SXSW may be the country’s premiere music, film and interactive technology conference, but it’s a fact that when that many hipsters get together…it’s just as much about the food. So it’s a good thing that Austin, where the annual festival has taken place since 1987, is one of America’s foodiest cities and well-prepared to feed the cool crowds. Not surprisingly, the capital of Texas also offers up plenty of great Latin food, much of it Tex-Mex and Mexican. This week, as SXSW unfolds, NBCLatino explores Austin’s great Latin chefs, food trucks and restaurants. Up first: Chef Iliana de la Vega and her El Naranjo, once Oaxaca’s most famous fine-dining restaurant, now reincarnated in Austin’s hip downtown neighborhood.
It was just a little over a year ago that de la Vega and her husband, Ernesto Torrealba, revived the beloved restaurant they ran in Oaxaca, where they had earned global praise for serving honest, authentic, impeccably constructed Oaxacan dishes. (The restaurant closed in 2006, a victim of the area’s political and economic instability.) For years, the couple had dreamed of reviving El Naranjo and restoring its glory, refusing to let the fact that they had migrated to the US stop them. They would open El Naranjo on this side of the border.
While de la Vega landed a job teaching at the prestigious San Antonio campus of the Culinary Institute of America, she and Torrealba also ran a food truck in Austin that would be the precursor to the bricks-and-mortar restaurant. “It was really hard word,” she said. “And really long days. Everything is a little more complicated in a food truck. You’re more exposed to the elements. But it was a good experience and it really helped us introduce ourselves to Austin.”
For a year and a half, they operated the food truck, also called El Naranjo, with de la Vega driving to and from San Antonio, balancing her teaching job with the kitchen duties. Finally, in 2012, the couple opened the restaurant, a chic and modern space along the city’s uber-cool Rainey Street. And just three months ago, de la Vega finally left the teaching job in San Antonio to fully focus on the restaurant. “I wanted to put all of my energy in this,” she said. And she certainly does: she’s is in the kitchen doing prep work every day by 7:30 a.m. During dining room service hours, she in the front of the house greeting guests, keeping a watchful eye over dishes as they come out to make certain they’re prepared and plated just right.
While the well-heeled and the impossibly hip swarm the area, de la Vega’s food remains as honest and straight forward as it was in Oaxaca. A break from the usual Tex-Mex found throughout the state, she focuses on classic Mexican dishes with an emphasis on cuisine from the interior. She serves a mole of the week, and is always experimenting with chiles—from rellenos to rajas—which is her self-proclaimed obsession. Tortillas are handmade fresh, every day and El Naranjo recently brought in fresh blue corn and is making tortillas from it too. “I’m always looking for new ingredients native to Mexico. I want to show people the diversity of food we have in my country. I am just so proud of it,” she said. She may have left the classroom, but de la Vega will forever be a teacher.
If you’re in Austin for SXSW, check out El Naranjo at 85 Rainey Street and tweet a photo of what you’re eating or drinking @NBCLatino.