When Javauneeka Jacobs, a sous chef at Frontera Grill, the flagship of Rick Bayless’s fleet of Mexican restaurants, heard about the Afro-Mestizo culture in Mexico — the approximately two percent of the population descended from enslaved West Africans — her curiosity was piqued. What did they eat? What did it taste like?
Frontera happens to have a cookbook library in its kitchen. With the encouragement of her boss Richard James, Frontera’s chef de cuisine, Jacobs began doing some research. And now patrons of Frontera can taste that research in the form of a special Black History Month menu that will run through mid-March.
Afro-Mestizo cuisine contains a lot of strong flavors, Jacobs learned, especially garlic, epazote, guajillo chiles, and peanuts. It has a wider influence than the size of the Afro-Mestizo population would suggest, apparent in mole sauces made with ground peanuts and nochebuena, a traditional Christmas dish made with peanuts and sugar cane. “It’s the third root of Mexican cuisine,” says James.
Jonathan Cisneros, a line cook at Frontera who grew up in Ometepec in the southwestern state of Guerrero, was raised in that tradition. His grandmother is part of a movement to raise awareness of Mexico’s African heritage, which dates back to shortly after the Spanish conquest in 1519 when the Spanish brought ships of West African captives to Veracruz to be enslaved workers on the sugarcane plantations. Cisneros’s family is descended from another group of captives who escaped a ship that capsized off the west coast of Mexico and swam ashore to settle their own colonies in Guerrero and Oaxaca. A third group was comprised of fugitives from slavery in the United States.
Throughout Mexican history, though, that tradition has largely been ignored. In school, Cisneros says, “we talked a lot about the Indigenous parts of Mexico and the Spanish, but not a lot about the African part.”
As Jacobs began experimenting with Afro-Mestizo dishes, she ran everything she cooked past Cisneros and wouldn’t consider a recipe complete until he had approved it.
But as the research and development continued, Jacobs and James noticed something else: Afro-Mestizo food had a lot in common with African-American soul food. A dish with chicken and black bean sauce took him right back to red beans and rice, a shrimp stew tasted like shrimp creole with coconut sauce, and the preparation of yuca reminded him of how Black cooks roast and stew vegetables. “It was kind of shocking to me,” James says, “but also like a homecoming.”
Other chefs at Frontera noticed other similarities. To culinary director Zach Steen, it resembled food he’d eaten on trips to the Caribbean. Which made sense to Bayless, since, he notes, most Caribbean cooking developed from the Africans who settled there.
None of them had tasted any food like this before in Chicago. The closest James has found is at Garifuna Flava, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant in Chicago Lawn on the South Side, but the owners are from Belize, not Mexico, and use different spices and ingredients, notably bell peppers and paprika instead of chiles and no peanuts.
Jacobs’s final menu includes grilled shrimp in coconut sauce, mahi-mahi in red chile peanut salsa, chicken in black bean sauce, grilled cauliflower in estofado sauce (made from a blend of ancho and guajillo chiles, tomato, pineapple, plantains, and spices), and a tropical empanada filled with rice pudding, apricots, dates, and pistachios.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. When James introduced the new menu to Frontera’s front-of-the-house staff, he says he could see how engaged and excited they got the more he explained. “It really made me proud,” he says. “This really tastes like soul food. It tastes like home cooking.” Jacobs says this has encouraged her to do more research and become more creative in the kitchen.
But the highest praise may have come from Cisneros. “I’m amazed that chef Javauneeka could recreate the bean soup my grandmother used to make,” he says. “I had an amazing experience with that menu.”
Frontera Grill, 449 N. Clark Street, Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; and 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; Reservations via Resy.