Try This: Crab and Lobster Tostadas and Lamb Barbacoa at La Chinesca, Where Creativity Meets CraftsmanshipJuly 1, 2017
“Here, try this,” says Chef Bruce Ricketts, handing us a freshly made tortilla, pale-yellow in hue with slightly uneven edges that mark its rustic, homemade charm. “If you smell it, that’s how a tortilla should smell.” As instructed, we rip into a piece and take a sniff. Past a puff of smoke that escapes the air is the distinctive aroma of corn—part-sweet, part-nutty, mingling with a smokiness indicative of having been exposed to heat from its time between the plancha.
“My obsession has always been with the tortilla,” Ricketts shares. Having grown up in San Diego, California, just bordering Mexico, he would find himself venturing to Mexico frequently where he would grow a deep love for the country’s cuisine. He admits he is in no way a “master” of Mexican cooking, but he zooms into the one thing he’s long held a deep affection for: tacos, or more specifically, the tortillas that form the said dish’s carbohydrate base. Here at La Chinesca, the small, roughly half-a-year-old taqueria along Aguirre Ave. in BF Homes, each and every tortilla is made fresh, from scratch. “It’s easy to make one fresh—press it, cook it, serve it,” he admits. “But to make one fresh where it’s a consistent bite all throughout? [That] takes mastery.” It is a skill that can only be honed through continued learning and continued practice, both of which the dedicated staff of La Chinesca takes as an ongoing quest.
In the end, everything has to be done properly . . . [In making tortillas], we must use corn and . . . cook it our style, where it will really puff. That’s important.
This focus on craftsmanship signals one important shift at this point of Ricketts’ career: a movement back to basics. If Ricketts’ first ventures (Robot, Sensei Sushi, and Mecha Uma) were more of gastronomic playgrounds where Ricketts kept the fire going with novel techniques crossed with unorthodox ingredients that challenged and excited many a diner’s comfort zone, La Chinesca is the more laid-back, homey cousin where the acclaimed Chef comes back home to his roots. With this, Ricketts came to realize the importance of the fundamentals that form the essence of the food he is making—and what this meant for him was the apparent need to “work backwards . . . [and] teach myself things that I failed to learn in my day.” It is a departure from the more explosive, experimental approach many know him for. “When I started, my obsession was innovation . . . [And] at first when you have lots of innovative ideas, it’s easy to pull customers in. But when you’re three . . four [or] five years in . . . it makes you wonder, ‘how can you sustain them?’,” he ponders. “So then you must go back to craftsmanship.” While they are essentially delivering comfort (“it’s like giving big, fat huge to people,” he shares), Rickett treats it with the same amount of precision and attention to detail as he has with his previous ventures—something which his years spent on working on Japanese-centric fare helped develop.
Far from sticking exclusively to tradition however, La Chinesca is not one to shy away from introducing new, creative, unique ingredients and methods in making great food. Ricketts still strives to strike a balance between craftsmanship and creativity, and between tradition and innovation. “First we obsess about tradition. After that—we won’t try to break it, but we’ll try to see it from another light,” he explains. At La Chinesca they incorporate newer techniques where applicable: the sous-vide machine for some of the proteins, or the use of a Japanese technique of first marinating fish in soy sauce as a protective ‘coat’ before piling on the citrus juice in raw applications to prevent the natural tendency of the juice’s acid from overcooking the fish. Go through the menu, too, and you’ll find components and ingredients you might not immediately associate with traditional tacos or Mexican cuisine—pinipig, mung beans, aloe vera, doubanjiang, and so on.
It is easy to mistake La Chinesca’s food as fusion, the ever-polarizing F-word of the culinary world, from a distance. But this is not the case. Rather, La Chinesca is Ricketts’ way of honoring the Mexican tradition he knows and loves, using great ingredients available on our shores. “It’s not about creating new things to find fusion. [It’s more about] if I [for example] were a Mexican chef and I had to do a pop-up in Manila . . . what would I use to recreate the flavors I grew up with, with ingredients we have here?” For instance, you’ll find pico de gallo made with watermelon in place of the more classic tomatoes (“realistically speaking [here in the Philippines], watermelons taste better than tomatoes,” he explains). While La Chinesca is not deliberately locavore in philosophy (“if it’s good, then it’s good,” Ricketts clarifies, regardless of origin), you’ll occasionally find them taking inspiration from produce in season—for as long as the quality of produce is up to standard.
Still, Ricketts emphasizes the importance of paying homage to Mexican cuisine’s roots, rather than innovation for innovation’s sake. “[What we do are] my interpretations of flavor combinations, without . . . losing the concept of what it should be,” he clarifies. They make a salsa verde with tamarind, for example, which Ricketts finds similar in taste to the more traditional but locally-hard-to-find tomatillo. Korean sesame leaves, too, make its way to a number of tacos on the menu, as Ricketts shares they resemble the flavor of a Mexican herb called hoja santa when warmed. “It needs to relate to where it came from,” he explains.
You’ll find these aspects of Chef Ricketts’ philosophy in these great plates that make the drive down South every bit worthwhile:
CRAB & LOBSTER TOSTADA
This off-menu treat takes inspiration from the seafood-centric tostadas of Baja, California, with sweet, juicy chunks of Boston lobster and crab on a crispy tortilla. Binding the crustaceans together in place of mayonnaise, however, is an ingenious concoction of uni (!) that is pureed into a most luscious, briny-yet-custardy cream. Looking to make the most of what’s in season, La Chinesca takes squash and uses the vegetable two ways: as a sauce of sorts with tomatoes, chile and lime juice to be spread at the bottom of the tostada, and as paper-thin pickles of raw, shaved squash that provide brightness and crunch to the overall bite. Finishing off the plate is a crema of cream, lime, cumin, oregano, and notably, tarragon—an herb you might not immediately associate with Mexico, but Chef Bruce likens to other herbs native to the country in taste and smell.
While La Chinesca’s had camaron (a.k.a. shrimp) tacos since day one, it—like their other menu items—would constantly go through changes in toppings and flavor combinations. This latest iteration toys with the idea of gringas, a variation of tacos stuffed not only with meats and other chunky ingredients, but notably, cheese, before being grilled like a quesadilla to let the cheese melt and ooze within. Plump chunks of shrimp and chorizo de Chino make up the protein part of the equation, while the shrimp heads are saved and cooked down into a sauce whose resulting natural oils are brushed right over the tortilla’s surface before going between the plancha. There’s plenty of richness to go around, but a surprise zing comes via Korean sesame leaves, whose minty profile provide just enough of a respite before you are pulled back in for another mouthful.
The lamb barbacoa is La Chinesca’s take on an Oaxacan classic of the same name, traditionally made with lamb or goat marinated and wrapped in agave leaves—an ingredient which can be hard to find on our shores, and for which La Chinesca instead subs in banana leaves. Open up the packet and a heady whaf of smoke emerges from within. Nestled inside are lamb ribs slathered with a Mexican adobo rub (a mix of oregano, garlic, guajillo and ancho chiles) that penetrates every meaty nook and cranny, thanks in no small part to a 24 hour-long sous-vide stint that leaves the meat tender and yielding. This is the dish to let out the inner carnivore—Chef Bruce advises digging into it with your bare hands, messy fingers be damned. But as flavorful as the ribs are on their own (it’s hard to resist devouring them straight up), they’re best enjoyed shredded off the bone and stuffed into a folded tortilla, as a DIY taco of sorts with any (or all!) of the triple-threat of condiments you get on the side—the guacamole-like aguacote purée; a sweet-tangy mix of pickled eggplants; and salsa borracha (a.k.a. ‘drunk salsa’, what else) where the lamb’s own juices mingle with onions and Mezcal—plus a squeeze of lime right before leaning in for a hearty, flavorful bite.