When Mario Galán moved from his hometown of Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City to study interior design at university, he found some casual work as a dishwasher and kitchen hand. Although Galán had no formal training, the head chef of the restaurant recognised his natural ability.
“The chef always asked me to cook for him but I wasn’t interested,” he said. “Then one day he said: ‘Mario seriously, cooking is in your blood, you are a natural cook and you need to use it,’ so I listened to him.”
Leaving his dream of being an interior designer behind, Galán has continued to work as a chef around the world for the past 25 years. While working in a Mexican restaurant in Singapore, he hired Itzel Guadarrama Mayo as his kitchen hand in 2010.
With a desire for more independence and a change of scenery, the pair recently decided to bring their style of authentic Mexican cuisine to Phnom Penh and opened their first restaurant here, Mexicano, just six weeks ago.
“There is a need for authentic Mexican food here, and what Mario creates really is authentic. It’s exactly what we would find back at home; that’s his style.” Mayo said.
Galán imports all of his herbs and spices – such as epazote (known as “Mexican tea”), avocado leaves, dried chillies, and spices like achiote, a pre-Hispanic Mexican spice – directly from Mexico. These ingredients from far away allow him to recreate the cuisine as faithfully as possible.
Preparation, too, is a crucial but time-consuming part of authentic Mexican food. Galán spends many hours a week marinating, slow-cooking and preparing the different components of his menu. His chorizo, for example, is made entirely from scratch.
“Even Mexicans, sometimes they just buy their chorizo, because it takes a long time to make, and it is quite hard,” he said. “But I mince my own meat, prepare the mix and stuff my own sausages. It is much more work, but we can honestly say that it is handmade from the start to finish.”
Likewise, the process of preparing the slow-cooked spiced pork for the tacos al pastor ($6.50) is a process that requires care and attention.
“It takes a long time. I need to marinate the meat, and then cook it on a rotisserie system, much like how kebab meat is cooked,” Galán said. “But I need to cook it slowly, and then shave one layer of the meat, and then cook it again, and shave it again, which is a slow and very delicate process.”
The labour is reflected in the end product. This boldly flavoured, smoky pork works perfectly with the taco’s accompanying mix of fresh coriander, onion and barbequed pineapple. Galán’s corn and flour tortillas are also made by hand, as are a range of unique accompanying sauces tailored to each taco.
The menu offers other Mexican favourites, such as burritos ($9-$10), nachos ($4.50-$7.50), and quesadillas ($7-$8), which can all be enjoyed with an original recipe margarita ($3). The menu also offers some lesser-known gems from Mexican cuisine, such as ceviche de pescado ($6-$7), a refreshing combination of fresh raw fish or prawns cured in lime juice and tomato, coriander and chili. Mayo also suggested the tamal de chocolate ($5), a steamed dessert wrapped in a banana leaf, as the perfect way to finish a meal.
“It’s light; its not a heavy dessert that makes you so full you have to roll out of the restaurant,” she said. “It’s so soft, it melts in your mouth, and the flavours are so delicate and simple, even though it can be difficult to make.”
The restaurant has also benefited from Galan’s interior design skills, with walls painted in bright and bold colours reminiscent of his homeland, and a few small decorations from Mexico. Outside, square tables and chairs with faded paint give the impression they have spent their whole life in the garden.
Eventually, the pair want to decorate one wall of the restaurant as a tribute to Mexico, with photos of famous Mexicans such as Frida Kahlo as well as members of his own family. But for now, the rising popularity of Mexicano has meant that once again, Galán has had to put his interior design dreams on hold.
Mexicano is located at #29 Street 288. Tel: 096 861 2353. Open every day from noon until 2pm and 6pm until 11pm.