The flavors Iliana De La Vega shares at her "humble" food truck in Austin, TX, are far from HUMBLE. There is NOTHING Humble or modest about what Iliana does. I say that in a good way. Her food has a personality that SHINES. A taste that SINGS Clearly, with HIGH Notes, deep LOW gut-pleasing tastes and pleasurable middle, side and any and all notes, flavors and sensations that come together bringing forth a culinary discovery, that speaks of a kitchen alchemy that needs to be savored, shared, celebrated and perpetuated. The only thing Humble about the experience Iliana shared with me last night, was perhaps the concept of savoring Haute cuisine around a food truck.
potato tacos served with lettuce and the most hauntingly delicious salsa of avocados and tomatillos
creme mexicana (comes in a bottle, Iliana is lazy too at times) and queso fresco
I have never eaten anything so quickly and so happily and with tears in my eyes. These potato stuffed crisp tacos were the first dish Iliana presented me with. Of course I had to learn how to eat them. The fork held them from the back end, and I ate them from the front end. The fork lifts the crisp taco with sauce and some leaves. You start noshing on them like a rabbit would on a carrot. Each bite gives you the comforting smoothness of potaoes and the cooling that they can provide. The heat of the salsa a revelation in complexity of flavor on the whole, flavor of chile and the joy crema that is made with integrity can provide. There is NO SOUR CREAM in this kitchen. Thank Goodness! I never understood how Mexican food could be served with this horrible American invention, and Iliana let me know it had NO PLACE in Mexican cuisine. I would make weekly trips to eat these tacos. I know any child, no matter how phobic they are of greens, salad, so called "Ethnic" foods, will come running to eat these once they have tasted them. While we speak of "Ethnic cuisine", can we all look into the mirror and embrace the ethnicities we see in our reflection? As far as last reported, we have no martians living on our wonderful eart. We are ALL Ethnic and so it makes no sense to use that word for some people living in the US and not others. And also, this is a land of immigrants. Of immigrants from ethnicities that cannot trace their roots back to this land. We killed most all that came from this ethnicity. Why by fuzzy about history now! Eat these tacos, and stop feeling guilty and also learn how to not just be politically correct, but be CORRECT for a change.
Tito - Ernesto Torrealba, slave to Iliana De La Vega and father to her daughters Ana and Isabel, works hard to maintain the authentic tastes and flavors served to all that come to El Naranjo. Architect by trade, America has made him cook and slave to his wife.
Iliana claims they cooked together in Oaxaca as well. But something tells me, he was a practicing architect as well.
But their joint dedication to their restaurant is legendary and is what has kept Iliana and his reputation solidly saintly amongst the Mexican food cogniscenti.
Iliana is happiest around people. Sharing her food with them, feeding their mind, bodies and souls with the uniquely comforting flavors of her Mexico and through her stories.
This is Mexican cuisine that does not need Beano or Mylanta after ingestion. It is the veritable food and flavors of a people that eat fresh, eat smart and eat delicously - always.
Customers waiting to place orders with Isabel, who is working the register inside the truck. Iliana is preparing an order made by Tito for delivery to a table.
The menu for daily specials is also simple and direct. Within a couple of hours, the soup and mole had sold out. IN fact I never got to taste them myself. It was OK. I was thrilled to see locals get a chance to enjoy such honest food. Food so clean. Why clean? Clean is never a word one wants to hear around food. But sadly, most of our food is NOT CLEAN, and not honest. Especially in towns that are small like Austin, where people get away with murder, with dishonest advertising and stretching the truth quite liberally. The only thing liberal done in many such places. Of course in towns like Austin, there are many wonderful things happening too. And some great chefs and great small restaurants pushing the envelope. But most often, these are places that do not get as much business, fame or celebrity. Iliana is one of these small places doing what is correct. How commendable! How Daring! How admirable!
As you can see from the menu, it is very simple, honest and very clear. Not too many items that would add too much inventory, which would add too much money to be spent upfront, which would lead to poor choices being made about procurement and sourcing. Bravo Iliana!
Isabel Torrealba - The younger daughter of Tito and Iliana. A student of psychology and anthropology. She wants to grow up doing research in linguistic anthropology and is pragmatic enough to know she would be one of two people in the world in this field. Charming and precocious, she has all the energy of her mother, and also the beauty and charm.
Having met her sister Ana - I now know beauty and brilliance run through the DNA and blood in the Torrealba-De La Vega clan.
Truth in advertising! This is nothing but pulled chicken in a salsa verde. Served with a slice of avocado to add lusciousness to the already lush chicken. The vegetarian in me was happy eating a quarter of one taco. Heavenly!
Mole Coloradito with Arroz Blanco (chicken in red mole with rice)
Unlike popular belief, not all Moles are equal.
This one so unequal, that shockingly it has NOOOOO chocolate.
Well that is my buddy Iliana. Her food is the AUTHENTIC Non-Gringa and Gringo food of Mexico.
The foods luckily not stolen yet by the Gringo Mexican Chefs/Writers from America.
The short drink menu of El Naranjo Yes! The city of Austin will not let them sell any open drinks from outside of the truck. They have no room left in the truck to be able to serve what they originally did as far as drinks go. In the beginning, they were creating drinks, that were left at a table outside, and available for guests. Water for free too. But then they realized that the city does not allow such genius and generosity. Iliana makes amazing drinks with just water and some fruits and herbs. Agua Fresca! Limitations of having a truck license and not a restaurant license, keeps us poorer in that we are unable to enjoy these at the truck. But as some wisely say, it keeps the focus squarely on in their case, passionately around the food.
What crispy, hot, steamy, tasty and educating morself of magic these turnovers were. I have great pride in being able to bring people an epiphany every time I deep fry - and so, I came to these with a place of pride and also just a tad bit of arrogance (not really, but experience for sure). Iliana, as I knew already, not only made me very proud, but has given me all the hunger I need to be competitive and not get lazy. Now I know there is someone equally able to frying and very close to me, that could easily make me look bad if I get lazy anytime soon.
Guacamole is a tragic-magic within the US borders and overseas to. It is so HUGELY popular and so easily bastardized and seldom magical. It is like hummus. A wonderful dish that has become whatever anyone wants it to be. Mediocrity in talent, dimness in customers, and laziness and sheep-like acceptance have all made Guacamole something ubiquitous but in a very poor way. I have been told by Iliana that her Guacamole could give mine a run for the money. And I have won accolades for my guacamole even when side-by-side against that made by supposed Mexican food authorities. I must say, I learned a new trick. I will not share it, for I want Iliana to share it in print first, or I will if my next book comes out before hers. But I want it shared only when Iliana can get credit that is visible and recorded. I add toasted cumin that adds a depth of flavor that is haunting without being out of place or stupid. Iliana adds her little secret ingredient and it does exactly that same little additional pinch of magic to the dish, without the addition of the very foolish ingredients that other chefs seem to add to be cool, sexy, trendy or who knows what. Thanks Iliana! Hats off to you my dear!
I could not have any. It sold out that quickly. Thrilled me no end to see the specials fly out. Told me about the trust people have around this exemplary food truck. I know most come clueless about where they are coming, but perhaps they leave richer, even if without knowing it that very moment. I know they must go to bed shocked they have no heartburn after a Mexican meal. They also must wake up feeling light and sated and happier for the dinner the night before. Again nothing common in the world of Mexican or Indian cuisine, even in the sexier and more reputable spots in Chicago, SF, LA or NYC.
The onions at the bottom just elevate the height. The pineapple placed on top of the pork is the special trick here. It keeps sweet juices flowing over the pork that keep getting caramelized and adding great flavor and tenderzing too? I would think so.... of course when you eat the pastor, you get it with onions and some of the caramelized pineapple. Sweet, sour, pungent, tasty, addictive and moist - all at once!
Why is NOT all Mexican food equal? How did we ever allow the cuisine of a land so close to us, a land that is connected to us geographically, get so wrongly interpreted within our borders? What does it say about us, that even Mexicans living within the US Borders, have either adopted to eat like us, change their own tastes, and eat poorly as a result, or worse, feed us as poorly as we want to eat, and in their own homes, eat better? Of course when one thinks of the great cuisine from Mexico that Iliana shares with us, we cannot gloss over the heightened obesity stats that we are getting from within the Mexican American community. Of course there is a quick answer to obesity anywhere these days. It is being called a direct result of the Americanization of the foods people have begun to eat. But I beg to challenge us to think deeper and understand the social path of events that brought all of us to this place of obesity where no one is spared. Not even those that came from lands that had intrinsically healthier cuisines.
But back to Iliana, she shares delicious food. Prepared with all sorts of ingredients. Plant based and animal based. From the earth and the water bodies that enrich us and of course from flora and fauna kingdoms. She asked if Indian eat vegetables like Mexicans, as nothing special, but really a part of daily life. I answered in the affirmative. We each reflected on how the world is changing and how deeply changed our world within the US has been for so very long. We each smiled knowing that the foods we share, the foods we most crave, are intrinsically great, because they are also so very old. Old in recipes and heritage, modern and constant with today in adaptation. That is where I wish more of us would want to live. A place where there is room for all and for all kinds of foods. But moderation, respect, authenticity, simplicity, real and clean are not just fads, but facts that make the food clock tick.
Does this food need much description? How can one resist such elegant food? Can we really think a taco that looks like this equals the last taco you ate? Come on - be honest! More importantly, it may match some taco some supposedly-fancy Mexican restaurant may have served you, but 99% chances are, it was not as clean (or simple) as this one is.
I also learned finally that pico de gallo is NOT what we have been made to believe. Pico de gallo salsa is that chopped onion, tomato, chile and cilantro salsa that so many of us crave and love. Pico de gallo without the word salsa is a salad of long finger sized pieces of jicama, carrots, cucumber, radish etc with some chile and fresh lime.... which is also incredible and reminded me of India again. In India, we always have those long slices of fresh veggies like the ones I mention stacked together like twigs inside a glass. Sometimes a glass filled with chilled water to keep them juicy and moist. Of course pico de gallo salsa is my favorite because it brings me back home to India and the Kachumbar salad we eat with most every meal.
Iliana let me know that the more common name for the salsa version of pico de gallo is Salsa Mexicana. Look at this photo above. The tomatoes are moist and fresh. The onions juicy and succulent and appealing. Of course serrano chiles are used by Iliana because unlike Jalapenos bred for American farming, these still have aroma, taste and heat - all in one chile. Cilantro is used happily and also fresh. So often I go to "fine" Mexican establishments and get pico de gallo that I can tell at first glance has been sitting around for days, being drained in some contraption. Void of the juices of the salsa and the edges of the onions and tomatoes brittle and dry, the cilantro horrid in taste and one of the reasons so many detest cilantro. None of this happened at this humbly glorious and rich in flavor truck. That shrimp were being celebrated was almost an afterthought. Thier enjoyment was equal parts the celebration of their vehicle of enjoyment - the salsa Mexicana. A revelation, but again also a statement of where we people are in terms of acceptance of mediocrity. I should not have been making such a big deal out of something so basic, but that is exactly the point. Iliana is doing the basics right, and so you know the convoluted is only going to be even better by that much more. Magic happens at each step of the way in this truck-kitchen.
Her home so beautiful and full of wonderful discoveries to be made in each room, in every corner. One such discovery for me was a collage of images of leaves, that made reference to Gauguin. How many kids today would even know who this name referred to. And all of a sudden, looking at this image, I realized Gauguin would have celebrated Iliana for many reasons, not the least of which was Iliana's respect for cultures, people and the new-world heritage.
I was teasing Iliana as having been a lover of Gauguin. She reminded me that she was not much older than me. How the could we explain this image and my belief of her being Gauguin's lover? She claims romance channeled through the Gods of Food.
If he lived today, she would have been his muse.
She truly is the epitome of the Vanilla Spice Girl!
Girl - She says is the key to her food.
The pictures of Iliana do not justice to the beauty that is Iliana. Beautiful inside and out. Similarly, there is a generous handsomeness to Ernesto. Equal parts masculine and kind. It is this that ensures that even as Iliana works as an inspiring instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio by day (VERY long days that end into the evening), Ernesto can share her legacy, her recipes and her passion in a way that is correct, that is passionately rewarding and also a gift to people they know and stragers alike. The food photos I have shared do the cuisine of Iliana no justice. Please go visit the trailer and get ready for a revelation. What you should ensure is that you not go there with ANY EXPECTATION of what to expect. The foods we call Mexican in this country until now, are NOT Mexican at all. They are a version of Mexican cuisine that suits someone to cook for us and cook to make profit for a people that somehow lost every discernible bone in their bodies. Once you eat Iliana's food, you will be eating real Mexican cuisine for the first time. Allow that experience alone to affect you. DO not worry about it matching anything you have experienced within the US or even in Mexico. In Mexico, there are eateries that cater to tourists. Do not live in fools paradise. Iliana de la Vega cooks for herself as much as for you and me, and so her food is deliciously new in how ancient and authentic its roots are.
85 Rainey St
Austin, Texas 78701