Slow Food in Mexico: Los Danzantes

“People are starting to get it here, ” says chef Miguel Jimenez. “Sometimes they think slow food means their food is going to come out slowly, but they’re starting to understand that it’s about appreciating the diversity around us.” He’s come over to chat with us at our table after we told our waiter that our appetizer was our favorite dish so far this trip. We notice that the menu has a section about slow food and we ask him about it. We do most of the talking. He’s humble and shy, with a dry sense of humor that comes out as you get to know him, and judging from the time he’s spent in popular Oaxacan and Mexico City restaurants, he’s obviously a gangster in the kitchen.

Executive Chef Juan Pablo Luna later tells us how he and Miguel started working together. “He was working at another restaurant in Oaxaca and we knew each other. One night we were talking and I asked him to come work with me,'” he said. “‘Why would I do that?’ Miguel asked. ‘Well, I don’t know…To see what we can do together.'”

What they’ve done together is created a menu resembling an ode to Oaxaca’s most loved ingredients. Juan Pablo, Oaxacan-born and trained at New York’s Culinary Institute of America, spends his off time roaming through local markets and brainstorming ideas for new menu items, “like mango and octopus!” he said about the beginnings of the ceviche we had that night. Miguel executes, putting together new flavors flawlessly, and Juan Pablo helps designing a presentation that hits between elegant and surprising (the ceviche arrived piled atop a cucumber shaped as a canoe). As we walked into the restaurant we noted that like many restaurants in Oaxaca their dining room opens to a night sky. Here, however, illuminated adobe walls, overgrown vines, chipped cement walls behind glass bar shelves, and tall banana trees hanging over a leather couch lounge area made me say out loud, “hey, what an interesting use of the usual space.” Change out space for ingredients and there you have Los Danzantes. But behind the poetry of canoed cucumbers and desserts like the chocolate waterfall exists a hardcore dedication to honoring local products, the people who produce them and the traditions behind them.

We’ve come here after a long day in mezcal country, where we met with wrinkled Don Tacho, a mezcal master of 40 years who showed us how to listen for the sounds of fermenting maguey, who flipped out a machete like it was a pocket knife to cut off slices of roasted maguey plants for us, who measures the alcohol content of his mezcal by blowing a sip through a bamboo pipe and watching the intensity of its bubbles as they hit the gourd cup. For lunch that day we were taken, warned with a “it’s not the nicest place”, to a Saturday-only restaurant with dirt floors, more flies than a barnyard, and a lunch special of a heaping pile of carnitas, tortillas, and a smokey salsa. Our appetizer was a small plate of lengua (tounge) in a styrofoam bowl, I can’t remember how much I ate of it, but I know when asked if I liked lengua I picked up my toothpick and dug in while nodding my head and bracing my gut. There was a pig head on the wall, its open mouth gripping ribs, its nose pointing towards the sky, in the same direction we looked as we said silent prayers that the mezcal in our systems would kill whatever harmful bacteria lurked behind the open air kitchen.

Several more tastings and a long siesta later, we find ourselves laughing in disbelief as our waiter pulls out chairs for us at Los Danzantes. In Oaxaca we eventually realize it’s easy to go from country to city, from plastic table cloths that look like twister boards to white linen, from market stalls with chalkboard menus to elaborate wine menus. Most of these restaurants highlight Oaxacan specialties from grasshoppers to fresh salsa to mezcal, but what makes Los Danzantes different is that they’ve caught on to using the slow food movement as a marketing boost, and as a conscious and strict commitment to supporting local farmers and mezcal producers. “When I started 20% of our ingredients came from local farmers, now it’s over 80%” said Juan Pablo. While the mole masters and mezcal producers we interviewed throughout the trip expressed valid concern about treasured recipes and distilling practices disappearing with the younger generation’s impatience and disregard for the kitchen and field, take a peak into the kitchen of Los Danzantes and you’ll see it’s filled with young men and women, growing their careers in an environment that blends local pride, tradition, and creativity.

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From what we can tell, places like Los Danzantes are gaining popularity because they honor the specialties and depth of regional food in Mexico, while providing their guests with a new experience. In Juan Pablo’s words, you stray from the traditional and you’re screwed. “La nueva cocina Mexicana shouldn’t be a luxury, it should be an experience,” said Juan Pablo about the emerging trend of nueva or alta cocina, chefs using international culinary techniques while cooking with traditional ingredients, often in more luxurious settings. He tells us about this dish he wants to do, it’s a stew that’s usually made by a bride and groom before their wedding day in a town in Oaxaca. As tradition dictates, the couple spends the entire pre-wedding night stirring a pot together, without talking and being watched by their mothers (and I thought a bridal shower was the worst it could get!) The next day the wedding guests make a feast of it. While we joke about him and Miguel spending the night together stirring the pot, he goes off about the different ways to present the stew on the table- the ways to make the flavors and smells come wafting out of a special pot so that guests are not only reminded of the story behind the dish, but how rich of an experience this one dish has the potential to create.

This type of experience is what brings us here two nights in a row (their house cocktail, a refreshing mango mezcal daquiri with a chile rim that we want to bathe in may also be to blame). The best quesadilla we had in Mexico wasn’t a quesadilla. It was two wide leaves of hierba santa filled with a layer of quesillo (oaxacan cheese) and goat cheese, surrounded by salsa verde and dried red chiles. Three weeks later and it’s still our favorite dish of the trip, not just because it looks like christmas on a plate, or because it achieved the impossible feat of being called refreshing while including a layer of goat cheese, but because we were surprised by it, wanted more of it, and because it incorporated some of our favorite local ingredients in a memorable way. Guess they got us.

Los Danzantes:
Macedonio Alcalá 403 interior 4
Col. Centro
Oaxaca

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2 Responses to “Slow Food in Mexico: Los Danzantes”

  1. June 29, 2011 at 3:24 am #

    Es increíble haber conocido a dos hermosas mujeres que aprecien nuestra comida, nuestro estilo y nuestra cultura, Miguel y todo el equipo de cocina de danzantes esperamos
    que hayan disfrutado de una parte de nuestro corazón que entregamos en cada platillo que hacemos cada día con nuestro mayor esfuerzo y dedicación. somos Oaxaca y somos los Danzantes de lo cual estamos orgullosos.

    vuelvan pronto.

    chef Jp Luna

  2. Toni Casal
    June 29, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Our favorite place to eat in Oaxaca, too. It is simply the best. I also like their take on basic Oaxacan staples like a quesadilla. We had a tlayuda there. Normally basic street food, they elevated this open faced pizza on a tortilla to gourmet status in unexpected ways.

    How great you met the duo responsible for all this genius.
    As you said the ambiance is delightful, and the service. It is pricey, so it was a treat when we visited. I would like to have gone there every day. Casa Oaxaca is touted as the 5 star restaurant in town, but Santiago and I disagree—-Los Danzantes is the best restaurant in town. I see on their website, they have a location in DF, I hope you will review that one soon.
    Your review made me want to rush back there.