A while back, I had the good fortune of being invited to a friend’s house to sample the delicious Mexican-American cuisine of Chica’s Chef Maria Esquivel. At the time, Maria was working hard on building her business and establishing her menu, no easy task in the competitive, foodie-crazed-scene that is the Bay Area today. The menu she prepared for this group of friends included tortas, chicharrónes, and fried plantains. I had sampled many a torta before, and good ones too, but they failed to adequately prepare me for the creativity and combinations of flavors that Maria would be serving that evening.
We gathered around the communal table, catching up and listening to 90’s hits while Maria lovingly prepared our tortas. The first torta we sampled was a seared skirt steak with re-fried Oaxacan beans, pickled carrot and jalapeno, mustard greens, and Oaxacan cheese. The simple preparation of these ingredients, expertly layered in a toasted bolillo was just what we were all craving. Crunchy, chewy, tender and bright, the flavors silenced the crowd and we all got to eating. The second torta was one I had been anticipating from the minute I arrived at the apartment. Maria had been busy that day making Birria. Birria is a traditional Mexican dish from the state of Jalisco and is typically made for special religious holidays and weddings. It is goat or lamb slowly braised for hours in a sauce of tomatoes, chiles and adobo and has been long rumored to be a fool-proof hangover cure. Maria had been braising our Birria for no less than nine hours and this evening we wouldn’t be eating it out of bowls with tortillas, but in a torta instead. Maria paired the lamb Birria with a fig-Dijon mustard and a salsa criolla of red onion, cilantro, and lime. In case this wasn’t enough, she also served freshly made chicharrónes.
I walked back to my car with a full and happy belly, wondering when I would get to sample Maria’s tortas again. Luckily for me – and for all of us – Chica has been accepted as a vendor at San Francisco’s Off the Grid at Fort Mason. With the grand opening on Friday, March 6, we don’t have long to wait!
After sampling Maria’s delicious tortas, I wanted to learn more about the chef behind Chica. The following are some questions that Maria was kind enough to entertain:
How did you get into cooking?
I honestly never thought I would be here, learning from and working along side great chefs. Rewind to my late 20’s, I was unhappy, felt miserable and stuck working in the corporate world. The only thing that made me feel like I had a purpose was when I would cook for my friends and roommates…I would have no problem hiding in the kitchen for hours. I guess you can say one day I “broke.” I quit my job and went back to school. I completed my Business degree from San Francisco State University and ultimately decided to attend culinary school at LeCordon Bleu SF. It was something I had always wanted to do, but never thought I had the confidence to pursue. Attending was the best decision I ever made. Learning from Chef mentors and learning the complexity of the kitchen culture as a whole was so fascinating and addicting. Four years later, this addiction for the kitchen life is stronger than ever…and now I am pursuing the opportunity of opening my own business, CHICA.
How would you describe your culinary style?
I’m known for having a Chicana (Mexican-American) style. Mexican flavors with a Northern California feel. I also love learning about other Latin-American cultures and foods, usually incorporating those influences into my dishes as well.
How can people find your food?
CHICA can be found in the 2015 Season of the Fort Mason Off the Grid as a tented vendor. Every Friday, starting March 6th through October, from 5p-10p. Any additional locations will be updated on our website, chicasf.com. We are also accepting catering requests.
We absolutely recommend visiting Chica at Off the Grid if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area – we may even see you there!