Owner and head chef of Viva Mexican Grill and Tequileria, Carlos Mendez grew up in Mexico watching his mother and aunts as they concocted labor-intensive food without batting an eye. He would even venture off to the countryside to collect any wild mushrooms they might need. Now at his restaurant, he keeps his culinary traditions alive with his menu of Central Mexican cuisine. Fresh guacamole made table-side prepare palates for forthcoming entrees. Handmade masa pancakes topped with queso fresco join slow-cooked pork carnitas and tricolor plates of chilis en nogada with creamy walnut sauce. Thirteen types of margaritas and chilled coladas and daiquiris cool tongues coated in hot spices.
The festive decor of earthy deep blues, red clay tiles and adobe-colored walls also pays tribute to his homeland, as does a mariachi band. These musicians rove between tables, serenading diners with romantic string and vocal harmonies and the occasional rap battle.
No matter what country her family was living in at the time, Longteine ?Nyep? De Monteiro?the wife of a Cambodian diplomat?always heard the same thing when she served dinner at one of her lavish parties: ?This is so good! You should open a restaurant!? It wasn't until the rise of the Khmer Rouge forced Longteine and her family to relocate to America that she began to seriously entertain the idea. Longteine finally opened The Elephant Walk in 1991, where she filled the menu with a m?lange of her favorite Cambodian and French recipes.
Since then, Longteine?s daughter Nasda and her son-in-law Gerard Lopez helped her expand The Elephant Walk to three locations. All three Elephant Walks separate their kitchens into French and Cambodian preparation lines, each staffed with chefs adept at both traditional and contemporary dishes. Each dish makes meticulous use of flavorful, wholesome ingredients such as ripe plum tomatoes, fresh tuna, Vermont goat cheese, and organic tofu. The Elephant Walk also serves up a host of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free variants.
The Elephant Walk loves to feed the mind as much as the mouth. During its regularly scheduled Cafe Science series, Brandeis professors deliver compelling lectures on a variety of topics from the Large Hadron Collider to explaining why science alone cannot turn water into chocolate milk. The restaurant has since given upwards of $200,000 to local, national, and international nonprofit organizations fighting poverty.
Before he could call himself a master of Mexican cooking, chef Jim Fahey knew what he had to do. He went straight to the source, traveling extensively throughout Mexico and picking up new skills wherever he could—in restaurants, at street vendors’ carts, and even in the kitchens of local homes. After more than 30 years as a chef, Fahey has found what it takes to craft Mexican food the right way. His discoveries abroad compelled him to open Habanero’s Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, where he crafts dishes that are healthy, fresh, and simple. Take, for example, his guacamole. Whether infused with chipotle or topped with salsa and Mexican cheese, every bowl of the creamy dip is made to order. The same goes for the enchiladas and burritos, the latter of which can only reasonably be eaten with a knife and fork or two sharpened oars. Fahey is also an expert in tequila, as his menu of nearly 100 premium variations will attest. The agave spirits are served in margaritas, flights, or shot glasses.
Bombay Mahal Restaurant's executive chef fuses traditional Indian flavors with contemporary twists to create a menu of truly innovative Indian fare. He harnesses the slow, steady heat of a traditional clay tandoor oven to seal in meaty juices, bake naan, and scare away thieving snowmen. The bustling kitchen whips up fresh creations such as curries, tikka masalas, and the specialty seafood masala with pan-seared scallops and shrimp. Thin, flaky crepes called dosai pay homage to southern India, and a vegetarian menu doles out dishes from the western and northern regions. The dining space emulates an exotic setting, swathed in a soft red glow that washes over exposed wooden beams and a divider carved with ornate designs, which are usually reserved for picnic tables vandalized by art students.
When they opened up Ristorante Marcellino's in 1997, owners Salvatore and Giovannina wanted to make sure their restaurant captured the flavors of the traditional Italian cooking they grew up with in their hometown of Calabria, Italy. Therefore, they emphasize the authenticity of their ingredients, which help craft housemade pastas and sauces, as well as bread that’s baked fresh in a wood-burning brick oven. It’s this attention to authenticity that led the Boston Globe to praise Ristorante Marcellino as a "clubby Calabrian gem of a restaurant."
At the downtown Waltham restaurant, visitors driving in or landing a reasonably sized blimp can take advantage of ample parking. The kitchen stays open late, and three bars serve up espresso martinis before or after meals.
Guadalajara, nestled in the state of Jalisco, was the birthplace of many of the flavors used in Mexican food. Those influences shine through in the recipes at Taqueria Mexico, where the chefs draw on family recipes brought by over from the inventive city. The dishes have helped earn the eatery very good to excellent ratings on Zagat.
As at any good taqueria, the gorditas, tacos, tortas, and burritos can be stuffed with a wide range of meats and veggies. Carnitas, pork traditionally slow cooked with green chilies, is nearly as tender as steamed beef al vapor. Lengua, or beef tongue, is also a time-tested taqueria meat. And like the dependents section of a scarecrow’s taxes, the eatery’s quesadillas brim with squash.