Don Day’s Wife and I had dinner with Jorge Córcega recently. Jorge is the executive chef and co-owner of new San Miguel de Allende restaurant, La Ruta de la Milpa, and he’s one of the biggest champions I’ve ever met of the ingredients that traditionally are used in Mexican cuisine. His menu pays tribute to the native flora and fauna of Mexico and, in particular, honors examples of the fruit and vegetables that have not strayed far in form from what grew in this country a thousand years ago.
“Cocina Mexicana is one of the world’s great cuisines”, said Jorge, “but most of the world knows nothing about it. It starts with educating Mexicans about all of the things that come from our soil and then spreading that news throughout this country and to other lands.”
“Mexico is one of the richest countries in the world…not from things like petroleum…but from the fruits, the vegetables, the meats, the fish…we have so much more than other countries. It is our soil that makes us so rich.”
Chef Jorge had two terms working in Spanish kitchens and he refers to the second one, in San Sebastian, the “most influential of my career”. We started dinner with what La Ruta de la Milpa calls a buñuelo, a dish that I’m sure was influenced by Jorge Córcega’s time in Spain. Though I wanted to compare it to a croquette, the most common of all dishes at tapas time in San Sebastian, he said, “no, this has no potato.”
“I’ve been in kitchens for 28 years…I started young”, chuckled the chef. “Then, about seven years ago, I started to help chefs in Mexico City source some of the difficult-to-find ingredients. Now I’m using those same ingredients…and more…here in San Miguel.”
Whether or not it was a croquette, I measured it in the same way croquettes are judged, by its lightness, and La Ruta’s buñuelo was a feather. I was particularly excited by the presence and taste of one of the ingredients in the fritter. Cecina is Mexico’s finest contribution to the world of air-dried meat and the local cecina enchilada that is sun dried with chiles goes mostly unheralded except for one stall at San Miguel’s Tuesday market. Cecina de Guanajuato is the featured ingredient of Chef Jorge’s buñuelo.
La Ruta de la Milpa is a reference to the fields of the indigenous tribes of Mexico where corn, squash and beans grew harmoniously in fields together. The simple yet elegant dining room is located on the second floor of San Mike, the three-storey restaurant/bar that opened just over a year ago. Though it’s less than two blocks from the jardin, the social heart of San Miguel, San Mike has struggled so far. The first floor attempted, unsuccessfully, to recreate a traditional Mexico City cantina, perhaps an impossible task. The second floor started as a piano bar but, despite some of the town’s best tacos and Alex Gutteriez tickling the ivories, it started up in the evening around the time my appetite shut down. The third floor rooftop is perfect for a romantic rendevous but it arrived in the same year as Atrio and Quince and those restaurants have something that San Mike doesn’t, a front row seat of the parroquia, the backdrop everyone wants in their selfie.
Eduardo Lopez Guerrero who, with Antonio Marron, own the Italian restaurants Cent’Anni in Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende and co-own La Ruta de la Milpa with Jorge Córcega said, “So far we’ve always been in the business of casual cuisine; La Ruta de la Milpa is our first venture into fine dining, but I think this time we’ve got something really special.”
The excitement of the two owners is almost infectious. They have a bouncing new baby and they’re very, very proud to show it to everyone.
“With every bite of every dish, you find new flavors. It’s incredible”, said Antonio.
“Mexicans are used to eating well in their homes and in restaurants”, said Eduardo, “but these flavors are very different from what they are used to.”
The next dish was titled tostada de carne apache and, I must admit, I had no idea what carne apache was. It turned out to be venada, venison in English, that is sourced from the Yucatan and pays tribute to the white-tailed deer that once roamed most of Mexico. The tostada was made from yellow corn.
Last year I squandered three days of my time at farms and markets in and around Oaxaca City searching unsuccessfully for the yellow, the blue, and the red corn that supposedly originated and is still grown in that part of the country. I apparently should have been looking closer to home.
“We make our own nixtamal, our own masa, with corn from Oaxaca, Comonfort and Atatonilco”, said Chef Jorge, with the last two towns referring to neighbors of San Miguel de Allende. “You can experience the different flavors in the chips served with the chile morita sauce.”
Sikil pak is a Mayan dish that you might find in Campeche or Yucatan but I’ve never ever seen in Mexico City, never mind San Miguel de Allende. For the base, La Ruta de la Milpa finely grinds the seeds from calabacitas, the small squash that may have originated in Milta Alpa, the area outside Mexico City where Jorge Córcega now calls home.
“They were round before the Italians started messing around with them, made them oblong and called them zucchini”, said Jorge.
For the tartare on top, the chef uses an animal that did not originate in Mexico but the chef still considers it very important to source it in this country.
“There is a ranch in Chihuahua with full-blooded Wagyu beef”, said Jorge. “They have been there for fifteen years.”
Our next dish was a red corn tostada topped with flakes of pescado and underneath the tostada was a carpet of the candy apple-colored corn used to make it. Perched on the very top were local edible violets, the ones you see blanketing the ground when you walk off a juicy steak outside of the restaurant Rojo Vivo on the road to Doctor Mora.
Corn is present at almost every Mexican meal. And it’s hard to imagine a Mexican meal created by Jorge Córcega without it. What Jorge does with corn, however, goes far beyond the tortilla. Jorge crisps it. He flakes it. He creams it. He rolls it. He puffs it. He whips it. He crumbles it.
“We are corn. Every meal is corn. This is us. This is our identity. We are proud to be made of corn”, said the chef.
Next up was salbute con chalitos y epselón. The simple explanation I can give is a deep fried tortilla made from blue corn with ground pork skins and black beans. What intrigued me most though was the sprinkled black powder on the side of the plate.
“Go ahead, run your finger through it”, said Jorge, “go ahead, taste it.”
“It tastes like onion”, I said.
“It is”, said Jorge, “the ash from burnt onions. We must add sugar and salt to give it the exact flavor we want.”
I couldn’t decide which was the winner: The tortilla on the bottom; the tomatoes, onion, radish and peppers on the top; or that black onion dust on the side. But what a medley of flavors!
Now I’m a harsh critic of restaurants with absentee executive chefs. One of the reasons I no longer go to Moxi or Bovine is because, after their first month in business, I’ve never once witnessed chefs Enrique Olvera or Paul Bentley in their kitchens.
It’s not that I’m against celebrity chefs. I applaud their rock star status. But Jorge Córcega isn’t quite there. Not yet anyway. If he was a musician he’d still be playing small venues not arenas. He has a very humble air in the way he talks about his career, his ingredients and his creations.
Throughout our meal together, Jorge was ever-present. Never once did he venture to the kitchen. Never once did he check on his creations. I was intrigued.
“How much time are you going to spend in San Miguel?”, I asked him.
“For now, I’m going to be here a lot”, he replied. “I’m still tweaking the menu. We’re adding two more new items next week. But if I’m not here, I know things are in good hands. Come to the kitchen with me and I’ll introduce you to Ana.”
Ana is Ana Pereyra who has worked with Jorge Córcega for ten years.
“She knows just as much about this food as I do”, said Jorge, “maybe more”.
The food Ana had sent out of the kitchen so far had been extraordinary. Don Day’s Wife called it, “where Mexican cuisine wants to be but rarely gets there”. I couldn’t help compare the arrival of Jorge and Ana in San Miguel to the arrival of Marco Cruz and Sofia Antillon a few years earlier. Marco and Sofia quickly made Nomada the favorite of almost every foodie in this town. Now Nomada has some very serious competition.
Nomada was one of the first restaurants in San Miguel de Allende to serve exclusively Mexican wines and La Ruta de la Milpa is doing the same. But I still consider it a bold move. The list is short but very well-selected and I particularly liked the Napaish Tres Raices Cabernet Sauvignon which is made from grapes grown not too far outside San Miguel de Allende. I would like to see a red on the list that’s under a thousand pesos but I recognize that’s difficult in a fine dining establishment, particularly when the food is as attractively priced as it is at La Ruta de la Milpa. Except for the Sikil pak, with its Wagyu beef, most of the dishes from the starter section of the menu that we sampled were around 200 pesos. And most were large enough for sharing.
When our last dish was presented, a dish that La Ruta co-owner Antonio Marron excitedly referred to as “a rock star dessert”, Jorge told us, “Except for a little decoration, everything on that plate began life as a cob of corn.”
Corn, beans and squash are the heart of everything on La Ruta de la Milpa’s menu. The soul comes from the second ingredients: the duck, the wild turkey, the cuttlefish, the venison, the suckling pig. The brains though come from Jorge Córcega and Ana Pereyra’s imaginative ways of combining ingredients into gastronomic ecstacy.
La Ruta de la Milpa is the most exciting restaurant debut we’ve had in a long, long time in San Miguel. Though I expect it to be around for a long, long time, I suggest you get there as soon as you possibly can.
La Ruta de la Milpa is located at Canal #18 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm, seven days a week.