There’s a simple reason why Sean Brock decided to open a taco joint: he wanted to eat good tacos.
“I got really hooked on Mexican food when I came to Nashville to open Husk,” Brock says. “Everyone’s obsessed with this strip of taco joints on Nolensville Road. Sometimes I would go and eat like 10 in a day. When I came back to Charleston there was nowhere to get my fix. So, I decided for selfish reasons to open my own.”
Minero served its first taco on Fri. Oct. 3. In a city relatively free of cronut-like fads and — for a few more months, at least — brisket masters who sell out by mid-afternoon, diners here aren’t inclined to queue up to eat. Still, during Minero’s first week of operation, a line snaked out the door and down the sidewalk during the lunch and dinner hours.
The restaurant is situated on a three block stretch of East Bay Street that’s home to many of the long-standing fixtures of high-end Charleston cuisine: Magnolias, Cypress, Slightly North of Broad, High Cotton, and McCrady’s, the restaurant whose kitchen Brock took over in 2006. It was there that he perfected a signature blend of modernist techniques and local ingredients that earned him the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2010.
At Minero the narrow dining room has exposed brick walls lightened by a coat of whitewash, and a row of rustic tables with brown wood-slatted banquettes line each side. Behind the six stool bar along the short back wall rise two tall shelves bearing an impressive array of tequila and mezcal bottles. The servers dress in T-shirts and khakis, green aprons around their waists.
Tortillas are the foundation of the menu. They appear in six varieties of tacos, are incorporated with heirloom beans and chili into chilaquiles, and are served alongside bowls of chorizo-laced queso fundido. Traditional Mexican fare like red posole is joined by a few South-goes-South-of-the-Border mash-ups like shrimp and masa grits, Carolina Gold arroz rojo, and the Minero burrito, in which hoppin’ john is rolled together with avocado, poblano, and queso de Oaxaca.
Sixteen-ounce cans of Tecate, bottles of Bohemia, and a couple of entries from Mexican craft brewer Day of the Dead mingle with local brews from Westbrook and Holy City. There’s a house margarita, of course, made with dry curacao and a blend of reposado and anejo tequilas, and seven other crafty cocktails incorporate everything from mezcal to rye whiskey. It’s not just a taco-and-beer joint.
The Flavors of Mexico
Once Brock decided he was going to do Mexican food, he embarked on a course of immersion study. He and a small team from the Neighborhood Dining Group, which owns McCrady’s and Husk, headed down to Mexico City.
“I’d been before,” Brock says. “But not on a mission. This was a very focused, intense mission. We were getting up very early and staying up late, eating the whole time.”
Operations executive Dan Latimer was there alongside Brock, and he says they hit “a lot of street carts, a lot of markets, a couple of sit down restaurants.” They visited tortillerias, researched masa, and tossed around a lot of ideas for ingredients.
Back in Charleston, they bought a masa grinder and set up an R&D kitchen inside of McCrady’s, where a pilot team has been working full-time since May to perfect the recipes. Many of these, like the hot dog confit and deli ham torta, were directly inspired by their travels.
Hot dogs and processed ham from a Beard award winning chef? “It’s very common in Mexico City,” Brock says. “It’s what you see the construction people eating — people who need something fast and cheap to eat that will hold them through the day. Processed meats are very popular.
“I was walking the streets in Mexico City and I saw this huge line of construction workers all getting hot dog tortas and I thought it was one of the greatest things I ever saw.”
Brock’s version is composed in layers on a soft, fluffy roll. It starts with a base of sliced avocado followed by thick-sliced ham, a hot dog split in half, and then sliced tomatoes. The toppings get smaller and finer from there: thinly-shredded lettuce, shaved onions, then a sort of relish of finely minced carrots, peppers, and pickles and finally a generous dose of chipotle mayo.
It’s a sloppy, multi-napkin-soaking concoction, but amid the hearty excess, there’s plenty of nuance. The soft roll is griddled on a flat-top before all the ingredients are layered on, and that gives a crisp bite to the edges. Against the cool, creamy avocado and the soft meats, the bits of peppers and pickle add a little crunch and sparks of heat.
Then there are the charcoal-grilled chicken wings, which arrive at the table inside a brown paper sack. When the server arrives she grabs the bottle of hot sauce from the table, squirts a generous dose straight into the bag, and gives it a couple of vigorous shakes.
“If you go into a convenience store in Mexico City,” Latimer says, “they have a whole counter set up with bottles of Valentina [hot sauce].”
One day, they watched a woman buy three bags of potato chips, go over to the hot sauce counter, and open the top of each bag. “She crushed each one with Valentina and gave it to her kids,” Latimer says. “We’re like, ‘no way,’ and we went and tried it ourselves.”
Applied to chicken wings, it makes for a fine bit of tableside theater. When the server opens the bag and tumbles the finished wings out into the waiting bowl, a tempting aroma of smoke and sweetness and spice fills the air. The wings have bits of black char from the grill, and a generous layer of reddish spice has plenty of sweet and savory notes to balance the mild heat of the pepper sauce.
The cocktail list was also inspired by the flavors of Mexico City, and they bear the names of lucha libre wrestlers. El Satánico combines blanco tequila with yellow chartreuse, pineapple vinegar, and tepache, a fermented pineapple beverage sold by Mexican street vendors. Mr. Niebla is a mezcal variation of the paloma, with aperol joining the grapefruit soda, while the Dragón Rojo is tinged with “jamaica tea syrup,” a nod to agua de flor de Jamaica, the popular sweetened hibiscus tea.
A Little High, a Little Low
Those cocktails come to the table in elegant highball glasses, but if you tap one with a fingernail you’ll discover it’s made of clear, heavy plastic, not glass. That, in a nutshell, captures the fundamental tension between high and low, between fine dining and casual, that defines Minero.
That tension was evident at Husk when it opened in late 2010. At the time, it had more casual elements than were typically found in a high-end Charleston restaurant. Most diners managed to reconcile the notion of fried chicken skins and cast-iron skillets of cornbread in a fine dining setting, and the wave of ambitious “casual fine dining” restaurants that followed in Husk’s wake — the Macintosh, the Grocery, Two Boroughs Larder — have made it easy to forget that what Brock was doing back in 2010 seemed pretty bold.
At Minero, they’re blurring those lines between high and low once again. No reservations accepted. Paper napkins. Lightweight tan plates made of half bamboo and half melamine. But they’re only willing — or perhaps, only able — to go so far.
“It’s an incredibly beautiful 18th-century building with this beautiful brick,” Brock says. “You almost want to push toward that formal service. Because it’s in our blood, it’s hard for us not to do that. Since I was 19-years-old I’ve been in high-end restaurants only.”
“We tossed around doing counter service,” Latimer says. “We kind of settled in the middle with a casual table service.”
That service was carefully designed to achieve a level of informality without totally relinquishing control. A hostess greets patrons at the door, but instead of leading them to their table she assigns them a number (“You can sit at table 15”) and they find their own way, guided by the digits displayed on big white tiles on the wall above each table.
There’s no presentation of the menu (the half sheets of card stock await at the table) nor of napkins and silverware. Instead, each table has a slide-out drawer just above the diner’s knees that holds a stack of brown paper napkins and a mismatched assortment of funky vintage flatware — an idea Brock picked up when he visited Relae in Copenhagen.
The menu is the product of just as much thought and fretting over details. “The tacos are very, very composed,” Brock says. “We spent six months trying something new every day, and all of those things are just like we put a tasting menu together at McCrady’s.”
The results? Dishes like the pork carnitas taco, which has the typical shreds of slow-cooked pork shoulder but also boasts chunks of fatty jowl and a few chicharones — crisp fried pork rinds — that add two distinct and contrasting textures.
The green chorizo taco with potato and grilled onion is a traditional combination, but the single long spear is a confit potato that’s been griddled on one side until perfectly brown and crisp. It’s placed crossways across the brilliant green chorizo base with a single disc of grilled onion and a generous blanket of cilantro leaves on top. When you roll the warm tortilla around the fillings and take the first bite, there’s an intense burst of savory, tangy, minty, and meaty flavors, and layers of contrasting textures, too — a taco in which every element has been carefully orchestrated for maximum effect.
“Sean’s been obsessed with corn for a really long time,” Latimer says, and it’s that obsessive focus on ingredients that, more than anything, links the offering at Minero with that of McCrady’s and Husk.
“My personality is one that has to have the best of certain things,” Brock says. “I decided if we were going to do Mexican food, then it was going to be the most ridiculous tortilla I could make.”
And that meant finding the absolutely best corn possible. By coincidence, one of the first text messages Brock received after he landed in Mexico City was from Kate Barney, who had just partnered with Jorge Gaviria to launch Masienda, a purveyor of Mexican landrace corn. She had just started to sell her products to New York chefs who wanted to make their own tortillas.
“How did she know?” Brock wondered, for they were keeping the whole Mexican project under tight wraps. As it turned out, Barney was simply hoping Brock might be interested in buying some of her corn for grits.
“We tasted a baziliian different corns, and we chose a variety we thought was best,” Brock says. Currently, it’s a strain of white corn grown by a farmer in Uruapan, Michoacan, but Brock says he may switch things up over time. “I still have 30 more to continue tasting.”
But, finding the right corn is just the first step. The most important part of the process, Brock says, is nixtamalization, in which the kernels are soaked in an alkaline solution. That makes the hull easier to remove, increases the natural flavors, and, incidentally, makes the corn more nutritious by converting its niacin into a form that can be absorbed into the body. Most importantly for tortilla-making, nixtamalization allows the kernels to be incorporated into a cohesive dough.
“That was the hardest thing for me,” Brock says. “Understanding the nixtamalization process and the grinding. There are so many factors in there. If one is off, the tortilla is going to be dry and crumbly or its going to break or be rubbery. It’s like [making] a pie dough.”
It took Brock and his team a good six months to master the process. “I was documenting it like a scientist,” he says, “And that’s exactly what we were doing wrong. I was over-thinking it, weighing shit in grams and timing things with timers. The trick is just doing it a million times, just like making a skillet of cornbread or making biscuits.”
They take the dried corn and put it in a calcium hydroxide solution. “You cook that for a specific amount of time, then you soak it for a specific amount of time, then you rinse it for a specific amount of time. Then, as it’s being ground, there’s a specific amount of water [you add] that you can’t really measure — it’s like how long do you work the biscuit dough?”
The finished dough comes out of the grinder like warm Play-Doh, and that goes right into the tortilla press and from there onto the griddle. Minero makes tortillas twice a day, and they can serve as many as a 1,000 before they close the doors at the end of the night.
“It’s all pressed by hand,” Brock says. “For the amount of tortillas we make everyday it’s nonstop work, eight hours a day for two people … just making the base of the tortilla.
“The tortilla is like Husk cornbread,” says Brock. “This is everything to us. Once you’ve had a properly made one, you really can’t eat anything else.”
The same passion for ingredients and technique is applied to almost every element served on top of or alongside the tortillas. The chicken wings and taco meats, for example, are cooked on a charcoal-fired grill that is a smaller version of the Grillworks Inferno stainless steel number used at Husk Nashville. “We actually don’t even use the grill,” Brock says. “We cook directly on top of the coals. We have these mesh pans, essentially a mesh perforated saute pan. They load those pans up with the meats and place them directly down on top of the hot coals … You’re getting intense heat and intense flavor since you are right on top of it.”
The beans are ayocotes, the size and shape of large limas but deep purple in color and with a texture and heft that can only be described as meaty. They come from Napa, Calif.-based Rancho Gordo, which is trying to do the same thing for heirloom beans that Anson Mills is doing for grits and rice. “I tasted probably 50 varieties of beans to choose that one,” Brock says. “The tortillas and beans are the perfect examples of how we approach this project … We are going to make a statement and make it with the best ingredients we can find.”
But there are some notable exceptions to the heirloom ingredients and made-in-house mantra. The chipotle mayo on the hot dog torta, for instance, starts with Duke’s mayonnaise. Though Brock’s team at Husk makes their own hot sauce and ages it in bourbon barrels, at Minero each table is equipped with a big yellow-labeled bottle of Valentina, a leading Mexican brand made in Guadalajara.
Why use a mass-produced commercial brand of hot sauce? “The same reason that we use Duke’s mayonnaise and Benton’s bacon,” Brock says. “If someone else is doing it better than you can make it, let them do it.
“I am absolutely obsessed with Valentina,” he continues. “I know that flavor, those spice notes that go so well with the food. Why would I spend all this time trying to make something that already exists just to prove I can do it?”
Is Mexican the New New Thing?
Brock is not the only acclaimed chef who’s fascinated with Mexican food these days. Just last month, the New York Times chronicled René Redzepi, the chef at Copenhagen’s Noma, and his quest through Mexico in search of tacos, tortillas, and moles. Grub Street has coined a term for the growing roster of customers for Masienda’s imported landrace corn: “kernel-to-taco” chefs. And that raises the obvious question: Is Mexican food the next hot thing?
“I don’t see it particularly as Mexican,” Brock says. “I see it as comfort food and as soul food. Maybe people are starting to experience that for the first time. Once you get hooked on it — like barbecue — it’s all you want.”
As fine-dining chefs, though, they have to take it a step further. “You want your own version of it, your own iteration of it.”
In that context, Brock’s new obsession at Minero seems a logical extension of what he started at Husk: diving deep into a particular type of soul food with no holds barred, seeking out the best ingredients and experimenting relentlessly until landing on a version he’s willing to call his own.
“If you sit in Minero and eat,” he says, “you can almost taste Husk — with the charcoal, with the smoke, with those intense flavors.
“You take humble ingredients and either add smoke, or something cured, salted, or fermented — to add that one layer that can take something cheap and humble and make it very, very comfortable. To me, that’s poor people cooking … You see that in Mexico, you see that in Russia, you see that in Charleston. And, if you look at it that way, then there’s a common thread that kind of makes sense. It’s the emotional connection to simple humble food.”
But ultimately, the appeal of Mexican food for Brock seems less a matter of philosophy than one of passion. “There’s a certain way you feel when you are in a taco place,” he says. “It’s all about having a blast, really having fun — eating way too much, drinking way too much. Every time I go to Big Star in Chicago, I’ve been known to sit there for five or six hours. It’s the kind of place I want to hang out when I have a day off.”
Being of the sort of mind that always wants to connect three dots and call it a trend, I kept trying to push Brock on what Minero means in the larger context of the American culinary scene. Are we moving away from fine-dining for good, toward a more permanent casual style? Is high-end comfort food and soul food really going to be the in thing for years to come?
“I really don’t think about it too much like that,” Brock says. “Sometimes the wind blows a certain way and that affects your decision. I become obsessed with things. Who knows what will happen next?”
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