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Picking parsley in a restaurant kitchen is a perfectionist’s chore. Your chef will expect you to differentiate leaf from stem, carefully prioritizing the tender petals from the fibrous, less appealing branches. A single bunch of parsley has a lot of petals and a lot of stems. You’ll be expected to do it anyway.
Huauzontles, a pre-colonial Mexican vegetable, has a lot more flowers and a lot more stems. Huauzontles lends its name to a beloved dish, too: Chef Gustavo Romero’s mom used to make it, and what set her preparation apart was the extra time she took to pick the flowers from the stems. Skip this process, she told her son, and it’s like having a needle in your mouth.
“I wish people could taste time,” says Romero. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, he opened his new restaurant, Nixta in Northeast Minneapolis. Since then, the tortilleria and taqueria has become wildly popular. Behind the name and the restaurant’s ethos: the practice of cooking with nixtamal, the ancient and time-consuming processing technique that makes corn more digestible–and more delicious.
I met with Romero one afternoon in my own home kitchen to talk about home cooking. I wanted to know about a dish that shaped him—a dish that defined him as a chef, or perhaps even as a person.
He grew up in Tulancingo de Bravo, a small town a couple of hours northeast of Mexico City. It’s a place where Romero says not much happens. People go to work, often in factories, and they come home to their families to eat. Together. And it’s that eating together that becomes the central focus of their lives, even if they don’t have very much in the way of money or material things.
It’s probably what brought him into food in the first place: hanging around the kitchen and listening to the rhythm of his mother’s cooking, surrounded by extended family. As a teenager, he moved to Tijuana and began working in a bar. But he soon felt the pull to move from drinks to food. The kitchen was where all of the action happened, and it reminded him of home.
Tijuana was a bustling cultural hub, and offered opportunity for the young Romero. But it was also a dangerous border town. Around the year 2000, he decided to cross into the U.S. and stay.
He remained in the culinary industry, too, bouncing from Florida, to Mexico (in order to legalize his immigration status), then to Italy, and to San Francisco. He worked in big-time Italian restaurants in California, and eventually fell in love with a Minnesota girl and accomplished chef, Kate Kiernoziak. Their return to Minnesota ultimately led him to a chef’s job downtown Minneapolis’s Le Méridien Chambers Hotel.
That job became a casualty of the COVID-19 crash. Like many chefs, Romero started cooking at home for therapy, and through that therapy, Nixta appeared.
Where’s the dining room? Nixta is ironing out the details
When I first wrote about Romero for Sahan (in January, 2021), Nixta was new, but people were excited about real-deal tortillas. Eighteen months later, Nixta is arguably the best Mexican restaurant in the Twin Cities, in spite of its wee footprint.
Romero’s restaurant operates as a takeout spot, with a couple of vintage ironing boards standing in for sidewalk tables. These are constantly getting stolen, Kate says, but luckily they’re easy and cheap to replace at thrift stores.
“Because nobody irons anymore,” she laughs.
These impromptu counters become the serving areas for some otherworldly takeout tacos: sweet potato with pickled mushroom and green salsa; or beef tongue with cactus. All the different taco options come bundled into painstakingly crafted tortillas, made with heirloom corn varietals shipped in from Mexico.
Before the end of the year, Gustavo and Kate hope to add a dining room in an adjacent space. For now, though, the ironing-board service style represents a quirky gesture toward Nixta’s true ethos—using what you have at hand to produce something amazing.
Not on the menu: Huauzontles
While you can eat some of Minnesota’s finest Mexican cuisine at Nixta, you won’t get huauzontles. You won’t get them because like many home-cooked dishes the world over, they’re too delicate, and it takes too much exactitude, to produce them properly in a commercial setting. Especially to produce them the way Romero’s mom does.
“I wish people could taste time,” Romero says.
After picking over the leaves and stem, the cook wraps this “Aztec broccoli” around queso fresco–a young, white Mexican cheese. Next: Whip the bundle in egg-white batter and fry it up.
Like a good souffle, huauzontles has a short shelf-life on the dinner plate: another reason it won’t stand up to the bustle of a restaurant kitchen.
Romero likes to serve his version with mole—another time intensive, ancient, and iconic Mexican dish.
When his mother made huauzontles, it started with her telling the other kids to go out back and gather the vegetables. Like cilantro, epazote, and papalo (a Mexican herb less familiar in most of the U.S. huauzontles grows perennially, and there was always some for the taking on his mother and grandmother’s land.
The land, Romero recalls, looked a bit like an empty lot, and if you didn’t know what to look for, you could easily mistake the edible plants for ordinary weeds. The huauzontles plants were easier to find because they grow tall. They may have appeared distinctive to him, but then Romero couldn’t remember being instructed on what to look for: Harvesting huauzontles was something his mom and grandma always just did.
🟥 Want to make Chef Romero’s Huauzontles in your own kitchen? Keep reading for the recipe.
Using what they had on hand was the key to the family always eating well, even if they didn’t have a lot. But, Romero says, they always had green things growing out back, and a chicken giving eggs. The family always made queso fresco. And they always made time to cook well, maybe the most important ingredient.
The key ingredient in Huauzontles is time—a cooking lesson Romero learned as he pulled leaf from stem, according to his mother’s exacting standards.
“My family was always inclined to long cooking,” Romero remembers. “On the 31st of the month, we would always go to the ranch, kill, clean, cover, and put an animal in the ground.” Here, they were cooking in an ancient style of barbeque, barbacoa.
“At five in the morning—that’s when we would take it out. We were always waiting– and there was no way to get it before it was done.”
A kitchen never sleeps
That long cooking can now be felt in the Nixta kitchen.
“If you come to this kitchen at any time of day or night, you will be able to see something happening,” Romero says.
The business keeps both Romeros extremely busy—and now there are three, with the addition of their two-year-old year old son Leonardo, who was born a day past his due date—which just happened to fall on National Taco Day, October 4. In fact, Gustavo says the most frustrating thing about the job is that people don’t understand how much of a community effort their restaurant is. Everyone in the family, their friend group, their neighborhood plays a role.
There is a cultural grounding for this long work, and it can be complicated to unravel and explain. But Romero starts like this: When people wrinkle their nose at eating insects, for instance—an important source of protein in some Indigenous Mexican cooking—they might be unwittingly dismissing– and insulting– an important component of the culture.
“I don’t think anyone looks at bugs and says ‘Oh! Let’s eat bugs!’” Romero says. “They were probably working in the field and had to eat something and found that it was delicious. So there’s a lack of understanding of the culture, and there is a lot of education we have to do.”
That education includes not cutting corners, and not bending to the pressures of American industrial food production.
Romero says that need for education sometimes reaches into his own kitchen, too.
“If someone cuts corners because our way is uncomfortable, or because they think it’s hard, then we have to talk about it,” he says. “Because the people you’re hurting are the people who eat it. The time is the depth, the soul.”
Don’t forget the mole
He’s slow and methodical as he preps the Huauzontles. It’s almost like he can hear his mother’s directives to be exacting: Pull those leaves from the stems! Romero is a big guy and the herbal flecks are tiny. But this process seems to turn him back into an obedient young son.
The rich mole that finishes the dish is a whole other story. At home, the family may have spent an entire 12-hour day preparing that, too. It’s a community process, really, just like Nixta is a community restaurant. Romero happens to have a mole already prepared with him today. He pulls it out of his bus tub full of prep materials, and makes a casual flourish out of this key ingredient. The thing that lifts Huauzontles from dish to delicacy.
The chef says he thinks a lot about his young son when he cooks, and when he does things the longer, harder way.
“I want to reinforce doing something meaningful, and I want him to understand why we are the way we are. And the best way is through food– not just the finished product, but where it came from,” he says.
Come to think of it, when he thinks back to his mother’s cooking now, Romero says, “We had everything.”
Makes 12 servings. Take your time!
- 4 bunches huauzontles (available at good Latin grocers)
- 4 quarts salted water for blanching
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 pound queso panela or queso fresco
- 8 large eggs, separated
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup + 2 tablespoons cooking oil
Start by clean huauzontles, removing any long leaves and/or stems, leaving only the buds
- In a pot, add water, salt, and baking soda. When boiling, blanch huauzontles until they are slightly tender.
- Drain and cool rapidly in ice water, then drain and squeeze out all excess water and set aside.
- Beat the egg whites until they have stiff peaks and then stir in the yolks, plus 2 tablespoons flour. Season with salt, to taste.
- To form the huauzontle cakes, place a small handful of the buds and squeeze to remove any excess moisture. Add a slice of cheese, cover with more huauzontle, and squeeze firmly until the cake is formed and holds a cylindrical shape.
- Add flour to a large bowl and lightly coat the cakes with it, shaking off any excess flour.
- Heat a large frying pan with enough oil to shallow fry.
- Once oil is hot, dip each cake into the egg batter making sure it is well coated, then carefully place the cake into the hot oil, frying each side until golden brown.
- When all sides are cooked, remove the cakes from the oil and allow to rest on top of a paper towel to remove any excess oil.
- Serve with your favorite sauce.