4 October, 2022, 23:43

La Chefita is Mexican street food with a twist

Off The Eatin’ Path

In 1903, Augustine Escoffier published his book Le Guide Culinaire, a cookbook that brought the techniques of French cooking not only to Europe but around the world. Today, that book is still in print and used as a guide for culinary schools abroad. When soldiers returned from World War I a lot of them found themselves without any work, so many of them took jobs in kitchens, be it industrial or upscale. The work was brutal either way.

The combined forces of Escoffier’s book and soldiers manning the back of house around the turn of the century helped create the modern chef, and various swords and military weapons replaced utilitarian cutlery typically used by women. Women, of course, were the dominating force in kitchens for generations beforehand, using whatever knife they could afford or was given to them.

Vintage Stove

Photo by Dayvison de Oliveira Silva / Pexels

Today, men account for almost 80% of chefs or head cooks, and only in the last decade or two has cooking become a “glamorous” career. If you’re not on some food TV show or have won multiple awards for your cuisine, being a chef is tough. Like really tough. That is the common thought of why kitchens are typically helmed by men, which has been disproven through the harder work women chefs have to do on a daily basis.

I’ve worked with dude cooks that call in sick if they stub their toe before a shift. Some would leave after slightly cutting or burning themselves. Then you have chefs such as Ana Rivera of the new food truck La Chefita who has worked for years with a broken back. Get this, she didn’t even know it was broken.

“I just kind of ignored it because I was working too hard to deal with it,” said Rivera.

Ana Rivera of La Chefita

Ana Rivera of La Chefita (Photo courtesy of La Chefita)

Chef Rivera hails from Douglas and entered the military at a young age. It was during her time in service that she discovered her knack and love for cooking as she worked in mess halls across Arizona. That’s also when she broke her back but, you know, she just kind of ignored it because that’s what the truly tough do.

Broken back? I have 300 soldiers to feed! It can wait.

After her military tenure, Rivera found herself working in federal prison kitchens and became head chef by the age of 25 at the Arizona State Prison Complex out on Wilmot. Being a soldier gave her some training and insight into what it means to prove yourself in a male-dominated field. Standing at 5’ 1” and harboring a natural cheery disposition, one can only imagine the daily struggle Rivera had to endure in that, well, tough environment.

“There were a lot of opinions, a lot of trouble with my authority,” said Rivera. “It was challenging but I had to think that it was their house, I was here for them, and I had over 800 mouths to feed three times a day. It took me months to get that kitchen running smoothly and it took them a while to accept me for who and what I am.”

Ana left the prison to work in a veterans hospital and said it was her favorite job due to the calmer pace, the service she was providing, and the fact that she was respected almost from the beginning. Unfortunately, that job did not last that long.

She had an accident in the kitchen and the broken back she was carrying around let her know that it was time to get it fixed. Two back surgeries later, Ana found herself in a rest period right around the time ye ole COVID hit the scene. Being the tough cookie that she is, Rivera used this time to hone her chef skills and even received a degree in culinary arts from Escoffier. Most likely, she has a copy of Le Guide Culinaire somewhere nearby at all times.

La Chefita (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

La Chefita (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

“One of my favorite street food items in Los Angeles is something that originated in Korea,” said Rivera. “It’s a spiralized potato that is deep-fried and topped with all sorts of good things. It’s a Korean name for a tornado but since we don’t have tornados here in Tucson, I decided to call them remolinos, because we do get swirls of dust devils.”

After finding and fixing up an old food truck, she set out to create a menu that was not only interesting and unique but boiled down to favorites — both for her and for the rest of us.

La Chefita (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

La Chefita (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

In June of this year, La Chefita made its debut with almost immediate praise for the inventive use of fairly common ingredients. I mean, a twisty russet potato, deep-fried and slathered with a bunch of meat, cheese, pico, and even Takis?

Oh mais oui!

The swarm of perfectly cooked and seasoned components on her remolinos are tickling divine. The La Chefita Remolino is fabricated with smoky and very juicy brisket, nacho cheese, shredded cheese, barbecue sauce, and then dolloped with a round of tangy green onions.

La Chefita Remolino (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

La Chefita Remolino (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

It was a dish I have had before but not like this. None of us have. Not yet anyway. If you are seriously hungry or maybe you and a buddy want to split a thundering snack that only the seriously tough can handle, then order any of La Chefita’s remolinos.

Her chipotle barbecue sauce has some spice and depth of flavor and I highly recommend getting that on anything she has cooking up in that little trailer of hers.

La Chefita (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

La Chefita (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Rivera’s burritos and tacos are just as formidable and delicious as well. Everything I ate seemed to formulate a plan they were all in on and only hinted to us the secret of their intention. Although, I think I cracked it knowing it was to make us delightfully full and leave a necessary mess on our faces and hands.

Not in a meat mode and just want something tasty and light for lunch?

La Chefita continues the trade of curving their ingredients with a Twisted Cucumber Salad. On a small truck dazzled with meats, this addition is 100% vegan as it includes said cucumber, watermelon, pineapple, and then gets a shake of tajin and chamoy. So uncomplicated and so refreshing.

La Chefita (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Twisted Cucumber Salad at La Chefita (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

“I was literally in my kitchen and I had these ingredients,” said Rivera. “I just threw them all together and it was one of the best salads I’ve made or had. So, I knew I wanted it on my menu.”

Thank you, Ana. You are doing it all so right.

The moments of developing that thick skin in the military and in prison kitchens have toughened her enough to soften up and let that love of cooking and serving shine in that bitty of a hitch. Her food and tenacity would make any chef, of any gender, take note — especially that Escoffier fellow.

Rivera’s food may not be French but it is without a doubt délicieux et inventif (delicious and inventive).

Is that tough enough for you? Well, I know Ana is.

To keep up with the latest and where they’re planning to set up shop, follow La Chefita on Facebook and Instagram.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Ana Rivera (@lachefitatucson)

It was a Sonoran hot dog that made Mark switch from music journalism to food writing when he moved to Tucson from San Francisco in 2006. He hasn’t been the same since.

X