Vue Weekly


Mexican: Beyond the ethnic aisle
Cooking Mexican the real way opens up a whole new world.

Jan Hostyn /

The easiest things are often the best."Those are the words of Ivonne Garces de Isla, owner and chef of Mexico Lindo. She was also, for a few hours one Tuesday night, my cooking instructor. Those words of wisdom were directed my way as I marvelled at the effect a mere chili pepper had on an otherwise fairly standard spinach salad."Sauté the chili in a bit of oil and use that oil in your salad dressing. It gives the salad a subdued, slightly smoky flavour, one that you don't usually find in a bowl full of spinach. And if you want the flavour to be even more assertive, sprinkle some crushed, dried chilies over the salad as you're tossing it."Yup, it was oh-so-simple but amazingly effective. And very good. And something I would never have considered throwing in a salad in the midst of one of my what-can-I-make-for-dinner-tonight-that's-quick-and-good-and-we're-not-totally-bored-of-yet conundrums.You see, I bake. Not quite in the exquisitely magnificent Art of Cake style, but I do okay. I even enjoy it.Cooking is a bit different. I do it because I have to—my kids need to eat, after all. Sometimes I'm even quite good at it; the cheddar and potato perogies I've been known to whip up come to mind. It's never inspired, though. I tend to revert to the tried and true—I grew up making perogies, after all. I'm quite adept at following a recipe, but I struggle with experimenting outside of my very limited comfort zone, especially when it comes to ethnic cooking. I needed a big dose of help and figured a real live cooking lesson might help. Kind of like Food TV, but where you get to do more than watch and your questions actually get answered. So when I heard Garces de Isla, the wizard behind Mexico Lindo, offers cooking lessons, I couldn't resist. Having a daughter who has recently added Mexican cuisine to her ever-expanding list of obsessions didn't hurt either.It turns out Garces de Isla doesn't really hold scheduled classes—if you're interested, give her a call and you can figure out what works together. Ideally, she likes to have a minimum of five people and prefers to run classes on Tuesday nights. The cost: $75 for two hours.I booked a night and, daughter in tow, arrived at the colourful little restaurant just as it was closing. Garces de Isla greeted us warmly and led us through the dining room, past the swinging doors and into the huge and spotless kitchen. A little table was set up near the back of the kitchen, complete with a multicoloured tablecloth, wine glasses and individual duo-tangs containing the recipes we were about to tackle.We passed on Garces de Isla's offer of wine and settled ourselves on our stools with some bottled water instead. Garces de Isla positioned herself at a long counter in front of us, surrounded by bowls and pans, knives and cutting boards.The cooking lesson had begun.

First up was a brief introduction to the origins of Mexican cuisine—tomatoes, chocolate and avocados all originate from Mexico—and then we got to work. Up first: nachos.Nachos sound simple and not very cooking-ish—but I learned simplicity can be good. It's all about what ingredients you use and how you combine them.We didn't pour the tortilla chips out of a big plastic bag, we fried corn tortillas to make fresh ones. And we didn't use a can of refried beans, we dumped some black beans into a blender and pureed them. Beans (Mexico boasts eight different kinds, all with their own nuances), cheese and the chips always form the base of the nachos. Then you throw on whatever you feel like. We tossed on some grated Monterey Jack cheese (they never use cheddar, it's not a Mexican tradition), a few jalapenos and a handful of tomatoes. Then the platter went in the oven, not the microwave (a place my nachos have been known to magically emerge from) because it can make the chips too crispy. The nachos reappeared once the cheese had gently melted. A profusely bubbling concoction with separated cheese is evidently not what you're after. Simple and interesting with some handy tips thrown in.We went on to make a Mexican salad, albondigas (meatballs) in salsa chipotle, pork with chili and plantains con crema.Between chopping and blending, I marvelled at how simple everything was. And again, Garces de Isla laughed and said, "Cooking is not difficult. You don't have to spend hours in the kitchen to make something good."Over the course of a couple of hours I learned how to prepare a few Mexican dishes. But what I found most fascinating were all the tidbits of information Garces de Isla was full of. While we were cutting corn tortillas into strips to fry and toss into the salad as croutons, I learned that, in Mexico, corn tortillas are the equivalent of our bread. And that there are over 150 kinds of chili peppers in Mexico—substituting one type of chili for another will totally change the flavour of a dish. And when you dry a chili, it gives it a bit of smokiness, changing the flavour yet again. And you can roast or boil chilis, changing them yet again.While we were putting together the albondigas, I learned that meatballs are very popular in Mexico. Adding a bit of cilantro, cooking them in salsa and then ladling everything over top of pasta will give you a Mexican twist on traditional Italian food. I also learned the secret of how to avoid "burping up garlic" is to simply pop the garlic heart out before doing your chopping or smashing. And if your salsa is a washed-out pink, that's simply because it's not cooked because cooking brings out the redness of the tomatoes.Finally, just as I was about to sample a raw slice of plantain before it was fried in butter and doused with brown sugar and cinnamon, Garces de Isla cautioned me, "Never eat it raw. You'll be bloated like a cow for three days."More than anything, Garces de Isla inspired me with her creativity and her passion. And she made everything look oh-so-easy. How it will translate in my own kitchen, well, only time will tell. But I have bought a can of chipotle peppers and some corn tortillas and I'm ready to find out. V


Gerardo Borbolla Alegria & Ivonne Garces De Isla

Mexico Lindo a happy accident

Jan Hostyn /

Just over two years ago, Gerardo Borbolla Alegria and Ivonne Garces De Isla were living in Mexico, the country where they were born and grew up. Today, they are the husband and wife team behind Mexico Lindo, a little Edmonton eatery with one incredibly huge kitchen.

When they first moved here two years ago, opening up a restaurant was not part of the master plan. The idea was to make authentic Mexican cuisine for people to take home. So Garces De Isla went to work in her little kitchen in their home and began making Mexican dishes, like burritos and flautas, to sell at the farmers’ market. She said that lasted for about 10 months and they just got too busy—they needed a bigger kitchen.

After a lot of searching, they ended up where there are now, in a little strip mall across from the Mayfield Inn. Not because they loved the location, but because it was the only place that would lease to them.

Since their ultimate goal was to sell their products to grocery stores, they built the huge kitchen as kind of a mini-factory and opened the restaurant as a way to showcase Garces De Isla’s cooking—kind of like a little side-adventure. Their target market was Ontario’s large Mexican population but, after putting everything in place, they found out that although they met provincial regulations, they didn’t meet federal ones. “If I wanted to sell outside of Alberta, I would have to change everything that is already set up.” That was out of the question, so now Garces De Isla is using that huge kitchen to cook for the restaurant and to fill the take-out cooler that prominently occupies one wall.

With a chef for a mother and a foodie for a father, Garces De Isla says she became interested in food early on. Her father cooked too and might have been even better in the kitchen than her mother. Garces De Isla said that when he disappeared into the kitchen, “We knew we were going to eat so well.”

Since her mom was more interested in cooking than teaching her to cook, she taught herself to bake at age nine—by using a cake recipe she found on the side of a bag of flour. Cakes were her specialty for a while and then, at 13 or 14, she started cooking. And she opened up her first restaurant—sort of. She says that they lived on a ranch and, wanting to make some money, she “put a sign in the kitchen window saying she was going to make breakfast.” And that’s what she did, every day for 2 months—“cooked eggs 30 different ways,” for 25 workers. She never did get paid for it, but it kept her busy.

She left cooking behind for a bit to get degrees in both communications and graphic design, and to spend some time in England and France. Now she’s gone back to cooking, both at the restaurant and at home. “Our food in the restaurant is exactly what we serve at home.” Authentic Mexican, not Tex-Mex.

“Most of the food is prepared with the colours of the Mexican flag.” That means lots of whites, reds and greens. She uses a lot of onions, tomatoes and chile peppers (many of which are green)—they can be found in almost every dish. But she says that using a few of the same ingredients certainly doesn’t make the cuisine boring. “It’s not just one kind of chile—there are tons.” And even subtle changes can make a huge difference. So Garces De Isla experiments. Instead of marinating the onion in vinegar, sometimes she’ll marinate it in orange juice. She said it mellows the acidic bite with a touch of sweetness and changes the complexity of the whole dish.

She also experiments with the specials, featuring a different lamb dish every Thursday.

Her enchiladas—a soft tortilla stuffed with either shredded chicken or feta cheese—are one of the most popular items on the menu. And no, not all enchiladas are the same. Garces De Isla says that even if two people cook the exact same recipe, “From hand to hand, it changes flavours. Even with the same ingredients, it won’t be the same.” That’s why she’s the only one who cooks at Mexico Lindo. “People like my cooking,” she says. And she makes everything at the restaurant—the tortillas, the salsas, the sauces, even the chorizo.

Passionate seems too subtle of a word to describe Garces De Isla. She talked about a lot of things and, with each new topic, she jumped up from the table, grabbed one of her many hefty and detailed books, flipped through the pages and launched into a little lesson. I learned about Mexican history, the endless varieties of chiles and salsas and a bit about spices: “Oregano has a nice flavour if you use it in the right amount. Too much—yuck, not so good.”

So Garces De Isla cooks and Borbolla Alegria looks after the customers. Working together and then going home together is an arrangement that is “sometimes good, sometimes bad.” But so far it works. And they have that huge kitchen, so they never have to be too close if they don’t want to be. V

Gerardo Borbolla Alegria & Ivonne Garces De Isla

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