"If my grandmother could have chosen what to be in her life, she would have been a chef," says Alejandro Huerta, the chef of Chica Bonita, which has two outlets: one in Sydney's Manly and another in the CBD.
But in mid–20th century Mexico, women were expected to take care of their household, so she did the next best thing and cooked exquisite meals for her family.
"My grandmother's parents were from Poland and fled to Mexico during World War II," Huerta says.
Traditional Jewish staples like matzo balls or latkes were second nature, but to acquire skills in the cuisine of her parents' adopted country, she went to cooking classes and learned to cook everything from classic chicken tamales to filet mignon. Family dinners became fertile testing ground for her expanding culinary repertoire.
"On Sunday, she'd put out extra plates and chairs, gather the family and cook for everyone: aunts, uncles, cousins, friends."
"It was about comforting people, making good food and bringing family together."
Her passion for food was contagious. It passed from grandmother to mother to Huerta.
"For my grandmother and my mum, cooking was a passion that had nothing to do with money. It was about comforting people, making good food and bringing family together."
Huerta has taken generations of cooking traditional Mexican cuisine and distilled it into a menu that blends it with contemporary techniques and Australian ingredients.
At Chica Bonita's CBD location, Huerta combines nopales (cactus) with burrata and lemon myrtle in a salad, and slow-cooked pork belly is topped with fermented kale, bitter warrigal greens and molé (a sauce with over 50 ingredients, including fruits, chocolate, nuts and spices).
"I love doing different things and making dishes my own, but everything I cook, the base, is super traditional. Most of the recipes come from my mum and grandma."
The best example of this is chicken enchiladas, a dish that Huerta fondly remembers his mum cooking. The flavour reminds Huerta of special occasions and the every day, like when he would visit home during university breaks, or when his friends would come over after school.
"When I was in high school and uni, my friends loved coming to my house to eat my mum's enchiladas. She'd always make a big batch for us."
Huerta has tweaked his mum's recipe for the Chica Bonita menu to make it fit with the eatery's contemporary Mexican offering. "It's not exactly the same, but it's as close as it can get. I'm trying to make a dish that reminds me of her."
The chicken enchiladas have four key components: green salsa, chicken, corn tortillas, finished with crumbly white cheese.
As authentic Mexican food becomes more popular in Sydney, ingredients are increasingly easy to find, but substitutions will work for some components. In a pinch, the ricotta salata that's crumbled over the top can be replaced with feta, and canned tomatillos are sometimes tastier and flavourful than those available at big supermarket chains.
The tortillas, though, must not be substituted. "In Mexico City, near my mum's house, there was a tortilleria. People go everyday as you go to a bakery. She'd never serve tortillas even one day old.
"In Australia, Melbourne's La Tortilleria is the best tortilla you can find. They have them at the supermarkets. Even David Jones has them," he says.
At Chica Bonita, Huerta cooks the chicken thighs sous vide, but in a home kitchen, he says 18 minutes in the oven will do the trick. As for the truffle oil and snow pea tendrils, those are new additions.
"When I was becoming a chef, my mum believed Mexican food should be a certain way and shouldn't change. She wasn't happy with how I would [innovate], but in the end, she loved how I made it my own."
Huerta's mum has passed away in 2018, so dishes like chicken enchiladas are a cherished link to memories of her and of Mexico.
"It reminds me of my mum, of home, of being a little kid," he says. "It makes me feel safe and happy, like I'm with my family."
Photographs via Alejandro Huerta
Alejandro Huerta's chicken enchiladas
- 500 g tomatillo
- 1 medium brown onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 bunch coriander
- 1 jalapeño
- 1 bunch parsley
- 100 ml water
1. Roast the tomatillo, brown onion and garlic in the oven at 190 degrees for 10 minutes.
2. Blend with the rest of the ingredients until smooth and season to taste.
- 500 g chicken thigh
- 100 kg tomato
- 50 g red onion
- 1 bunch coriander
- 1 lime, juiced
1. Cook the chicken on the oven at 180 degrees for 18 minutes, let cool for four minutes and cut in slices.
2. Finely chop the tomato, red onion and coriander, sauté with the chicken add the lime juice and season to taste.
- 100 g ricotta salata
- 200 g snow pea tendril
- 30 ml truffle oil
- 12 tortillas
1. Crumb the ricotta and keep in fridge until use.
2. Heat the tortillas until soft (using a nonstick pan on low heat, flipping them every 10 seconds)
3. Fill half of one tortilla with the chicken and fold in half making sure the chicken is covered by the tortilla, transfer to a plate.
4. Pour the tomatillo salsa on top of the enchiladas. Season the snow pea tendrils with the truffle oil, place on top of the enchiladas and finish with the crumbed ricotta.
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