Mexican food is easily one of the three or four most beloved international cuisines. Simple, fresh ingredients, bright flavors, and accessibility; what’s not to love? Mexican cuisine is just as perfect on a casual Tuesday night in as it is dressed up for a fabulous Friday out.
With as strong a foundation and personality as any world cuisine, Mexican food makes a great candidate for experimentation; take a chance and have some fun without losing the essence. Chefs, both here and in Mexico, are elevating all the most beloved dishes and experimenting more than ever with non-traditional ingredients, methods, and straight up fusion elements. Cinco de Mayo, even with all its Jose Cuervo and Tostito-related crimes and shortcomings, is still an excellent excuse to celebrate Mexico’s vibrant food culture.
In an effort to avoid those most basic of pitfalls, we caught up with two of today’s masters of the craft: Diana Davila—of the critically acclaimed Mi Tocaya Antojería (Chicago)—who happens to be nominated for a 2019 James Beard award for Best Chef: Great Lakes Region (the awards are fortuitously being given out over Cinco de Mayo weekend this year), and Chef Donnie Masterton, owner and operator of The Restaurant in San Miguel, Mexico—and who is set to be airdropped into LA (also this weekend) to cook for 800+ guests at CBS’s hybrid Cinco de Mayo/Daytime Emmys post-party.
Here are some of their ideas for hosting a more than memorable May 5th fête.
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Weave in fun flavors like stone fruit and make it your own.
Chef Masterton praises “sweet stone fruit like peach and nectarine to add sweetness as a contrast with the spice from chilies et al, and to add color and brightness to a spread.” Whether added as grilled additions to a taco bar, or diced up in salsa for a tostads, stone fruits will surely have people saying Oooh, what is that? Pro tip: use the same stone fruit in a corresponding tequila cocktail or margarita spin.
Chef Davila says, “Personalize it! If you’re not super familiar with Mexican cuisine or it’s not something you’d normally cook, think about how you can make the dish your own. Think about what is available to you in your growing region. Maybe you don’t have cactus available to you but you have okra—use what’s is available and fresh.”
Hook ’em with something different like frijoles charros or seafood.
Chef Davila “really likes serving Frijoles Charros for parties.” They’re beans that are cooked intact and typically have three or so different meats added. “I use different chorizos or sausages—ham works well too,” says Davila. “You cook everything together along with chiles, onions, and tomatoes and it’s really delicious.”
Seafood always adds a special note to party food, but it might not be the first thing you think of when you think Mexican. Masterton does a bluefin tuna tostada. “People flip out over it,” he says. “It’s a very simple dish with crisp masa tostada, chipotle crema, avocado, and crisp leeks. I marinate the bluefin with a little orange and soy sauce just before serving it and the crisp julienne leeks are something you don’t normally see in Mexican cuisine.”
Secure some fun and authentic Mexican hardware.
Masterton loves using a large molcajete—the traditional Mexican version of the mortar and pestle. Use it to grind your salsa or mash up an avocado or three for guacamole. But best of all, a molcajete doubles as a super cool serving dish.
Granite Molcajete, $21.41 on Amazon
Make and serve salsa or guac in this authentic molcajete.
Get others involved and keep it fun.
“I like to keep things simple for fiestas,” says Masterton, “and make the food fun and approachable. Bite-size tostadas, tacos, and mini tamales and other things that can be eaten standing up.” As seriously as Chef Masterton takes cooking, it’s that much more enjoyable if people have a smile on to go with their cocktail dress. For his monster LA event, for instance, Masteron is planning a nacho bar with cactus verde, pork rinds, and Flamin’ Red Hot Cheetos.
“If I’m hosting,” says Davila, “I pick one item that I’m handling and have everyone fill in. If I’m doing the main course then someone else brings wine or an appetizer. This way the party is really communal and everyone is involved in making it fun and delicious!”
Cheetos Flamin Hot Limon, $8.88 on Amazon
Make it great but keep it fun!
Make it fusion.
“Mexican food has a good deal of crossover elements with Thai food,” Masterton tells us, “so why not incorporate some of those flavors to keep things exciting. Ingredients like chilies, cilantro, and ginger are used liberally in both. Moles are the curries of Mexico, and both cultures love their food spicy.” Masterton makes a beautiful and lively mashup he calls Thai carnitas salad made with “traditional pork carnitas, served over greens with cilantro, serrano chilies, cashews, lime, fish sauce, and chili soybean paste.”
Mix up the cocktails, figuratively speaking.
The margarita is one of the great cocktails this big world has produced and we would never argue otherwise, but if you’re looking to surprise and delight, Chef Masterton suggests mixing it up with something simple and smoky: mezcal—tequila’s mysterious cousin. “Mix a good mezcal with a bit of mint, fresh lime, simple syrup, and thinly sliced cucumber. Serve it in a powdered-chili-and-sugar-rimmed glass.
Chef Davila’s advice is to invest in a cool punch bowl and make a delicious punch so people can serve themselves. “I have a friend who’s a bartender who recommended using a cake pan to make a giant ice cube that can go in the punch, so I do that when I’m hosting.”
Cactus Scorpion Cocktail Bowl, $44.99
Tell me this won't make your Cinco bar pop!
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Header image courtesy of The Restaurant