This September, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, El Carlos Elegante is adding a half-dozen dishes to its menu that highlight Mexican street food and the foods developed to feed the working class, illustrating how these dishes can reach fine dining heights. It’s an approach not unlike French and Italian cuisine, with roots in dishes developed to feed the poor. Yet in the U.S., these cuisines often fetch higher prices and are granted higher status than Mexican foods. Diners will see lamb mixiotes — popularly associated across the country with Mexican Independence celebration and served with tortillas — alongside prawn aguachile with salsa negro done Jalisco-style, brisket sopes from Guanajuato, and more.
While the special menu is available for a limited time, its selection of dishes reveals the constant question driving the kitchen at El Carlos Elegante: How can we get people in Texas to appreciate, or even respect, Mexican food — beyond Tex-Mex?
To explore this question, it helps to know more about the kitchen staff. Leading the team is chef Ivan Aguilar, whose background is in European-style cooking, with stints at such restaurants as the now-closed Michelin-starred Spanish spot Andanada in New York City under chef Manuel Berganza. Though Aguilar was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, El Carlos Elegante is his first time working with Mexican cuisine as a professional. With that consideration, Aguilar has strongly collaborated with his team of chefs: Cristina Lara, of Guanajuato, and Enrique Martinez, from Oaxaca. Aguilar tells Eater Dallas that the process revealed the diversity of flavor profiles across Mexico. Together, the kitchen team shares the goal of demonstrating that Mexican cuisine, in all its forms, deserves the same value and respect as high-end Japanese or European cuisines.
“The steps of service, the music, the lighting, the design — all make El Carlos feel elevated,” Aguilar says. “It helps give us the opportunity to show people that ethnic food doesn’t have to be cheap, easy, or fast food. It has the same, and sometimes more, complexities than Eurocentric food.”
The team was inspired by the methods of Japanese chefs, Aguilar says, who established sushi as a luxury by carefully educating customers in painstaking preparation methods. “It’s an ‘unspoken fight,’ in quotes,” he says, within the fine dining world, where specific cuisines aren’t awarded equal value based on arbitrary criteria — often tied to racist and classist views.
El Carlos’s “One-Hitter” menu, with single bites that are smaller than an appetizer, includes a tuna toro dish currently served with avocado, gooseberry, and salsa macha, and a surf-and-turf taco with prime beef layered with caviar served on a crispy shell. The quality of the ingredients and size of the servings are comparable to the best sushi dishes, Aguilar says, reflecting his aim to reset diners’ expectations around what Mexican cuisine should look like and cost.
The chefs also found themselves diving into the country’s Indigenous roots. Aguilar references the Mayans and Aztecs as a starting point, the descendants of whom carry on traditions like using maize to make tortillas and tamales or cactus to make fermented drinks, as well as cultivating avocados, chocolate, and chiles — still considered dietary staples today.
“Our dishes [at El Carlos] don’t look like they would historically,” Aguilar says. “They’ve evolved from that to our interpretations of these cultures that aren’t quite our own — but they’re ours more than anybody else’s.”
Traditionally, a metate, a stone vessel, is used to grind nixtamalized corn (corn soaked in an alkaline solution, traditionally mineral lime). “A hundred years ago, my grandmother had [a metate] in her house,” Lara says. El Carlos’s team can’t make enough food using that ancient tool to serve a restaurant full of people daily, so they’ve adapted a method using volcanic rocks to prepare masa. “At the end of the day, our most Indigenous ingredient is the masa — it’s what makes Mexico,” Aguilar says. “Most of the kitchen is from Central and Southern Mexico. I’m from the North. Our families all recognize the masa as a Mexican dish.”
The masa — used in everything from tortillas to tamales — not only highlights Indigenous cooking techniques but also serves as a vessel for dishes that lean into the journey on which the chefs want to take diners. Aguilar has learned that it requires a lot of labor. El Carlos has two staffers, who Aguilar calls “the masa sisters from Jalisco,” making masa in the morning and two more at night. Meanwhile, two sauciers produce nearly 40 different sauces — more, Aguilar says, than the pasta-makers and sauciers at Oriole in Chicago or the Modern in New York, where he previously worked. “We’re starting about 100 labor hours behind our sister restaurants [in the Duro Hospitality Group, which include the Charles, Sister, and Mister Charles], between the masa production, the masa shaping at night, and all the sauces that we have,” he says. “We’ve changed our entire business model to do these things,” he says, describing the staffing structure, scheduling, and how kitchen prep works, including all-day mole-making sessions under the purview of Lara, who Aguilar credits with perfecting the profile of that sauce.
El Carlos’s mole has a history that stretches back to before the restaurant’s opening; the mole served at that time was an interview dish prepared by Aguilar that was close to a mole negro with Pueblan roots. The team has since built on that mole, incorporating local ingredients and establishing a mole that’s unique to El Carlos’s kitchen. “Unfortunately, we’re not in Mexico,” Aguilar says. “So if we were to do mole Puebla when we’re not in Pueblo or any of the seven moles from Oaxaca when we’re not there, the ingredients aren’t the freshest to us.”
Ingredients are fed into the mole over time to cultivate it. When it’s down to 50 percent of a batch, the kitchen staff mix up a new batch (each is between 20 and 24 quarts) and blend the two, combining ingredients based on what’s available seasonally. Currently, the mole reflects more than 30 ingredients that, over three seasons and 10 months at the restaurant, have included several dry chile varieties, peppers, apples, nuts, and dried fruits, to name a few, all creating different flavor profiles. “We have a joke with new serving staff that if they have any allergies, they can’t have the mole,” Aguilar says.
Aguilar ensures that his team members get credit for their contributions to the restaurant. The menu sports a host of family recipes that have been handed down through generations, and ingredients and ideas that are so thoroughly tied to one chef’s vision that the end product is distinctly their dish; currently, plates on the list include Cristina’s Molotes (similar to fried empanadas — the stuffed dumpling of Mexico — with chorizo) and Diana’s Ceviche. A second mole is also rooted in a recipe handed down from Lara’s grandmother and mother that she describes as containing her “joy, passion for work, and memories of my family.”
These family contributions and adoption of local ingredients by Mexican chefs living and working in a Texas kitchen are starting to move the needle toward a greater respect for Mexican cooking. While there is no single answer to the question of what it means to cook Mexican cuisine, this menu attempts to highlight some of the many answers through food. For Aguilar and his team, it’s about reframing how Texans view Mexican food.