While the taco has become the unofficial food of Los Angeles, reaching peak consumption and cultural significance in the past decade, there are plenty of other worthy Mexican food traditions that have yet to garner the same brand of crossover culinary fame. Pozole is one of them.
With its hominy-and-meat base, the hearty stew is often overshadowed by, if not mistaken for, its tripe-laden sister menudo, the popular hangover "cure" and weekend staple of myriad Mexican restaurants. Pozole shows up on restaurant menus, too, but more commonly the dish is reserved for family celebrations, especially during the Christmas holidays, when it's served along with other labor-intensive foods, like tamales and sugar-topped buñuelos.
Ted Montoya is hoping to change that. The young Chicano chef believes pozole's time has come, and he's banking on his version, infused with nontraditional flavors and multicultural influences, to finally put the specialty in the spotlight. He's even made it the focus of his food startup, Caló Provisions.
"It's just been a big part of our lives, so we said, 'Let's do pozole. Nobody makes pozole as good as what we make,'" explains the chef, who even credits the dish with helping him woo his wife, and sometimes prep assistant, Melissa Montoya.
A native of the Southeast L.A. enclave of Santa Fe Springs, Montoya got his start in the industry at Alvin Cailan's Eggslut when it was still a food truck. The business had been operating for only about a week when Montoya met Cailan. Seizing on the fact that Cailan had grown up in nearby Pico Rivera, Montoya hit him up for a job.
"We were talking, and I'm like, 'Hey, I want to learn how to cook, I want to have my own food truck. I'm down to learn, I'll work for free, I'll wash your truck,'" Montoya says.
He was hired a few days later, and his education began. Montoya says Cailan schooled him on "how to cook an egg the right way" and, perhaps more significantly, blew his mind by introducing him to a whole new world of ingredients during their regular trips to Asian markets.
Electrified by the new flavors he was encountering, Montoya started trying to incorporate them into his own recipes, including his pozole. He jokes that this period of trial and error resulted in a fair amount of culinary misadventures that his wife had to endure: "She was with me when I was experimenting and making terrible dishes."
The chef attributes some of his inclination toward experimentation to his Chicano heritage. "Being Chicano means to me being a part of a specific community — one that doesn't belong to Mexico but doesn't entirely belong to America," he says. "I feel the same about my food and style of cooking. Are there Mexican roots? Without a doubt, but my cooking is also very California."
Eventually Montoya hit on some cross-cultural combinations that he, and his family, actually liked. He began perfecting what he describes as a "Latin-inspired dashi," which takes about 18 hours to prepare and replaces the dried kelp and bonito flakes used in the traditional Japanese stock with banana leaves and chicharrón.
"These were just ideas I had. Then we tested them, and they were delicious," Montoya says.
His liberal use of garlic, shallots and oregano help maintain a distinctly Latin flavor with subtle hints of Asian influence.
His recipe evolved further once he began working with Eddie Ruiz at the chef's former restaurants Corazon y Miel and Picnik (and, currently, at his latest endeavor, Chicas Tacos). Under Ruiz, Montoya has learned more about bringing out the complexities of Mexican food. "[The idea is] how can we make it the best thing you ever ate but still feel like your mom made it," Montoya explains. "So, yeah, that's kind of how I've developed my style."
Montoya debuted his pozole with a pop-up at Primera Taza Coffee House in Boyle Heights last year. While the response was mostly positive, he says that some customers were skeptical of unorthodox additions, such as a ramen-inspired poached egg, but he wasn't discouraged. "First off, it's really good," he says defiantly. "Second, it's an add-on, so if you don't want it, don't get it."
Montoya has moved on to food festivals and events, where customers have the freedom to build their own bowls, starting with a choice between vegan shiitake or pork-based broth. The hominy, which has the tendency to overwhelm in some pozoles, doesn't in this case — the tender purple and white kernels are expertly balanced with such proteins as pork shoulder, carnitas, confit chicken thigh or roasted tofu with blistered kale.
Handmade salsa verde or smoky red salsa quemada can be added, too, though Montoya's "white broth" is quite good unadorned. Toppings, including everything from pickled onions and pepitas to shaved chicharrón and crushed coriander, make for interesting textures and a unique take on the traditional dish that's earned Caló Provisions a growing following, as well as a fair amount of local and national media attention.
As the weather has heated up, Montoya has had to put the pozole on hiatus and focus on more summer-appropriate dishes. However, he's still making use of many of the flavors and components of his signature stew, as he did recently with a ceviche-style hominy, which he marinated in a mixture of cucumbers, salsa verde, radishes and citrus and served on a tostada. At a recent installment of Smorgasburg, the recurring food fest that takes place Sundays at the Alameda Produce Market, the chef wowed with a 2-pound, mole-glazed turkey leg, paired with garlic-braised collards.
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Montoya considers festivals and pop-ups a training ground for his ultimate goal of opening his own restaurant, which he envisions as an affordable spot, serving experimental food, good beer and, of course, pozole — the kind of place that cooks could bring the family to on their day off. "It's fun to do the outdoor thing, you know, setting up tarps and serving the public, and there will be time to do that still, but I want a place of my own," Montoya says.
CALÓ PROVISIONS | 746 Market Court, Smorgasburg L.A., downtown | (562) 479-4344 | caloprovisions.com | Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.