If a television producer ever wants to find a chef who can wax lyrical on the cuisine of Mexico, they’d do well to seek out Jorge Gutierrez. The Tijuana native, who learned his craft both in his native country and across the border in Southern California, can talk about the flavors going right back to the Spanish first tasting the Aztec staple mole. He can talk about the debate around where in Baja California fish tacos originated. (Some say San Felipe, but he’s in the Ensenada camp.) He can talk about village street food and Mexico City fine dining, and pretty much anything in between.
Luckily for Fort Lauderdale patrons, the head chef at beachfront Mexican restaurant Lona can also cook the dishes he talks about. Then there are the times when he’s called upon to do both. Last year, some customers called him to the table.
“They (said to) me, these are not enchiladas,’” he said. “They described what, to their mind, enchiladas were. I said, ‘Well what do you mean? What are we missing in these enchiladas?’ He said, ‘Well, it’s not yellow cheese on top.’ I said, ‘Okay, I know what you are saying. What you are talking about is Tex-Mex. I grew up in Mexico and I know what enchiladas are.’”
Not that Gutierrez gets mad. Tex-Mex has historically dominated the US Mexican food market; many people simply haven’t seen different ways of doing things. Gutierrez wants to do the true cuisine of his homeland, but he’s not a total purist, and he doesn’t mind offering the explanations.
“It isn’t hard because I always explain,” he says. “We try to keep authentic Mexican food, but at the same time we keep some plates that we know the tourists are going to come and they’re going to ask for that.
“I like Tex-Mex, trust me. When I hang out and I’m drunk, I really go for a burrito.”
Still, he reckons 80 to 85 percent of the menu is what he would term real Mexican food. They do fajitas, and they even do a sort of Mexican take on a burger. (“It’s like a mix in a torta, but burger,” Gutierrez says of that dish. “If I go to Mexico with that plate, they’ll say what are you doing?”) But beyond that, your palate is crossing the border.
“The rest of the plates are real Mexican, real traditional,” he says. Take the ribs, which are pork ribs in a green sauce. “It’s really good; it’s munchies,” he says. “It’s something you can have in a bar.”
There are the fish tacos from Ensenada, thank you very much.
“When you try the Baja fish tacos, if it’s your first time, you’re probably going to be worried,” he says. “It doesn’t look like they usually look. But this is the real thing and when you try it, you’ll enjoy it.
“That’s how I’m trying to translate the real flavors from Mexico. Sometimes it’s hard because I don’t find much Mexican produce and two, I need to teach the people.”
Before Gutierrez could teach the people, he had to learn what he wanted to do. He began restaurant work as a Tijuana teenager working in San Diego, but he didn’t think it was something he would do forever.
“I started as a dishwasher at 17 years old, across the border,” he says. “I remember I was at university later, and I always talked with my co-workers like, ‘I’m never going to be a cook.’”
But work opportunities came his way, and he felt himself pulled in.
“I started growing up in the kitchens in California, in Los Angeles, and in places in Mexico – I got the opportunity to be involved in Mexican gastronomy,” he says. He realized he loved it and accepted that this was his calling. It was a process.
Another process has been getting his current kitchen just the way he likes it. He’s been at Lona, and in Florida, for about two years. His start here was interesting.
“I remember two years ago, my flight arrived in Fort Lauderdale Airport on February 13 and I started on Valentine’s Day,” he says. “Honestly, it was the worst day for a start.”
That’s because it’s one of the busiest days in the restaurant business, and he was working with a team he’d just met. It was not his favorite night on the job.
But just more than two years later, he’s still at Lona.
“The team now are familiar with me,” he says. “They know how I work. For sure, we do very well.”
He has no other Mexicans in the kitchen, but plenty from the Caribbean.
“These cooks, the flavors are different,” he says. “They come in from the Caribbean, it’s sweet, it’s plantain.”
Early on he started teaching, introducing Mexican flavors, giving the history of how dishes came about. The team took to it, to the point that they now seek out new dishes and ideas – and even tell the boss when some new dish maybe isn’t Mexican enough.
“Now we are doing a very good job,” Gutierrez says. “Sometimes they surprise me now because they say, ‘Chef, what’s this?’” And it’s something they found in Mexico. They learn, and they understand the flavors.”
When he concocted a new tortilla soup, his team told him it was good but it needed more spice.
“I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, but people are going to send it back because not many people want it that spicy.’”
Hey, even when you’re committed to authenticity, sometimes you’ve got to know when to turn down the volume.
The Dish: Tortilla Soup
- 5 medium-large Roma tomatoes (sliced into 4 pieces each)
- 5 oz diced white onion
- 1 dried pasilla pepper
- 1 dried guajillo pepper
- 1 jalapeño pepper (deseeded)
- 1 medium garlic clove
- 1 oz kosher salt
- 2 L water
- 1 oz extra virgin olive oil
- 1 epazote leaf
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tbsp chicken bouillon
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp crushed black pepper
Add olive oil, onions, peppers (pasilla, guajillo and jalapeno) and garlic to a medium saucepan. Saute all ingredients over high heat. When garlic begins to brown, add tomatoes and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes over high heat.
Add oregano, bay leaf, epazote leaf, water and black pepper. Bring to a boil. When water begins to boil, transfer to a large blender. Add salt and chicken bouillon; blend on high until soup consistency is achieved.
Pour tortilla soup into four large bowls and top with desired ingredients. Lona recommends: fresh avocado, queso fresco, crema fresca, crispy tortilla strips and cilantro.