The Dishes That Define Los Félix’s Mesoamerican Heritage
In less than a year of being open, Los Félix has already earned its first Michelin star and been called one of the best new restaurants in the U.S.
That’s due in large part to the menu, which honors Mesoamerican traditions, from housemade tortillas and totopos to tamales and dessert arepas, by spotlighting one of the most essential ingredients in indigenous cooking: heirloom corn, or maiz.
“Every plate is its own little world of corn,” explains chef and partner Sebastián Vargas, a Colombia native who’s trained under top Michelin-starred chefs like Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana), Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park), and Magnus Nilssen (Faviken) and now earned a Michelin nod himself.
In the restaurant’s open kitchen, maiz is ground daily using their in-house molino – or corn mill grinder – and then undergoes a process called nixtamalization to turn it into fresh masa, the maize dough that’s the base of traditional dishes like tortillas, tamales and more. Nixtamalization involves soaking, cooking and hulling the grain, which ultimately improves the corn’s nutritional value, flavor, and aroma.
“Every single day we’re learning from a traditional technique that has been used for thousands and thousands of years,” Vargas says. “We use the same recipes with different techniques and different flavors, but that’s the beauty of tradition in constant evolution.”
Using corn sourced from Mexico and, closer to home, a North Carolina mill that dates back to the 1700s, Los Félix supports Milpa farming, an ancient agricultural method of the Mayans and Mesoamerican people for respecting the land by growing native crops like maize, beans and squash sustainably. The Milpa farming tradition calls for two years of cultivation and eight years of letting the field go unsown to recover.
From milpa to mesa (the restaurant’s spin on farm to table), here are five ways Los Félix is using this staple ingredient to honor and evolve Mesoamerican traditions.
“One dish that I think truly defines that idea of tradition in evolution is our tamales – one of the most traditional dishes and basically like a homey dish that you find in Colombia and all of Latin America,” Vargas says. “It’s a recipe from our grandmothers that has continued to carry on.”
The traditional tamale is a masa dish made of nixtamalized corn steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. Los Félix’s version is stuffed with shredded chicken that’s been smoked in-house, topped with diced vegetables to brighten up the smokiness of the tamale, and finished off with a salsa of grilled green tomatoes and culantro. “Culantro is like a wild cousin of the cilantro because it’s something that you find in the farms or streets of Colombia,” Vargas explains. “It’s like cilantro, but super, super strong and much more flavorful.”
Of note, there’s also a dessert tamale on the menu – the Envuelto, made with sweet corn, guava, and queso fresco in a Meyer lemon sauce, topped with a sweet and salty crumble of pistachios and bee pollen.
Los Félix has evolved another traditional Mesoamerican masa dish, the arepa, and it’s a plate that has continued to evolve with different toppings since the restaurant opened. Currently, it features a hearty helping of braised pork belly, plantain puree, avocado, pineapple chimichurri and marigold petals. The braised pork belly gets cooked with all different types of chiles and vegetables, says Vargas, and toppings like avocado and pineapple chimichurri help give the dish some sweetness and acidity to balance out the pork and masa.
“It’s a really nice arepa made with nixtamalized blue corn, fresh masa made every single day. That one is seasoned very lightly with some salt and that’s it. We grill our arepas and stuff it with a puree of very, very ripe, almost rotten plantains, and I say rotten in a good way,” Vargas says.
The crudo, which rotates based on the day’s catch, is a refreshing dish that exemplifies Los Félix’s sustainability practices when it comes to sourcing ingredients, including their meats and seafood. “We’re surrounded by incredible oceans that are so rich with fish, and I only use one purveyor of fish,” Vargas says. “And I never ask him about specific fish – I always just ask him, ‘What do you have that’s fresh?’”
At both Los Félix and sister restaurant Krüs Kitchen, Vargas only sources large fish that are at least 30 to 40 pounds so as not to disrupt the ocean’s ecosystem by removing fish that are still growing. “We break down the whole fish and make sure we utilize everything,” he says.
The crudo features blood orange and passionfruit aguachile, avocado aioli and thin slices of pickled jicama. “The fruits of the Caribbean, of the tropic, are the foods that surround us, and that’s what I like to do with my dishes – analyze what we have around us and incorporate that in a dish.” Naturally, it comes with a crispy blue corn tostada for scooping or dipping.
4. Grilled Fish
Los Félix’s grilled fish is another dish utilizing local fish line-caught or spearfished from Florida waters – this time grilled instead of raw. “I love open-fire cooking. For me, it’s the best way to cook. Humans started to civilize because of fire, so going back to the first means of cooking is extraordinary. There’s so much technique to it,” Vargas says.
Depending on what’s caught that week, the fish will be marinated in a blend of herbs that you can find on Colombia’s Pacific coast, along with coconut milk, peppers, onion, and garlic, and then grilled in banana leaves. It’s topped with a hazelnut emulsion, cherry tomatoes, and an herb salad with oyster leaves.
5. Pork Cheek Carnitas
Vargas’s take on carnitas features a delicious but different and underutilized part of the animal. “There are so many parts of the animal that people always put aside, yet have so much flavor. I love the cheeks and I love the jaw and I love the tail … In this case, we use the cheeks of the pork,” he says.
To make his Mexican-inspired carnitas, Duroc pork is braised in chiles, oranges, and evaporated milk, which helps break down the meat, and then sprinkled with sliced red onions, sunflower sprouts, and cilantro. It’s served with Los Félix’s freshly made tortillas wrapped in a traditional warmer cloth so guests can scoop up some carnitas into a tortilla and make their own taco.