A Legend is Reborn

Housed in the famed former penguin drive-in location, the new Mexican-inspired Comida brings a modern vibe to Plaza Midwood.

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In the U.S, Mexican food is often reduced to a plate of refried beans and an overstuffed burrito. But the real flavors of Mexico are rich and varied. In it are seven regions encompassing 31 individual states, each with unique culinary traditions and specific regional ingredients that imbue their cuisine with distinct traits. True Mexican food is so much more.

In Plaza Midwood, restaurateur Alesha Vanata is intent on introducing Charlotte to the more nuanced flavors of Mexican cuisine at Comida (which means “food” in Spanish), her second concept following the acclaimed LittleSpoon in Myers Park. She does this, per usual, with a progressive eye, completely transforming the space formerly occupied by the Penguin with a clean and modern aesthetic.

As with her first concept, Vanata wanted a taste of the food she loved eating in Los Angeles. Mexican food was at the top of that list. Vanata spent 13 years in Los Angeles discovering the regional flavors of Mexico. Her journey began with a gastronomic tryst with a taco truck and grew to adventures all over the city to delve into the regional variations of the cuisine. She later went to Mexico for a firsthand look.

She recruited chefs Hector Gonzalez and Willie Belen, whom she calls “maizstros,” to carry out her mission at Comida. Gonzalez and Belen both claim Mexican heritage. Gonzalez’ family hails from the Northern Pacific state of Jalisco, while Belen comes from the Southern Pacific coastal state of Acapulco. Though they refer to what’s happening at Comida as “New-style Mexican,” the duo regularly taps into their childhood upbringings for inspiration. The pajarito salsa references the small tomatoes Belen would gather with his mother at the market as a child, which she would call pajaritos or “little birds.” They are used in the mild tomato salsa served with a number of menu items including the handmade sopes, masa cakes topped with tender brisket and Oaxacan cheese, and the addictive totopos, the chewy love child of a crispy tortilla chip and soft corn tortilla.

Comida goes to great lengths for authenticity and freshness. A dedicated tortilla maker is responsible for hand-shaping the fresh masa—made in-house using heirloom Michoacan corn and an ancient soaking process called nixtamalization—and transforming them into tortillas, sopes and tamales.

The bar menu is equally meticulous, using fresh juices and the city’s best shaved ice to make its signature mescal and tequila-infused cocktails. The menu is divided into small nibbles (picadera), snacks (botanas), small bites (bocadillos), tacos, small plates (platitos compuestos), and large plates (platos para la mesa). Artistic care like the elegant furls of cucumber placed around expertly prepared octopus and charred avocado is a divergent progression from traditional presentation. Yet the complex flavors of the mole negro surrounding local, seasonal vegetables, or the comforting, oregano-scented tomato broth in the sopa de fideo is imprinted with the unmistakeable mark of a culture’s teachings. With tradition and nostalgia as its backbone, the forward-thinking approach at Comida is a venerable execution of place. When asked what he wants diners to take away from the Comida experience, Belen says, “I want them to feel like they are tasting a piece of Mexico.”

 

Photography my Michael C. Hernandez.

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