Centro Mexican Kitchen (950 Pearl Street) has been through several incarnations and chefs over its sixteen years on the west end of Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall. It began as La Rhumba, a Caribbean-inspired rum bar, then became Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace before claiming a solid identity as a south-of-the-border eatery with a distinct Baja vibe and a roster of tacos, tortas and other street-style eats. With a new chef and sweeping changes to the culinary program, Centro is taking a bold step toward hyper-regional Mexican cuisine, a food movement that lets kitchens explore the nooks and crannies of areas outside the standard tourist zones and gringo-friendly cantinas.
Johnny Curiel took over as chef de cocina a few months ago and has just rolled out a new menu. Cu-riel’s life experience gives him a distinct leg up in the realm of hyper-regional cooking, with a childhood spent in both Breckenridge and Guadalajara, where he learned the restaurant trade from his family. His parents didn’t want him to follow in the family business, but he felt drawn to the kitchen. As Curiel re-calls, “I asked my dad if I could work in restaurants, and he said, ‘You can work for me and start as a dishwasher.’”
So at age fourteen, he was elbow-deep in soap suds, but he soon worked his way around the kitchen. While his roots gave him a foundation in the cuisines of Michoacán and Jalisco, it was culinary school in Mexico that gave Curiel a broader look at the country’s varied traditions. Over a three-year period, he visited 29 Mexican states, learning from chefs at the highest-caliber restaurants and studying rustic cook-ing at beachfront grills and in the kitchens of families in small towns. “I really want to showcase other regions of Mexico — where I’ve been, who I’ve worked with, my childhood,” he explains.
Centro is operated by Dave Query’s Big Red F restaurant group, where Jamie Fader helped launch Lola Coastal Mexican and is now culinary director. Fader notes that in addition to Curiel, he’s hired new chefs at Lola and at Zolo Grill in Boulder who have worked with Curiel in Denver restaurants and in Mexico, giving all three kitchens more depth and experience. Curiel’s résumé includes five years at Richard Sandoval restaurants in Denver, New York City and Washington, D.C, (among other cities), and two years under Troy Guard at Los Chingones, Mister Tuna and Guard and Grace.
The chef’s influence on the menu is immediately obvious in the names of various dishes and ingredi-ents. Hoja santa and epazote give their distinct herbal notes to a number of starters and large plates, which include tumbada (a rice-and-seafood preparation), zarandeado (a method of grilling whole fish), and a “fork and knife” burrito smothered not in Colorado-style green chile, but in Oaxacan-style mole negro. Curiel uses connections he’s had in Mexico for years to bring in regular shipments of fresh herbs and other hard-to-find ingredients.
The state of Oaxaca has had the biggest influence on Curiel’s current cooking style, and he’s spent considerable time there refining his recipes and techniques in recent years. A mole verde made with pepitas (pumpkin seeds), chiles, watercress and radish tops (along with many other greens and spices) shows how he’s taken traditional methods and made something new; this mole is vegan, unlike many other versions that rely on lard. Other parts of Mexico have also had a major impact. It was in Nayarit that he first saw cooks on the beaches preparing pescado zarandeado, whole fish — sea bream is used at Centro — split and slowly roasted over coals while a buttery marinade is applied. “The first time I saw and tasted it, it was a world-changer for me,” Curiel recalls.
Yucatán has also been a major influence, which shows in the achiote pork collar, slow-roasted in the tradition of cochinita pibil, though the meat comes out more like juicy pork chops infused with the vivid orange of annatto than the shredded Yucatán original. And if the sikil pak on the dish has you scratching your head, know that it’s a pumpkin-seed purée given a blast of heat from habaneros. Ask Curiel what his favorite new menu item is, though, and he’ll probably say the lamb barbacoa taquitos.
For Boulderites who aren’t quite ready to make the leap to new regions, Baja favorites like fish tacos and the hefty tacos perrones that Query discovered at a little joint called El Yaquí in the border town of Rosarito are still there, along with several other traditional tacos. Curiel has also added a vegan “chorizo” taco made with jackfruit and tofu that mimics the texture and spicy flavor of the Mexican sausage.
While Centro’s new menu is still in its infancy, the direction toward cuisine beyond the standard combo plates and cheesy melanges that dot the Front Range reflect Curiel’s readiness to move Mexican food forward in Colorado, something that’s needed as our population diversifies and ingredients become more available. Salud to that!