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Destination Dining: A Modern Celebration of Indigenous Ingredients at Los Compas in Tijuana

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PHOTOGRAPHY by
Olivia Hayo
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May 1, 2019
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Chefs Mario Peralta and Juan Cabrera come from two different worlds, but were united by a mission to preserve the indigenous ingredients of Mexico’s past, through seasonal, modern dishes that point to an exciting and sustainable future.

Juan Cabrera was born in Mexico City and earned his cooking chops at the world-renowned Pujol restaurant in the capital, while Mario Peralta, a native of Tijuana, worked up north under award-winning chef, Javier Plascencia at Misión 19 and at Fuego Cocina del Valle in Valle de Guadalupe.

The pair met in 2017 on the second season of Top Chef Mexico. A year later, in July 2018, they opened Los Compas in Tijuana.

The restaurant’s name loosely translates to “buddies” or “compadres”, but as they explained, it implies a mission-oriented connection closer than friendship. Their bond was forged over a shared passion for celebrating traditional Mexican cuisine and elevating indigenous ingredients.

At their small, stylish restaurant, heirloom corn varieties are nixtamalized each day and ground for use in everything from tortillas to dessert tamales, which retain the corn’s vibrant pink and blue hues even after being cooked

At Los Compas, marlín tlacoyos (pre-Hispanic masa ovals, thicker than a tortilla) are made using pink heirloom corn and come topped with locally-caught, smoked marlin, house-pickled güeros chiles, and wedges of avocado. Tostadas de ceviche verde (green ceviche tostadas) feature a citrus marinated local catch served on crisp tostadas alongside smoked cauliflower and draped in a cilantro pesto.Though corn has been cultivated in Mexico for over 10,000 years, with an amazing diversity of regional variations, this essential ingredient is in danger of being lost to a monocrop of industrialized yellow corn. According to Rafael Mier, the founder of the Fundación de Tortilla Maíz Mexicana, at least 59 varieties of native corn are on the verge of extinction.

The reintroduction of heritage corn varieties by innovative restaurateurs and chefs, like Peralta and Cabrera, is a vital part of efforts to raise awareness and promote farming of this indigenous crop.

At Los Compas, marlín tlacoyos (pre-Hispanic masa ovals, thicker than a tortilla) are made using pink heirloom corn and come topped with locally-caught, smoked marlin, house-pickled güeros chiles, and wedges of avocado.

Tostadas de ceviche verde (green ceviche tostadas) feature a citrus marinated local catch served on crisp tostadas alongside smoked cauliflower and draped in a cilantro pesto.

In addition to their focus on corn, many of the menu items are built around seasonal ingredients that reflect the pair’s close relationship with local farmers. The romanesco asado dish stars grilled romanesco and mustard greens from Wulf Ruiz’s Cengrow Organic Farm in Ensenada. The tender, smokey vegetable is served over what they describe as a “Mayan romesco” sauce made with roasted onions, chiles, garlic, and toasted sunflower seeds.

This, and pretty much everything on the menu, benefits from a drizzle of earthy housemade hot sauce made with chile de arbol, peanuts, garlic and dried shrimp heads still bobbing in the spiced oil and emparting their salty complexity. Other dishes take inspiration from international influences that have informed the borderland cuisine of Baja Norte.

There is a prevalence of Chinese food in Mexico thanks to several waves of Chinese immigration, which began in the late 19th century, and Peralta explained that when he was growing up, Chinese was his family’s special occasion treat. At Los Compas, such flavors are incorporated into the taco Chino (Chinese taco), which features a slightly sweet, Chinese-style sausage, a smear of hoisin sauce and fresh pickled vegetables served in a silky corn tortilla.

Carnitas de papada de cerdo (pork jowl with kimchi mexa) features a luscious fried pork jowl served over a bed of finely shaved, house-pickled vegetables inspired by the increasingly popular Korean kimchi variations served at gastro parks around Tijuana.

The playful surprises and pitch-perfect execution continue through the dessert menu, which features the likes of a creamy-as-cheesecake guava flan and an inventive pan caramelo cornbread bread pudding topped with white chocolate, cornflake praline, and vanilla ice cream.

The restaurant has a full bar menu of cocktails, wine, and beer with plans to offer a selection of craft beers made in collaboration with local brewers.

Far from a traditional menu, the dishes at Los Compas are a vibrant celebration of sophisticated, modern Mexican cuisine that is informed by deep heritage and history, without being limited by it. This approach makes it one of the most exciting places to taste the terroir of the region’s past, while experiencing a glimpse of its future.

Visit Los Compas

Boulevard Agua Caliente 10594, Aviacion, 22014 Tijuana, BC

loscompastj.com

Notes on Getting There: No matter how to get there, you will need your passport. The restaurant is less than a 30-minute drive from downtown San Diego, and crossing into Mexico is simple and fast. Getting back to the city can take longer‚ over an hour during peak traffic. Alternatively, park behind H&M at Las Americas Premium Outlets and take a 10-minute well-lit walk to the border crossing pedestrian bridge. Once in Mexico, use a ridesharing app like Uber or Lyft for a 10 to 15 minute drive to the restaurant.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
Felicia Campbell
Felicia Campbell is the author of the award-nominated cookbook and culinary history, “The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway...
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