Like many young chefs, Diego Galicia graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in San Antonio with razor-sharp knives and culinary guns blazing, eager to follow the molecular footsteps of stars like Grant Achatz and Ferran Adrià. But when he realized that the hourly wage at most restaurants wasn’t going to pay his student loan, he took a job as a corporate chef for Taco Cabana. He liked much about the position, particularly learning the operational savvy needed to run a large restaurant chain, but ultimately yearned for a more personal project.
Galicia, who has a quiet reserve and the sad eyes of an El Greco painting, was born in Toluca, Mexico. He studied psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio before fully embracing his passion for food and a career in the kitchen. Along the way, he earned his chops in Mexico City at Azul Condesa (owned by renowned chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita), and stints at the Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and Moto in Chicago. When he was ready to strike out on his own, he approached his friend Rico Torres, an El Paso-born chef who was working as a well-respected caterer, and shared his vision for a different kind of restaurant.
“We’d collaborated on pop-up dinners,” says Torres “We both wanted to cook very regional Mexican cuisine and put it on the scale where it belongs.” They joined forces and Mixtli (meaning “cloud” in Nahuatl, an ancient Aztec language), a restaurant devoted to progressive Mexican cuisine, opened in October 2013. In many ways, their concept was a harbinger of change in San Antonio’s culinary landscape. The CIA’s Nao, an ambitious fusion concept that served a broad spectrum of Latin American cuisine (from Peru to Honduras) would open a few months later. Both restaurants challenged the expectations of a city reared on queso and accustomed to having chips and salsa arrive at the table before water glasses.
At Mixtli, the chefs devote their energies to Mexico’s culinary diversity. Like clouds drifting across the country, their menu travels to a different state or historic period every forty-five days. They started with a $15,000 budget (affordable rent was essential) and landed on a boxcar nestled in a small park behind Olmos Perk Coffee Bar. The small space suited their aim to create an intimate, but exclusive experience: a twelve-seat chef’s table for a ten-course tasting menu ($95) that includes with it beverage pairings such as aguas frescas, wine, craft beers, and spirits such as tequila, sotol, or mezcal.
It took a few beats to find their audience, but these days their dinners are sold out weeks in advance. “We didn’t have a client base, so we had to create a customer,” Galicia says. “Eventually people realized we were doing something really unique, and they rallied around it.”
Their first menu focused on Oaxaca. Since then, they’ve taken diners to Campeche, Yucatán, and even the 1500s for “La Conquista: The collision of two worlds,” for a pilgrimage that began in Extremadura, Spain (the birthplace of Cortés), and ended in the city of Tenochtitlan. That meant everything from Almond, Jerez Vinegar, and Pata Negra, moros y cristianos (rice and beans, courtesy of a stop in Cuba) and Huitlacoche, Duck, and Mole Negro.
Despite early ambitions toward foams and other modernist techniques, the chefs quickly learned that everything “new” wasn’t the answer. Instead, they were increasingly drawn to authentic and traditional methods. “It was cooler to go back in time,” Galicia says, “and learn to make real things with real techniques.” Melding ancient methods with a few flashy, state-of-the-art experiments (think molcajete meets liquid nitrogen) created their perfect balance of old and innovative. For each menu, the chefs use indigenous ingredients and pre-Hispanic techniques. They make their own nixtamal (an ancient process of the preparing of corn in which the kernels are soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution to improve flavor and nutritional value) and grind it in a 120-year old molino. They roast cacao beans to make chocolate, and grow herbs and vegetables (epazote, hoja santa, and a variety of peppers) in their kitchen garden. In an effort to support as many area ranchers, farmers, and artisans as possible, they locally source meat, poultry, eggs, and produce.
The transient nature of their cooking makes execution an ongoing learning curve. “At the beginning of each new menu we’re running into each other, but by the end of the six weeks we’ve finally tuned everything. It’s like, ‘We’ve got this.’ And then we start all over again,” Galicia says. To ensure ongoing inspiration and hands-on learning, their team travels to Mexico as often as possible. “It’s a chance to recharge and reconnect,” Torres says, “You come back feeling a sense of purpose. It’s very meaningful to preserve and protect these recipes.”
Giving back to the community that sustains them is another priority. They developed the Mixtli Grant (funded by guests’ patronage) to give a financial award to their purveyors to upgrade equipment, reinforce fencing, or anything else that will improve their farming or ranching. The chefs also regularly donate meals to benefit various local charities, including Boys and Girls Club of America and the San Antonio Food Bank. “Because of our guests, we’re able to have our dream jobs,” Galicia says. “Giving back to that community is our way of keeping the circle of karma going.”
To lasso a broader audience and serve their food in a more casual setting, the chefs opened Mezcalerìa Mixtli in May 2015. The cozy and convivial spot serves small-batch mezcals, cocktails, and easy-to-love appetizers (like crunchy chicharrones doused with homemade hot sauce and lime juice) and a popular boozy brunch. Three years later, both chefs are grateful to be open, busy, and for the lessons they’ve learned along the way. The next step will likely be a new, larger space for the restaurant. “Mixtli needs to grow up,” Galicia hints.
Across the country, Cinco de Mayo (“Please don’t call it Drinko de Mayo,” Torres pleads.) will be honored via fish-bowl-sized margaritas and nacho platters. Not surprisingly, the Mixtli chefs honor the holiday with a more precise sense of place: Puebla, the site of the Mexican army’s victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. “No Pueblan menu would start without botanas, or snacks, and a Paloma,” Diego says, so the meal kicks off with a grapefruit-enhanced cocktail, guacamole topped with pepitas and crumbled queso fresco and esquites, Mexican-style street corn. It continues with a hearty tortilla soup garnished with crispy chorizo, meaty beef tacos de suadero, and ends with creamy, comforting arroz con leche. “These dishes are all very classic,” Diego says, “with traditional flavors for this time of year.”