AMHERST — Antonio Marquez Diaz grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he was a restaurant owner. Now Diaz is making a home for himself and his family in the Pioneer Valley, and is looking to change how people view his home country and its cuisine.
Diaz’s new restaurant, Mexcalito Taco Bar, which opened in the former Rao’s Coffee space at 17 Kellogg Ave. this summer, serves almost exclusively tacos. Nowhere to be seen are Americanized dishes like burritos and fajitas.
Paintings of a number of famous Mexican entertainers adorn the walls, created by a Mexican tattoo artist and a friend of Diaz. Additionally, televisions play scenes from various Mexican cities in the restaurant.
Diaz said that the purpose of the decor is to showcase that Mexico is a diverse place, and he wanted to eschew decorative trappings like sombreros that are often found in other Mexican restaurants in the United States.
All tacos at Mexcalito are made of tortillas that are pressed in a machine on site. “That’s the main, main part of a taco,” Diaz said.
He also tries to incorporate Mexican recipes and flavors into his dishes.
“I try to bring a little piece of my country here,” he said.
For instance, his Birria tacos are made with the same recipe that a man in his hometown of Guadalajara has used for more than 30 years.
“It’s good, it’s good,” Diaz said.
He said that it takes 4½ to 5 hours to cook the meat, and the tacos are served with the consommé that the meat is cooked in, which can be used for both dipping and drinking.
His cochinita pibil tacos, meanwhile, make the slow-roasted pork dish with sour oranges, the traditional way that the dish is made, and the tacos are served with the customary accompaniment of pickled onions, which are pickled onsite.
Diaz’s taco’s al pastor are cooked on a trompo, a rotating vertical spit, between two halves of a pineapple.
“If it’s not on the trompo, it’s not pastor,” he said.
The trompo method was adapted from middle eastern immigrants to Mexico, who adapted cooking shwarma to Mexican ingredients.
“This is like our Mexican version of kebab,” he said.
His fish and shrimp taco recipes come from Baja, California, with the seafood fried in corn batter.
Incidentally, Diaz said that almost all of his restaurant’s dishes are gluten free, as its tortillas are made with corn, not wheat.
Elements on the menu are, however, adapted to the American circumstance. Instead of a pork chorizo, the restaurant’s chorizo is made out of chicken, due to the popularity of chicken in the United States.
Additionally, the restaurant’s spicy hot sauce is served on the side of tacos, as opposed to on the tacos itself. The beans in the restaurant are made with corn oil, instead of the customary pork lard, so that vegetarians can enjoy them. Diaz said that this is how his mother cooks beans because his father was having stomach issues with lard.
After Diaz moved to the Valley, he worked at a number of restaurants in the area, including for Antonio’s Pizza owner Walter Pacheco, who encouraged him to set up Mexcalito. Diaz also drew his crew from people he met working at other restaurants.
Diaz’s wife grew up in New Jersey, and they have two young children together. His mother-in-law grew up in Amherst.
Diaz’s father is an investor in a Mezcal farm, and the smoky agave-based spirit is a key part of Mexcalito’s identity as well. The name Mezcal comes from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, and the restaurant’s name is a play on that word. Nahuatl is a native language that has been spoken in Mexico since before the arrival of Europeans.
Diaz serves a number of cocktails with Mezcal at his restaurant, including a margarita with Mezcal and a passion berry mezcal.
Another liquid refreshment available at the restaurant is agua fresca. The drink is made daily by infusing fruit with water and is nonalcoholic, although it can also be mixed with spirits. Diaz also said that it is healthier than soda.
Bera Dunau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.