Nick Middleton started running a Cajun-themed pop-up outside of his Austin, Texas home last year. But Middleton grew up cooking Mexican food with his mother, and he changed course to create his Mexican-themed pop-up Grita Tacos (www.gritatacos.com), which operates in Austin and New Orleans. Middleton spoke with Gambit about Mexican food.
: How did you get into cooking Mexican food?
Middleton: We're originally from Brownsville, Texas. It's in the south, a border town. I moved to New Orleans and went to Loyola (University) pre-(Hurricane) Katrina and when the storm hit, I ended up moving to Texas for a bit. I ended up back in Austin and started running a few pop-ups, but the dream was always to get back to New Orleans.
I'm Hispanic, so I've been making Mexican food with my mom forever. We didn't really think of it as Mexican food. That was just what we ate. Everyone eats breakfast tacos everyday. Everyone cooks barbacoa on the weekends. My father has Louisiana heritage, so we always made a lot of gumbo, and when I got back (to Texas), I started running a Cajun pop-up out of my front yard. I was homesick for New Orleans, so for art exhibits and stuff like that I'd make a huge batch of gumbo and sell it there. At nighttime, I would make this big family meal for all the volunteers and everyone that helped out. ... I'd make moles and enchiladas and tomatillo salsas, and that ended up being as popular, if not more, as the pop-up. So I figured we were onto something.
: How do you split time between Austin and New Orleans?
M: There's a lot of driving, and it takes a really understanding partner. You kind of give up sleep. It's really half and half — the best of both worlds. The best thing has been (working with) brew partners. When I got back to New Orleans, I started talking to the folks over at Parleaux (Beer Lab), and I've done events at Courtyard (Brewery) and Wayward Owl (Brewing Co.). When I'm in Austin, I do a few events at breweries there. Our next event is at Wayward Owl (on Friday Oct. 13). We probably do about three events in New Orleans every month.
My signature dish is probably a mole. I've been making it since I was a kid. I really love changing people's opinions of mole. There's this notion of what mole should taste like: a lot of deep chocolate or something super sweet. The chocolate is really just there to balance out the all the chilies and the spice. It's a complementary thing; it's not the lead flavor. It's there to support the other flavors, like the roasted pumpkin seeds and chilies. My mole has 17 ingredients — kind of intense for a pop-up, since it takes about six hours.
: How does Mexican food differ from Austin to New Orleans?
M: New Orleans allows me to experiment a little bit more, so it's really a lot of fun because I can come in with wild ceviches and stuff like that. In Austin, people have a different standard for Mexican food. In New Orleans, Mexican food is underrepresented.
In New Orleans, you get a lot of standard (Mexican) dishes. But one of the things that New Orleans is moving toward is food that has more of a street-food feel. (As a child) we'd cross the border once a week with my parents, and that's all you eat. You don't go to fancy restaurants. You don't go to middle-of-the-road restaurants. You're eating from a guy that is at a stand making his own sauces, and has his wife and kids cooking with him. That's the real food; that's what's really good and underrepresented.
I think Mexican food is moving toward more high-end dishes. ... I hope it will help alter people's perception of what Mexican food is.