My wife Valarie and I flew to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, during January 2019 to attend the wedding of our friend Bruce Shadorf and Nga. Bruce had mentioned his friend Alex multiple times over the years.
We finally met Chef Alex (Alejandro Torres Palacios) at the wedding. He and his Vietnamese girlfriend sat next to us at the wedding. We became instant friends as he shared many stories with us, most revolving around food. He learned at an early age to cook in Mexico. By age 16, he had ended up in the United States. He started as a dish washer in a Seattle restaurant. He became a chef by using his love of reading and an insatiable desire to learn all things culinary. He said as a dish washer in the kitchen he would study the cooks and say he could do that. Before long he started cooking various foods in the kitchen. He enrolled in culinary school once he knew he liked cooking. He worked tirelessly simultaneously going to school and cooking in restaurants. His hunger to learn more about food never wavered.
Alex invited us to Rico Taco to try his cooking. His culinary skills were spot on and every dish was alive with flavor and danced around your tongue. We started with his handmade corn chips and salsa. He was quick to tell us about the corn chips how he made the flour from Vietnamese corn.
He explained how cooking in a restaurant setting, almost every decision is a business decision. To keep costs low, he must substitute local ingredients to arrive at Mexican flavors. To import his flour and Mexican chilies, it would be cost prohibitive resulting in less business from the higher prices. He was very clear on his business model in the restaurant. He has to add items that appeal to other customers that may not be accustomed to true Mexican dishes. An example of this is his Mexican lasagna. He explained how he builds and layers the dish with Mexican ingredients, but the final dish is something more comparable to a dish a customer may have experienced before. He slowly builds up their culinary experiences if they are new to Mexican cooking.
The next dish we enjoyed was the chorizo and scrambled egg burrito. The flavors were spicy and sweet balanced with fresh avocado. The burrito was perfectly shaped and presented. He sat and talked with us the entire time our food was be prepared. He explained how learning to cook in large 300 seat restaurants he learned to build each dish around a system. He can now tell by feedback from the customer where the breakdown was in the dish. His current staff of cooks are trained on a system and each dish is prepared the same way. He said he spends the necessary time to get each dish correct by all those involved in the cooking process. Once they now the process, he can work “on” the business instead of completely “in” the business. Using this approach, he is able to work his way around the restaurant talking with customers.
We finished our lunch with a taco platter containing fish( sea bass) tacos, steak tacos, pork tacos and chicken tacos. Each taco was unique in flavor and completely balanced. My favorite taco was the fish taco with a beautiful mango corn salsa. Everything that came from the kitchen was thoughtfully designed and prepared. They were all served with burnt salsa which is similar to traditional tomato based salsa, but with a much more complex and smokey flavor. Interestingly, he explained he uses a blend of 6 local Asian chilies to arrive at that flavor. Once again, the business model challenged his skills as a chef to come up with an elegant solution by substituting local ingredients.
The flavors coming out of Rico Taco are closer to his home state of San Luis Potosí. The food served in an alfresco setting were inspired by the late Mexico City architect, Ricardo Legoretta.
We are thankful for Alex’s culinary experience working in all the Latin American, French, Italian and Spanish restaurants. That hands on experience combined with his culinary education combine to deliver exceptional and memorable Mexican dishes from a tiny kitchen in District 3, Saigon.
He mentioned he worked at a food factory here in Vietnam for A notable English brand . He explained the challenges they were forced to deal with in preparing and freezing there product for air shipment to the UK. He explained how precise the PH must be for the dough to allow for freezing and then thawing under refrigeration.
It is this attention to detail and his cooking method experience that allows every dish to come out of the kitchen of Rico Taco to be exceptional and more importantly consistent!
We enjoyed our time talking about family, friends and food with Alex. We are hopeful you find your way to Rico Taco or any place Alex’s culinary passion take him to in the future. You will be impressed by his passionate and warm personality and love of food! We highly recommend Rico Taco. Tell Alex we sent you!