Beyond Burrito

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According to onsite operators who’ve staged promotions around a regional Mexican theme, they provide some of the most exciting and customer-satisfying events...and as it turns out, it’s no more expensive than menuing the standard favorites.

The first advantage comes in the bright flavors and appearance of the food. As famed restaurateur and Mexican cookbook author Rick Bayless notes, the majority of “Mexican” food in the U.S. is actually Mexican-American cuisine. While that has its niche, “it has a narrow range of ingredients and aspects, with a reputation for heaviness,” he says. “There’s lots of melted cheese, and it’s primarily one color and texture. But if you look at what people are actually eating in Mexico, there’s a variety and breadth of flavors and color.”

The Real Deal in Montana

Buoyed by a workshop on regional Mexican cuisine held last year at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in California’s Napa Valley, Executive Chef Tom Siegel is spreading the word at the University of Montana in Missoula. For his annual American Heart Association fund-raising prize dinner this past fall (the group that raises the most money wins his eight-course gourmet feast for 60 people), Siegel wowed his guests with a Mexican menu full of “new,” light tastes. “I wanted to dispel the myth that Mexican food is not heart healthy,” he explains. Using recipes he learned from Rick Bayless, the CIA workshop’s guest instructor, Siegel presented courses that included appetizers of “street vendor” enchiladas, along with grilled achiote-spiced fish in banana leaves; a salad of cactus and potato-stuffed ancho chiles with romaine lettuce and escabeche dressing; fresh corn tortillas; pumpkin soup; green poblano rice; and an entree of smoky peanut mole and Oaxacan black mole with grilled chicken accompanied by roasted chayote. And for dessert?Warm caramel pudding with berries along with champurrado, masa-thickened hot ­Mexican chocolate.Next up, Siegel plans to open an authentic Mexican food station in the cafeteria, which he expects will be as popular as the one on regional Italian he introduced this year to rave reviews. “Even the faculty and staff are bringing their spouses and guests in for dinner now,” he notes.

Three-year Track Record

At Wood County Hospital in Bowling Green, Ohio, Director of Food, Nutrition & Web Services Tim Bauman first presented regional Mexican specialties in the cafeteria three years ago. “I wanted to see how real Mexican cuisine would go over,” he explains. The experiment worked. Customers were so enthusiastic that Bauman now unveils a new, week-long menu of authentic Mexican food at least quarterly. Scaling up recipes he finds in regional Mexican cookbooks, Bauman tantalizes customers with such delicacies as stuffed pork loin Chiapas-style, plantain pancakes (“they’re like potato pancakes”), red snapper Veracruz-style, and steak with tomatillo chipotle sauce.