Like a kid let loose in a candy store, I was an adult with a penchant for chimichangas and churros let loose in a Mexican restaurant.
Janet and Fernando Bravo, owners of Made in Mexico in Bradford West Gwillimbury, recently took me into the kitchen at their restaurant, which also has locations in Newmarket and Barrie.
The couple have spent the last seven years, since opening the first Made in Mexico in Newmarket, perfecting family recipes and experimenting with new ideas and ingredients straight from the streets of Mexico for their customers.
With that in mind, Fernando is quick to make the distinction that Made in Mexico is authentic.
“We’re not Tex-Mex. We’re 100-per-cent Mexican,” said Fernando, who is from Mexico.
“We get compared a lot (to other restaurants) to who’s more authentic,” added Janet.
“Everybody’s perception of Mexico is different. You eat in the resort, that’s not Mexican food. You gotta hit up those stands outside the hotels.”
One of the best meals she ever had in Mexico was carnitas, a pulled pork, from a stand next to a bus station, she said.
“Each region, each area makes different things,” she said. “When we travel, our focus is how many restaurants (we can get to). See what’s new, see what’s exciting, so we can play with it.”
Some of Fernando’s relatives in Mexico send recipes and ingredient ideas for Made in Mexico, he said.
At home, his family spends a lot of time cooking together on their days away from the restaurant, and it is something Fernando said he grew up with, as one of five kids.
“I was in charge of the salsas,” he said. “You get to cook every day in Mexico with your mama.”
“What I’ve learned to appreciate about Mexican cooking — it’s passed down,” said Janet. “It’s this way of doing things. We had to really finetune recipes (for the restaurant). I can make something, and he comes along with a pinch of something and it just explodes (with flavour).”
Although the restaurant serves up some authentic “street food” from Mexico, the most popular items are burritos and other more familiar items in Canada, said Fernando.
“They’re the No. 1 seller here. If we’re going to do burritos, we’re going to do it my way,” he said.
Rather than chicken, chopped iceberg lettuce, salsa and sour cream, like at a typical Tex-Mex restaurant, the food offers up a wide variety of fresh ingredients — steak, adobo chicken, chorizo, fish, shrimp, lobster, ooey-gooey cheese, homemade adobo and mole sauce, beans, different types of rice, handmade flour and corn tortillas, pico de gallo, tortilla chips made fresh every day, and more.
Made in Mexico also offers vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options on its new, simplified menu, launched this month, which will offer specials every weekend and on Mexican holidays. Next up is Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16, and then Day of the Dead on Nov. 2.
In the kitchen at Made in Mexico, staff are busy at work getting ready for the day — making tortilla chips, frying up handmade tortillas, rolling out the dough for empanadas, refrying beans, cutting up onion cilantro, and preparing other ingredients for the day.
Fernando takes out a few cheese empanadas — he often gets up early to make them himself — that kitchen manager Jim Turner finished up that morning, and he tosses them into the fryer.
Presented with a basket of perfectly browned and crispy empanadas, I was suddenly famished. Restraining myself, I bit into one of them and cheese oozed out. Just delicious.
And as if they had done it a 1,000 times before, Fernando and Turner whipped up some other meals for a taste test, including a Mexican quesadilla with a side of refried beans and Mexican rice, and jalapeno sauce to drizzle over the chicken that added a kick — but for a spice wimp like me, it was not too hot.
The chicken alambres was probably my favourite — the adobo chicken was to die for, mixed with bell peppers, onions and cheese in fresh corn tortillas. The meal was topped off with a side of lime-and-cilantro rice and frijoles charros, a hearty soup featuring beans, chorizo, onions, the Mexican herb epazote, and more.
We finished off with a couple divine cinnamon-sugar-covered churros dipped in caramel sauce.
As customers came into the restaurant, I tried to stay out of the way as staff put together plates of food — flautas with salsa verde, open-faced huarache, and enchiladas with green and red sauce.
It all looked so good, it is amazing to me Janet and Fernando are able to serve customers without nibbling off their plates.
But Janet points out she was pregnant with their son, Christian, when they were creating a menu for their first restaurant — perfect timing for a hungry mom!
Fernando also has two children, Romina and Fernando Jr., who have been involved with the restaurant.
Romina even appeared with Fernando on an episode of You Gotta Eat Here, which filmed at the Newmarket location for two days — the first day was all behind the scenes in the kitchen, and the second day was interviews with customers.
“I was terrified (about being on camera) when they were doing the show. It was supposed to be (just) my daughter. The guy, (host John Catucci), was amazing. It was super, super fun.” said Fernando.
After that episode aired, the restaurant was busier than ever, but it is used to having lineups ever since it opened, said Janet.
“We thought, ‘Let’s do something small,’ and it kind of exploded from there. We opened with a lineup waiting to get in,” she said.
Made in Mexico is now also on the Skip the Dishes app and gets a lot of takeout orders, Janet said.
She said they take customer feedback very personally and try their best to cater to each person’s needs — even creating heart-shaped churros for a couple who held their wedding reception at the restaurant.
Janet and Fernando are now considering franchising Made in Mexico and are always open to expanding into another community, she said.
“It’s a lot of work, (but) we enjoy what we do,” Fernando said. “It can be really, really fun."