First Bites

Is Wynwood Mexican Spot Bakan's Ant Caviar Taco Worth $25?

Bakan's escamoles taco.
Bakan's escamoles taco. Photo by Zachary Fagenson
click to enlarge Bakan's escamoles taco. - PHOTO BY ZACHARY FAGENSON
Bakan's escamoles taco.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson
As far back as eight centuries ago, Aztec emperors are said to have dined on the sweet, slightly nutty eggs of the Liometopum apiculatum, otherwise known as the velvety tree ant. Corn-yellow in color and possessing the rich flavor of walnuts and cashews and the loamy notes and delicate texture of maitake mushrooms, the eggs, known as escamoles, can be found at Bakan, where they're sautéed with butter, shallots, Serrano chilies, and epazote, then wrapped in a blue corn tortilla and topped with a spoonful of guacamole and pickled vegetables.

Is the dish worth the $25 price tag? The answer is yes, and definitely yes for anyone who's ever upgraded a dish with shaved truffles or a lump of glistening fish eggs. "Escamoles," a portmanteau of the indigenous Nahuatl language's words for "ant" and "stew," are widely known as the caviar of the desert world. They can be found at Mexico City's Quintonil, which ranked 11th on the most recent list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants. Like the dried and chili-toasted grasshoppers called chapulines, escamoles are an important part of what was once indigenous and is now Mexican cuisine.

"When I was young, older people, my grandfather, my uncles, they would rave about these things," says Oscar de Rivero, the 43-year-old chef of Jaguar Hospitality Group, which owns Bakan, located in Miami's popular Wynwood Arts District.

Like many of his friends, however, Rivero avoided Mexico's seasonal rotation of insect and arachnid delights and left his native country shortly after his 18th birthday.

It wasn't until recently, when globally celebrated chefs such as Quintonil's Jorge Vallejo and Pujol's Enrique Olvera began celebrating true Mexican cuisine, that their comrades working in European or Asian kitchens began seeing the intrinsic value of the food they knew best. In recent years during trips across Mexico, Rivero came back into contact with many of these ingredients and flavors and slowly saw opportunities to introduce them in Miami.

At the same time, Steve Santana of Taquiza was introducing chapuline-filled tacos at his South Beach taqueria, and Alex Chang offered chapulines and peanuts as a dinner snack at his short-lived Vagabond Restaurant.

Rivero seems willing to push the envelope further. When they're available, he also uses Maguey worms, the caterpillars that live off agave plants, in tacos and he's experimenting with chicatanas, the fat-bottomed black ants that emerge after heavy rains and are prized for their delicate flavor.

If you find the high price off-putting, you might take to heart Rivero's belief in serving them despite not making any money on them. Three months ago, a pound of escamoles went for $190. Late last month, he was paying $237.

Why so expensive? The eggs are harvested by farmers who each year dig up the colony the ants build near the base of the agave plant. Responsible farmers remove only part of the nest to leave something for the ants to rebuild during the following trip around the sun. The nest is then carefully cleaned, with each of the rice-sized eggs plucked out individually.

"If anything, we lose money on them," Rivero says. "For us, it's about giving people the Mexican experience now that they're finally willing to do it."

Bakan. 2801 NW Second Ave., Miami; 786-542-9139;
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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson