Last fall, Baruch Rabasa returned to his hometown of Mexico City to visit family. He’d recently given up his tenure as a private chef and, having helmed the kitchens at Atchafalaya and the now-shuttered Meson 923, he was unsure of his next professional move. What he was certain about, however, was where he wanted to eat in Mexico’s teeming capital city.
A bustling breakfast, lunch and dinner mainstay, Café de Tacuba has served street food snacks, or “antojitos,” like fresh taquitos, Oaxacan tamales and sopes to a loyal following since 1912. In the 1980s, Rabasa counted himself among that following—a regular who frequently sat with his father and grandfather beneath the restaurant’s soaring ceilings and brightly colored décor to chow down on comfort food like huevos rancheros with salsa verde.
“The minute I walked in,” Rabasa says of his 2014 visit, “I was like, ‘I want to do Mexican brunch in New Orleans.’”
The lanky 43-year-old leans back on a gray divan in the corner of the Franklin, the swanky Marigny restaurant and bar where he was recently named Executive Chef. It’s Sunday, which means the Franklin has been transformed into Chilango Nola—the successful pop-up Rabasa started here a few months after returning from Mexico City.
“Walking into Café de Tacuba, I thought, ‘This needs to be reinvented, or redefined, for New Orleans because all our brunch has pretty much gotten to a point where it’s played out,” he says. “Everybody’s doing the exact same things, whether it’s with crab or crawfish or boudin.”
The same can’t be said of Chilango, which made its debut last January. Today, bright and tangy ceviche arrives alongside steaming hot mugs of cinnamon-laced Mexican coffee. A crab tostada dish features two seemingly weightless miniature tortilla rounds piled high with lime-scented lump crabmeat. A flurry of slivered mango, radish and parsley, and daintily cubed beets balanced on top of the crab are offset by airy spoonfuls of guacamole beneath the almost bite-sized appetizer.
Mid-meal, Rabasa appears in the dining room to greet friends and keep a watchful eye on the delivery of various small plates, fresh juices and cocktails. As I slice into a kale and mushroom quesadilla and wonder what gave it its fluffed pastry-like consistency, Rabasa tells me about the woman who helped raise him and taught him to aerate the masa by hand until it can float in water.
Mildly sweet chicken taquitos alongside a tangle of frisee with lardons and poached egg follows—an appropriate recommendation from a guy wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “bacon gives me a lardon.”
“The best description I’ve ever heard about Mexican food is it’s a harmony of flavors,” he explains. “Which means that it’s a balance of sweet, salty, spicy and bitter. That’s why that salad works so well. You get the bitter of the frisee, you have the sweet chicken, you have the spicy guacamole and vinaigrette, you have the saltiness as a whole—you have all that poppin’ off. When food’s one-dimensional it just doesn’t do that, you know?”
While Rabasa’s adopted grandmother Sofia taught him the basics behind the masa and the salsa-based recipes he uses at Chilango, he draws on a variety of experiences for other elements of his menu. He began making ceviche as a kid when his family lived in Acapulco (they lived up and down Mexico’s Pacific Coast before relocating to the U.S. when Rabasa was in seventh grade, although each of his parents alternately maintained a home in Mexico during his high school years).
When he wanted to learn how to make carnitas, he went to street vendors in Mexico and asked them, day after day, in exchange for cash, to show him the ropes.
A Culinary Institute of America (CIA) alum, Rabasa is also trained in French cuisine, which he occasionally blended with Latin American flavors during a fellowship at the CIA’s Escoffier Room under chef Xavier LaRoux.
“The Chilango brunch was a huge success,” Franklin owner Patrick Finney recently said in an email. “Baruch brought a fresh and creative perspective on Mexican brunch without trying too hard to be esoteric.”
Finney said he and his team believed Rabasa could apply a similar perspective to the rest of the kitchen, using creative innovation while remaining “sensitive” to a New Orleans and French-inspired dinner menu.
This fall, both the Franklin and Chilango menus will undergo updates that reflect those ideals.
“For Chilango, we’ll try to incorporate a weekly special that visits culinary capitals in Mexico like Oaxaca and Puebla and translate them into a New Orleans brunch dish,” Rabasa says, noting that Oaxaca’s reputation as “the land of seven moles” and Puebla’s cattle-centric agriculture are likely to come into play.
The Franklin will focus on expanding the menu’s raw options, both fish and otherwise, while shifting towards the new ingredients that become available as the seasons change, Rabasa says.
Like the taquito dish, which now appears on both the brunch and dinner menus, Latin elements are likely to continue to surface in unexpected ways.
“I try to blend; I don’t try to do a fusion,” he asserts. “I just try to have it transcend different cultures and not be so stuck in one place.”
That said, Rabasa seems comforted by the fact that there’s a place for the flavors of his youth at the Franklin. He rattles off more street food—tamales, taquitos, sopes—and comes back to the fact that these were the dishes he was raised on, dishes he’s always loved.
“This is my oldest memory of food,” he says.