Gabriela Gomez, executive chef at Palenque in Costa Mesa, showcases a menu that offers modern Mexican dishes with delicious twists on classic favorites. Formerly of Taco María (Costa Mesa), Jungsik (New York City), and Electric City Butcher (Santa Ana), Gomez is a first-generation Oaxaqueña. She says she was raised in the kitchen, her mother a highly talented home cook with a passion for trying both traditional and new dishes, her father a gifted gardener who provided homegrown bounty from his garden.
“I’ve been interested in cooking for as long as I can remember,” Gomez says. “My first real memory is of dragging a chair up to the countertop to help my mom whisk eggs with a fork. From there, anytime I could help her in the kitchen I’d always be right there with her making mole, tamales, hand-pressed tortillas, and just about anything I could get my hands on.
“I have random memories of dishes that she prepared just one time. She traveled a lot in Mexico, had lots of jobs, and picked up recipes along the way. She thought it was important to absorb everything.”
Her mother’s cooking is reflected in the heart of many of Gomez’s dishes, menu items accented with her own modern sensibilities. They are signature dishes such as Scallop Aguachile, Mole Temporal, and Birria Tatemada.
Joining me in my home kitchen, she prepared a scrumptious dish, chorizo and Russet potato-filled croquettes called molotes, Oaxacan street-food treats. These football shaped bundles, formed using an oh-so-tender touch, were dipped in a masa batter and fried. On the plate, they rested on a shallow puddle of warm pureed black beans and were garnished with sour cream, avocado salsa, crumbled queso fresco, and cilantro.
The texture contrast created by the fried-crisp masa exterior and the soft, meaty interior was pure palate pleasure—crunch encasing spiced-right richness.
I’ve never prepared chorizo and was surprised at how quickly Gomez made it come together. Ground pork—yes, the 30 percent fatty kind—was mixed with adobo. Done. (Well, it would have meant done for me because I would buy the adobo; Gomez made the adobo sauce from scratch.)
To me, molotes, dressed up with their delicious accompaniments, would be delightful for brunch, lunch, or dinner. And I look forward to cooking with Gomez again. I know she has a lot more to teach me. Much more.
Palenque Kitchen, 1749 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa
Eatery Fave: Folks in Costa Mesa. I had the pleasure of working with chef Joey for a few months during the pandemic. His pizza dough is unmatched in O.C.
Best Luxury: A cleaning crew.
Secret Talent: Painting and drawing. Sadly, I don’t have much time for that, but I still doodle from time to time when my schedule allows it.
Culinary Mentor: Mrs. Dukes at Newport Harbor High. She had a culinary program that laid the groundwork for me to be able to work in a professional kitchen.
Drink of Choice: At a dive bar, a gin and tonic. A nice cocktail bar and I’m open to try just about anything. Please no absinthe.
Childhood Hero: I’m a big reader, always looking for something off the beaten path. In my teens I started reading Charles Bukowski, and he’s been my hero ever since.
Freezer Stuff: There are always Bolis Icesticks—Mexican Otter Pops. Blue is my favorite.
Best Advice: From chef Eric Ripert when I asked for his advice for an aspiring young cook. He said: “It’s a very long road.” Thirteen years later, and I know I’m nowhere near the end.
Pork Chorizo Molotes
Yield: 8 servings
Chorizo: 6 ounces fatty ground pork, 3 tablespoons adobo, pinch of salt
- 2 large Russet potatoes, baked, peeled, riced or cut into small dice, see cook’s notes
- 6 to 8 ounces pork chorizo
- 1 pound masa (unprepared masa for tortillas -no lard)
- 8 to 10 ounces water
- Oil for deep frying, such as canola oil
- 8 ounces heated black bean puree (can use canned black beans if desired)
Garnishes: sour cream, avocado salsa (see cook’s notes), crumbled queso fresco, cilantro (baby leaves preferred)
Cook’s notes: Chef Gomez pushed the warm potatoes through a mesh cooling rack set over a bowl to dice them and partially mash them. Have a look at the video to see how she did this.
To prepare avocado salsa, add to food processor or blender, 1 ripe pitted avocado, 2 small tomatillos (husks removed and wiped clean), 1 stemmed serrano chili (or less if you want less spicy heat), 1/4 bunch of cilantro, 1 peeled garlic clove, lime juice to taste, salt to taste. Puree.
- In a medium bowl, prepare chorizo. Combine pork, adobo and a little salt. Mix well, looking for fat portion of pork to “string.” In a skillet, cook chorizo on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until thoroughly cooked and starting to caramelize in spots. Add cooked chorizo to potatoes; stir well to combine. Mix some more by hand (to mash and mix) so that the mixture will hold together. Use an ice-cream scoop to portion mixture into equal parts. Using clean hands, gently form mixture into football shapes (watch the video, see how Chef Gomez tenderly forms the molotes). Chill molotes for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile prepare avocado salsa (see cook’s notes). Heat black beans on low heat. In a deep pot start to heat enough oil, just enough oil to barely cover the molotes.
- Place masa in medium bowl. Add half the water and use an immersion blender to mix. You want it to be a thin pancake batter, so add enough water to attain that liquidity.
- Use a deep-fat thermometer to heat oil to 350 degrees. One at a time, dip molote in masa batter and then, using a slotted spoon, lower it into oil. Repeat and cook about three at a time, until nicely browned and cooked through, about 4 minutes. Drain on plate lined with paper towel. Repeat with remaining molotes.
- On each dinner plate, make a shallow puddle of pureed beans. Top with two or three molotes. Top each with a spoonful of sour cream, some avocado salsa, some queso fresco, and some cilantro. Serve.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.” For more than 30 years, she has written about cooking, chefs, and food trends. She was the first newspaper food journalist to pioneer taping how-to culinary videos online. CathyThomasCooks.com