Oaxacan Elegance Is the Highlight at This Mexican American Pop-Up

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three colorful plates of food, including pan seared duck, are on display at Low Bar in Oakland
Elegant dishes, such as the pan seared duck breast (center) and memelas de cecina (left), are Provecho's main attraction. (Alan Chazaro)

¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region's culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.

Mexican food in the United States often gets simplified into a handful of basic, delicious categories: tacos, burritos and maybe tamales or enchiladas.

But if you peel away the regional layers of Mexican cuisine, you’ll begin to discover the limitless multiverses that exist. Corn or flour tortillas? Salsa-bathed burrito or grilled? Corn husk or banana leaf to wrap your tamales? Stewed or deep fried chicharron? And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. In truth, Mexico is one of the most complex culinary regions of the world: Each pueblo or city has its own palate of flavors, techniques and local ingredients.

Perhaps more than any other region, Oaxaca is a delicious microcosm of this wildly vast kaleidoscope. From specialty sauces like Oaxacan black mole to pizza-like tlayudas, Oaxaca is viewed, within Mexico, as the country’s gem of culinary tradition, serving dishes that can only be found along the country’s southern coast.

As the rich flavors of Oaxacan food have gained an international following, chefs like Ramirez who have familial ties to that region feel an even deeper connection to the cuisine — and a desire to maintain the area’s indigenous history.

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“It’s about pride, hella pride,” says chef Eder Ramirez, who runs a Oaxacan-inspired food pop-up, Provecho, around the Bay Area. “As soon as I think about what it means to be Oaxacan, culturally, it’s pride. Our food is a part of that.”

Chef Eder Ramirez stands in the kitchen while giving a peace sign
Chef Eder Ramirez showcases his pride inside Low Bar's kitchen. (Alan Chazaro)

His boldness and passion for Oaxacan traditions come across in the risks he takes in the kitchen. Known for experimentally-savvy dishes like confit leg of lamb with mint mole or pilte de pollo envuelto en yerba santa (chicken marinated in Mexican mother sauce, wrapped in yerba santa and encased in banana leaf), Ramirez is putting a multicultural, Northern Californian touch on family favorites.

I linked up with the Bay Area-based Oaxaqueño to learn about his connection to his homeland and how he uses Oaxacan inspiration to feed his community. Like Mexicans always say before enjoying a delicious meal, “provecho.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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KQED: How would you explain Oaxacan food for those who are unfamiliar with that region of Southern Mexican cuisine? We’re not just talking about tacos and burritos here.

Southern Mexican food is personally my favorite. Oaxaca, but also the Yucatan. They have so many wild things that most people don’t know about — wild flavors. It’s special. They’re not heavily colonized so they’re not filled with bread and tons of fat. It relies more on herbs and freshness. It’s not as greasy. It’s floral. It’s hoja santa, hoja de agucate. It’s the difference of our pipian [a mole-like paste that uses pumpkin seeds and puréed greens] from others. Our pipian uses hoja santa. We also like to use guajes [river tamarind]; it’s a long pod, like a bean, but it’s a seed. These flavors are so unique. They almost seem foreign. That’s Oaxacan food for me.

What’s your connection to Oaxaca and how do you use that to inspire your work as a chef who serves a mix of clientele in the Bay Area?

I’m from Madera in Central California — I was born here [in California] but got family over there [in Oaxaca]. I have immediate family there, in the Mixteca region. It’s funny, I have this one inspiration, Enrique Rivera, who was one of the first to put Mexican food on TV. He said, “I don’t need to make my grandmother’s dish.” I feel the same. He inspired me to think about Mexican food as something that can be elevated, not just tacos. At its core what I’m making is Oaxacan, but I’m also Californian. They are similar places in many ways. It’s about being resourceful with the bounty around you. Nowadays, everyone is getting their culinary game from Oaxaca. There’s a lot of hype for that region. But I didn’t know how special it all was until I left my home.

a white plate of raw tuna fish with floral and fruit garnishes
Tuna, passion fruit leche de tigre, kumquat and gooseberries are an example of elevated Oaxacan inspiration. (Alan Chazaro)

When did you fall in love with cooking? When did it become your profession?

Growing up, I always helped my grandmother — most of my family grew up doing farm labor — but my grandma was in the kitchen, making masa. I saw it as a chore. Once I arrived in the Bay Area in 2007, when I was 21, I started cooking for myself. Simple things: Trader Joe’s groceries. I was fresh here in San Francisco, a typical 20 year old, eating out. Going to the Mission to eat Mexican food — Farolito, Guadalajara. It felt different to me. What hit is that the Mexican food here just wasn’t the same. I don’t want to talk shit, but in the Valley, it’s a straight influx of Mexicans. It tastes like home cooking. Here, it didn’t feel like that to me. So I called my mom and spoke with my grandma to ask how to make certain dishes.

Around that time, I moved into a vegan household. I started trying more things, using meat substitutes. There weren’t too many vegan restaurants at the time back then. My journey started because I needed to cook for myself. How do I make a chile relleno but vegan? It pushed me to make food that is supposed to be super fatty but making it healthy. How do you do that? It was all home cooking.

I came to the Bay to do art, and I consider myself to be an artist still. I bounced around until a chef friend of mine invited me to work with her in 2016 at B Restaurant and Bar. They were doing oyster events, and it was all Mexicans and Central Americans in the kitchen. They took me in and put me on. I was watching YouTube; I didn’t go to culinary school. I was very creative and I wanted to learn. I get nerdy and obsess over things I want to become good at. The chef there gave me a chance as a line cook. I learned each day by just jumping in headstrong, without any formal training in restaurants.

After that, it felt really cool. It took off and I blossomed from there. My friends who were doing art shows asked me to sell food at their events. You just gotta have that Bay Area grind mentality where you’re working but also doing side work. I came up with a quick name [at the time]: Cocina Maiz. After that it became something I really liked and I started popping up regularly at Eli’s Mile High Club. If you want it, you can go get it. I just made it happen.

You add dashes of fusion to your dishes. What are some examples of dishes you’ve made that explore these cultural remixes, and why is that important to you?

Technique is important. Watching my grandmother and remembering her cooking process — if you’ve been to a rancho, that is hard work. Making masa? That’s so much labor. And that’s just one aspect. You also have salsas and all that stuff. I gained all that growing up. Once I started working in other spaces, I began to learn other tools and techniques, like French fine dining or fast casual. That involved OG French brigade style. I learned about new things I was capable of making.

My oxtail dish, for example, that’s a very French thing to do. It’s braised with mezcal. I grew up eating caldo de res with bones in the soup. That’s Mexican. But the French thing to do is cutting it lengthwise and maybe add green sauce. I found that to be cool, but how would I do that with Mexican rice? So I made lamb chops with green mole — that felt European to me, lamb chops with mint sauce. Mexicans eat lamb, too — barbacoa, birria. But it’s prepared differently. We grew up eating borrego cooked in holes in the earth. But how can I do that in other contexts, Americanized? You’re constantly translating. You’re using other techniques for these things.

I just also happen to love Japanese food, so I allow that to pop up as tempura Baja tacos. There’s a lot of intersection with other cultures, and I want that to hit on that. I’m always trying to figure out how to do shit I like and bring that over into Mexican food without making it look like a Chevy’s (laughs).

a blue plate displays a Oaxacan empanada, which resembles a Mexican quesadilla
Provecho's Oaxacan empanada is a quesadilla with quesillo and pistachio salsa macha. (Alan Chazaro)

You use the phrase “Native powered” on social media. I’m drawn to it. What does that concept mean for you?

There’s different areas in Oaxaca. There are about eight areas. The two biggest groups are Mixtec and Zapotec. You’ll see lots of villages speaking indigenous languages there. My parents weren’t taught Mixteco, but I had family members who spoke Mixteco and Trique, which is a dialect of Mixteco. So I grew up around that. But because of heavy racism in the States, I felt ashamed of these things. I wouldn’t even want to wear my huaraches. Unless you have a strong circle of elders to tell you it’s OK, most of us don’t feel connected to those traditions here in the U.S. We don’t have the time to articulate our feelings.

It wasn’t until I got older and started educating myself, reading and researching about people who resisted. That’s what native powered means to me. A resistance. In the U.S. and Mexico, we don’t always see ourselves as indigenous. Some “Whitexicans” might want to claim their Spanish side more. But for me, Mexico is the world’s biggest reservation. Once you delve past the ritzy hotel towns, you see what it is. Once you get to these areas, you get to your ancestors. Milpas are where you grow corn, beans, squash — replenishing the Earth without destroying the soil. It’s the way to grow symbiotically. It’s everywhere in Mexico, and it looks like a mess, but it’s synergy.

That’s all about education, sharing, representation, connecting with the youth. Everyone has their gifts. We are byproducts of our ancestors, and it’s ingrained in our DNA to know certain things. They’re memories passed on. My way of teaching or showing or offering to others is to preserve culture, and for me, it’s through food. It’s gonna be Mexican as fuck.

Memelas are a common Oaxacan dish you make. What are they?

I didn’t eat memelas growing up. I serve them, but because, since when you talk about Mexican food there’s so many regions, this is Oaxacan. When you get to Oaxaca, it goes even further into more regions. You have your moles, tlayudas, memelas, mezcal. That’s Oaxaca to most people. But every region in Oaxaca has their own ways of doing all of this.

Memelas are like picadas, or picadas Veracruzanas. It’s a thick tortilla with pinched sides, almost like a sope [a Mexican dish of a fried masa with mixed toppings; imagine an open-faced pupusa]. [Memelas are] even thinner, with pinched sides and a canal in the middle. You can eat them for breakfast or lunch. You add a little bit of oil and a Oaxacan lard mixed with pieces of chicharon, called asiento.Then some salsa y queso. I wanted to bring that, I wanted that to be my shit. My menu rotates, but I was told I should keep an item or two for consistency. Memelas are here to stay, and they’re Oaxacan.

How has the Bay Area influenced your cooking as a Mexican American?

It’s not something I overtly think about, but it’s inherent in where I am. I’m using ingredients that are grown an hour north of me, in the North Bay. I get my fish from this region, too. And these things I make? They are sometimes a little extra. I’m doing a smoked pork belly taco… c’mon that’s extra as fuck. And what’s more extra than Bay Area culture? Bay Area culture is the most. You gotta have attitude; it’s not for the meek. You gotta have sazon in your energy. I can be calm and super chill, but when I do food, I am the most. I eat food like a motherfucker. Eating in East Oakland, everywhere.

You just get influenced by friends, by love, by your surroundings, and that’s all the Bay: this beautiful landscape. You drive past that gnarly part of the [Highway] 80 near Emeryville, then there’s this fuckin’ beautiful water right next to you. I pay a tax to be somewhere dope, and this place provides that. It shows up in what I cook.

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Provecho rotates locations weekly. Tuesdays at Low Bar (2300 Webster St., Oakland) from 5 p.m. until sell out. One Friday every month at Cry Baby (1928 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) from 5 p.m. until sell out. Supper Club, in Rockridge, is Ramirez’s monthly underground food event; limited tickets must be purchased in advance. He also serves private meal orders.