities it brings to restaurants that use it in creative ways.
Versatile Ingredient, Unexpected Flavor
In its purest form, chocolate isn’t the sweet ingredient many consumers expect it to be.
“When you are talking about Mexican chocolate, in its pure form, it is not a sweet dessert product. It is a bitter, nutty, sour thing that can be processed and used in a million ways,” says Crystal River Williams, head chef and co-owner of Julia’s Beer and Wine Bar and Norma’s Corner Shoppe in Ridgewood, N.Y.
“You can toast the nibs themselves and use them in savory dishes, or process the nibs and use them in sweet dishes,” she shares.
“For some people, Mexican chocolate simply means chocolate that is mixed with cinnamon and spices, like nutmeg, and with chiles or without chiles,” adds Williams, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute. She and her business partner, Denise Plowman, whose family is from Mexico, feature Mexican chocolate cookies, a jalapeño brownie and a Mexican chocolate waffle as a nod to Plowman’s heritage—even though their restaurant is not Mexican.
“For the waffle we swap out flour for cocoa powder and add a heaping amount
of cinnamon, nutmeg, a large amount of cayenne and white pepper,” Williams says. “We make it crispy by using corn starch and top it with spiced pecans.”
At Macayo Restaurants in Arizona and Utah, chefs use Mexican chocolate primarily on the dessert menu—in sopaipillas, mini chocolate chimis, traditional churros and hot Mexican chocolate drinks. And while Chef Luis Martinez says he typically uses it in Macayo’s sweet dishes, he can see the appeal of adding it to other dishes.
“Mexican chocolate often hints of cinnamon and nutmeg in it, so it really lends itself to desserts, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it in savory dishes,” he says.
Palma says chefs use her company’s product in a multitude of ways. These include dishes like chicken with almonds in a spicy chocolate sauce, fish with white chocolate, pork chops with caramelized chocolate and even a chocolate margarita.
However it is used, Martinez, Palma and Williams agree that Mexican chocolate is an on-trend ingredient in restaurants nationwide.
“When I go out to eat at a Mexican restaurant, I typically find it on the dessert menu in some form, or in a mole sauce,” Martinez concludes. “But I think we will see more restaurants using chocolate in creative ways both savory and sweet.”
Freelance writer Maya Dollarhide is a regular contributor to el Restaurante.