SOBEWFF 2016 Tacos After Dark: Mussels, Deer, and a Guy Fieri Doppleganger

Kelly Gardner just happened to be in Miami during South Beach Wine & Food Festival. The 53-year-old St. Louis sales manager also has Guy Fieri's spiked platinum blonde hair, goatee, and broad-faced infectious smile, helping him become a de facto celebrity Thursday night at Tacos After Dark at the Loews Hotel Miami Beach.

In between pounding tacos and tequila he was perpetually accosted by festival goers, more eager for a picture with the doppleganger than the real thing.

"The hair was a challenge for my sales team five years ago," Gardner said, "I said you go number one in the country, and I'll go platinum blonde. I haven't gone back since."

With only one night in town, Gardner opted to drop some coin on the Francis Mallmann and Paul Qui dinner at the Faena followed by the late night taco party. A good choice. 
The night was captained by Enrique Olvera, the bearded, tattooed chef behind Mexico City's Pujol and New York's Cosme. He commissioned Steve Santana's Taquiza for hundreds of blue corn tortillas for a trio of tostadas (both source and nixtamalize their corn from NYC's Masienda). Rounds topped with a smattering of briny, creamy mussels were the highlight, accented with a spicy chipotle mayonnaise rounded out with escabeche. Few tacos of the night were as daring or well balanced. 
Tim Love's white tail deer taco was one of them. The fatty, just slightly gamey meat was pulled and placed atop a puffed beef tendon that provided an addictive crunch with a wisp of beefiness. Pickled chilies added jabs of spice and piquancy. Edible flowers made it a beautiful bite to behold and lent some grassy freshness. 

The night's main theme seemed to be fruit laced salsas. Individually most were fine and made sense, but by the end of the night the barrage of mango, pineapple, and tequila sent palates into a kind of septic shock that were no match for bombs of pork and duck.
Still, it worked nicely on Ralph Pagano's chicarrones taco decorated with a chipotle pineapple slaw. Yet festival staff put the kibosh on some of the Naked emperor's fun, demanding he stop offering up shots of pineapple-spiked tequila as it clashed with tequila sponsor Avion. 

The sweetness continued at Aaron Sanchez's stand, which was dishing out tortillas topped with a hefty serving of lamb belly with an ancho-pomegranate glaze, charred avocado chimichurri, and pickled. If there's one thing to know about playing with sweet salsas, it's that they require a serious fatty meat to cut the sugar. 

Tim Andriola, of Basil Park and Timo, was tucked in one corner offering up some wholesome bites that swapped out the corn tortilla for a thin, round sheet of crunchy jicama. Then, came an umami bomb of marinated dried shiitakes, kimchi, and a queso fresco made of almonds. 
Though Mexican cuisine in America has finally been getting its due over the past couple of years, Olvera who was tapped by Mexico City to serve as a kind of culinary ambassador for the festival welcomed many of the riffs on his homeland's ancient gastronomy. Olvera himself sees Mexican cuisine not only through the lens of its fiercest disciples but also through the French Laundry Cookbook, which heavily influences his cuisine.
"People have finally realized that Mexican food can be casual but also very, very refined," he said. 

Not at all a stickler for authenticity, he noted that now that people are beginning to understand the foundational elements of Mexico's food it's fine to play.

"People realize corn, chilies, can be single source, like coffee, and where you get them from is really important," he said. Still, he noted the importance of preserving traditional Mexican farming tradition called La Milpa in which corn is grown ringed by chilies that act as a natural pesticide. Other crops like beans, jicama, and potential dozens of others grow at the same time. 

"That way of growing things is so important," Olvera said. 

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