At Cook + Schmid we take research seriously. We’re helping a client launch a new restaurant in San Diego, and to understand the roots of the concept and the unique perspective of its owners I traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico where I spent a little less than 24 hours cramming in as much food, er research, as possible.
As chance would have it (honestly), it was just a few days before Halloween and my guide, Roberto, had planned our search for real Mexican food – including a regional dish called vampire tacos. Roberto insisted on taking me to sample just about every other Guadalajara delicacy first, leaving the vampire tacos for our last, late-night stop on a long gustatory tour.
Living so close to the border in San Diego, we’re inundated with Mexican food, but it’s mostly tacos and burritos. Once you get past the immediate border region, you’ll find a rich diversity of dishes that you just don’t see here. I’ve enjoyed great food in Tijuana but Guadalajara has its own, unique style.
It’s important in a crowded marketplace to find a way to differentiate our client’s culinary offerings from other eateries that serve Mexican food. We’ve done a fair amount of tasting in San Diego but this is indeed different – and I was about to experience just how different it is.
Our first stop was a carne asada joint. Guadalajara prides itself on the thinly sliced beef cooked on a grill over an open fire and volcanic rocks. As the meat cooks, the drippings create smoke that’s an important part of the flavor profile. Just a bit of salt is the only other seasoning required. Since the meat is so thin, it cooks quickly and your order arrives in a matter of minutes. This food is simple and delicious. The only accompaniments are grilled onions, beans and tortillas. Condiments consist of a variety of brightly colored, super-fresh salsas based on green and red chiles, with cilantro and onions. There is also a guacamole with a thinner consistency than is normal north of the border, and it also has a bit of a kick to it.
Next we went to the San Juan de Dios Market. This is an enormous, sprawling, crowded three-story public market that surely should rank as one of the wonders of the world. You can buy anything from cowboy boots to saddles to jewelry to live songbirds. But we were here for the food.
Butcher shops, cheese stalls, vegetable and fruit stands could all be found in abundance. Sausages, chicken breasts and every internal organ imaginable — hearts, livers, kidneys — is on display.
The food court on the second floor was crowded with stalls serving prepared food ranging from seafood, to menudo tripe stew, to birria goat stew. No vampire tacos – yet.
One thing was clear. Guadalajara residents like their food fresh, simple, and cooked right in front of them. No need for complex recipes, artificial flavors or preservatives. This is real Mexican food. Interestingly enough, this authentic cuisine fits perfectly with U.S. tastes as more consumers turn away from typical fast, over-processed food that has dominated casual dining. Fast, casual and healthy is a great positioning point for our client that connects them to a growing trend.
Next stop was Karnes Garibaldi, putative holder of the Guinness world record for the fastest restaurant service — 13 seconds. Karnes Garibaldi specializes in carne en su jugo — a sort of slow cooked beef stew. Kind of like a French dip sandwich without the bread. The ingredients include beef, crispy bacon, onions, garlic and beans. Toppings include fresh chopped onions and cilantro. The meat is soft and the beans still have some firmness. All the flavors from the ingredients come together beautifully in a delicious broth.
It was dark now and we sped around the narrow streets of Guadalajara to a place my guide was sure had tacos vampiros. We pulled into a parking spot in front of what looked like an abandoned shop with a griddle set up in front. A surprisingly upscale crowd sat at the flimsy tables adorned with plastic tablecloths. Tacos vampiros derive their name from the very thin slice of beef, resembling a bat wing, that’s cooked on the griddle. The beef is laid on a warm, soft, tortilla with frijoles aguados, or watery beans, onions and salsa. I rolled the tortilla up and ate it like a rolled taco. I usually don’t like beans in my tacos, but these had a great flavor that complemented the beef perfectly.
That was all the fight (research) I had in me for the night and I waddled up to my hotel room to collapse on the bed. I awoke the next morning refreshed and with my appetite renewed. We only had a couple of hours before my flight, which was just enough time for one more special treat — tortas ahogadas — another uniquely local Guadalajara dish. These lomo (pork) sandwiches are served drenched in a tomato-based broth with onions on top. The best tortas ahogadas are served on local bocadillos – also outstanding. Legend has it that nowhere else in Mexico can they create rolls this good. They have a crisp crust with soft white bread inside.
That was it, 22 hours and eight quick, casual meals. What did I learn from this ethnographic research that could be applied to our client’s branding? What aspects of Guadalajaran cuisine did our client reflect that would resonate with U.S. consumers? First of all, while speed of service is valued among tapatíos, as native Guadalajarans are known, quality of food and freshness are equally important. Second, you don’t need to go to an upscale restaurant to get excellent food. Third, focus on one thing and do it well. Fourth, fresh, simple food can be healthy, fast and delicious. These are all attributes that should translate well for San Diego and I’m confident our client’s timing for opening a Guadalajaran restaurant is perfect.