A sampler platter of scorpion tamales with chocolate and pineapple, red-worm (chiniquile), tostadas, bone broth with garlic-roasted grasshoppers, (chapulines), and ant larvae tacos (escamole).
A Denver-based Mexican chef has created Aztec-inspired dishes after facing backlash online. He hopes to educate diners about pre-Hispanic cuisine, which has been around for thousands of year.
Jose Avila, a James-Beard nominee chef at La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal, downtown Denver, teased his guests about a new menu item on the restaurant’s Instagram account in February. Chapulines are a pre-Hispanic Mexican specialty that is made of small grasshoppers. They are dried and roasted, and then seasoned with garlic, chile, and lemon.
“Most bugs don’t taste very much by themselves. They taste just like crickets, they taste like something crunchy without any flavor,” Avila said. He grew up in Mexico City and used to snack on chapulines as he shopped at the local markets for produce along with his mom.
There were more than 100 opinions on the post. Some even echoed the sentiments that “I refuse to eat bugs.” One commenter stated, “I want steak!” Others wanted to taste them. “When I was a kid my cousins and me used to catch them and fry it,” another commenter stated.
Avila stated that many people believe we were trying to start a trend, which is absurd.
He saw the controversy in the spotlight as an opportunity to educate people about the origins of prehistoric food and ingredients. These included edible insects that are still common in many areas of Mexico.
Avila stated that the cuisine of his homeland is not just about meats and tortillas.
Avila, who said that there are hundreds edible insects in Mexico, inspired him to create a Festival de Bichos (or bug festival) at his restaurant. The menu includes the sampler platter.
Avila said that the event is already a success and will continue throughout the weekend. Avila said that he was impressed by the diners who “killed” their platters and left behind only bone marrow, tamale corn kernels, and bone marrow.
“Eighty percent” of those who received the platter knew what they were getting. They wanted it. They were hungry for these foods and wanted to eat it. Avila stated that 20% of them got it because they were curious about it.
Avila stated that it was just her goal to “keep these traditions alive and keep these recipes, techniques strong in 2023,” Avila added.
He said that the festival’s success made it worth the effort, despite the delay caused by customs in shipping the insects from Mexico. He said, “This isn’t an item you can buy two cases of this and another case of that at a Restaurant Depot.” Avila said that some insects cost him $150 per pound.
Avila has received praises for his pozole (hominy), dishes and mezcal experiences. He boasts that he and his staff stick to tradition and prepare caldos with ingredients from Mexico.
His innovative takes on tradition paid off: La Diabla was named the best restaurant by The Denver Post HTML21_ in 2021 and by Bon Appetit last year as one of America’s top restaurants.
Avila said that while he loves the recognition, it’s about the “soft spot”, when someone from Mexico eats the food and is transported.
Avila stated, “That’s why it’s all about — bring back memories from these people from their childhood and reminding them of their grandmas or moms… Maybe they’re not with us anymore.” “Those are the awards.”