James Beard Winner Iliana de la Vega Welcomed Acclaimed Mexico City Chef of Fónico for New Guest Chef Series
The head chef of Austin favorite El Naranjo finds new ways to expand her diners’ understanding of Mexican cuisine with first-ever guest chef dinner
Austin might be well-known as a Tex-Mex town, but regional Mexican cuisine also features prominently in the city’s restaurant landscape with exciting and delicious results. One key example is El Naranjo, which has garnered enormous praise for its well-curated array of Oaxacan specialties. The chef and owner of El Naranjo, Iliana de la Vega, received the 2021 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Texas, a true testament to her skill and ingenuity.
But while El Naranjo — which opened its first (now closed) Austin location on Rainey Street in 2012, then launched its (still open) South Lamar restaurant in 2019 — attracts plenty of diners with vivid menu options like fresh seasonal ceviche, mole negro de Oaxaca with duck breast, and beer-braised short ribs with a bright sauce of chile pasilla and chile mulato, de la Vega has no intention of resting on her laurels. Instead, she seeks to find new ways to expand her diners’ understanding of Mexican cuisine. “Mexican food isn’t static. It keeps changing, and to get to know different aspects, different techniques, different presentations, different touches, and different approaches,” de la Vega tells us.
This desire to engage diners and to help them learn as much about Mexican cooking as they can in the context of her restaurant inspired de la Vega to invite a guest chef from Mexico to prepare a one-night-only dinner in the El Naranjo kitchen on March 23. De la Vega also liked the idea of giving her staff the opportunity to experience a night of El Naranjo service led by another chef: “I want the staff to learn different things and get excited about something new. With any job, once you get into it, it can common. So it’s good to shake things up a little bit. The challenge of getting everything to work and run perfectly under new circumstances is exciting.”
For the first-ever guest chef dinner at El Naranjo South Lamar, de la Vega extended an invitation to Billy Maldonado, the executive chef of Fónico, a trendy spot in Mexico City that focuses on dishes and ingredients from coastal Mexican regions like Sonora and Baja California. De la Vega and Maldonado first connected years ago while Maldonado was still in the process of learning chef craft; when de la Vega was working as a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, Maldonado sent her a Facebook message seeking advice as he was getting ready to start his first externship. “He said that he was really nervous and asked me for tips on how to work in a kitchen, and even though I didn’t know him personally, I tried to comfort him and help him,” de la Vega says. She loosely stayed in touch with Maldonado as he trained in Mexico City and Spain and later kept track of his career progression, and after he opened Fónico, “I made a reservation, I went to the restaurant, and I loved it. It was great to actually meet Billy; we’d communicated through text and email, but never in person before.”
Maldonado’s work at Fónico so impressed de la Vega that she started to include Fónico on the “culinary trips” that she periodically takes to Mexico with team members and friends. What stands out to de la Vega about Maldonado and his food is that “he’s super talented, and he’s young. His food is elaborate in some ways, but it’s also really simple. And he makes dishes that you remember. If he makes a ceviche, you’ll remember that ceviche.”
The March 23 dinner featured five savory courses crafted by Maldonado, including dishes like kanpachi ceviche with a habanero chile emulsion, apple, yuzu, avocado, and epazote; striped bass with beans, celeriac, chile de árbol, and habanero chile ash; and gorgeously medium-rare beef tenderloin with broccoli puree, pistachio, pumpkin seeds, and a rich jus spiced with chile morita. While every course was delicious, A particular highlight came in the form of “creamy rice”, a risotto-esque dish topped with a vegetarian “chicharrón” made of mushrooms and seasoned with fermented jalapeno, fava beans, and cheese. Maldonado used a combination of ingredients sourced from the Austin area and ingredients brought in from Mexico, which reflects El Naranjo’s commitment to showcasing the best products from both regions.
To cap off this epic feast, Ana Torrealba, the chef de cuisine of El Naranjo (who also happens to be de la Vega’s daughter) prepared a lively spin on tiramisú with café de olla (Mexican spiced coffee), corn liqueur, and a foam made with cotija cheese. The cotija gave the dessert a welcome dimension of funk that elevated the sweeter ingredients and made for an engaging and highly satisfying bite. De la Vega embraced this collaborative opportunity for both Torrealba and the restaurant at large, telling us that “this is a way for her to get to know people in the field and to share the things that we do and to learn about the things that they do.”
Thanks to the dinner’s resounding success, El Naranjo hopes to use this event with Maldonado as a starting point for an ongoing series of guest chef dinners. According to de la Vega, the El Naranjo team always wants to “give our guests another view on how Mexican cuisine keeps evolving.” These experiences offer the restaurant a chance to keep their clientele (both newcomers and dedicated regulars) constantly engaged and surprised and ready to try new dishes and new facets of Mexican cooking, ditching any “static” preconceptions of this cuisine and maintaining a vibrant, curious, and deeply flavorful energy.