The past few years have been great for Latino chefs: Dominican-born Amar Santana of Vaca in Costa Mesa placed second in the latest Top Chef; Ecuadorian-American Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, along with her husband, won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northwest for the Argentine-inspired Ox in Portland, while Hugo Ortega did the same in the Southwest for his namesake Houston spot. And San Francisco’s La Taqueria got a James Beard America’s Classics award – essentially, the Hall of Fame for American restaurants – for its legendary Mission-style burritos.
But even as the accomplishments pile up, there are plenty more Latino chefs waiting for some national love. The following five deserve to go big in 2018, but let’s just jump into the list, because I’m already hungry thinking about all these spots.
Eater named her 2018’s “Chef to Watch” thanks to her Chicago restaurant Mi Tocaya Antojería, where Dávila practices Midwest-Mex – think cheese curds and nopales, or beef tongue slathered in a peanut butter salsa that you better not call agringado since cacahuates come from Latin America.
She’s the second generation of her family to operate a Mexican restaurant in Chicagoland, and Dávila ain’t shy about challenging perceptions of what Mexican food should be. She’s thrown shade at Windy City god Rick Bayless in the past, and in the Eater profile that accompanied her “Chef to Watch” honor, Dávila said her food is “made by a real Mexican mom, not some guy who maybe went on a trip because his investors told him his next place was going to be a Mexican joint.” More savagery like this, por favor!
More Chicago talent, except Diaz now cooks in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he and his business partner Charlie Ibarra practice Sur-Mex (collard green tamales, craft beer-braised carnitas) at Jose and Sons.
Even better is Diaz and Ibarra’s latest spot, The Cortez, which the local alt-weekly recently praised for its “fresh flavors and trippy vibes.” In other words: locally caught seafood prepared as Peruvian ceviches, Mexican aguachiles, and Cuban ajo goodness.
Rene "Ray" Ramirez
The Salvadoran-American chef put it best to Vice last year about his luscious Texas-style brisket: “If Franklin Barbecue uses this high-quality meat, why can’t I serve that exact same stuff here in the ‘hood?”
He smokes his meat for 16 hours at Ray’s BBQ in Huntington Park, just outside Los Angeles. Ramirez is a reminder that Latino chefs don’t always have to cook “Latino” food (although Tejanos will say brisket is as Mexican as chorizo). His Meatman Burrito (brisket, pulled pork, cheese-stuffed sausage, mac ‘n’ cheese and BBQ beans) offers panza-stuffing food for three days, but it’d be great to see a brisket pupusa one day – let Salvadoreños have some Texas fun, you know?
Nestled in Boston’s Italian enclave (known as the North End) is Taranta, a charming Italian storefront with surprising Peruvian flourishes – a luscious orecchiette finished in ají amarillo, chewy yucca gnocchi and even paiche, a gargantuan Amazonian fish flakier than cod and prepared Italian-style.
The fusion is courtesy of the Peruvian-born Duarte, who also offers pisco and sustainably grown Peruvian wines. Beyond great food, Duarte has also worked to make his restaurant carbon-neutral, leading to Tartanta getting named one of the greenest restaurant in the United States. It’s a shame Duarte hasn’t gotten more fame outside of Beantown in his 17 years there.
Granddaughter of immigrants who opened a famous chain of Cuban restaurants in the Miami area, Andrade has stood out from the glut of Latin restaurants in South Florida with Finka Table & Tap, which takes a gastropub approach to Latin America and Korean cuisine with items like Cuban bibimbap.