Every Mexican dish has a story to tell, and after five restaurant locations and more than 30 years in a business that often trades cultural traditions for culinary trends, chef Antonio Matus remains dedicated to telling those stories authentically.
His eponymously named eatery, Antonio’s: The Taste of Mexico, has seen several iterations over the past 15 years – first in El Prado, in the hacienda that now houses El Meze; then, near Trading Post Café in Ranchos de Taos; at La Cueva Café’s current location; in the space now occupied by Bella’s Mexican Grill, across from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church; and for three years in Longmont, Colorado – before reopening last month at 1379 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, the former home of Purple Sage Café.
Matus’ new digs are smaller than some of his former locations – so small, in fact, that, for brunch on a Sunday last month, a moderately sized party of five formed a line that spilled from the narrow foyer out onto the sidewalk that runs the length of the restaurant.
When asked if the group would wait the estimated 20 minutes until seating, a few in the party – patrons of previous Antonio’s restaurants – said they would because the food being prepared on the other side of the door was well worth the wait.
New flavors, familiar setting
Behind a four-seater bar adjacent to the main dining area, servers hustled back and forth from coffee station to kitchen, shuttling platters of piping-hot egg dishes out to tables: classics, like huevos rancheros and huevos Taoseños, and chef’s creations that are not quite as common, such as carne asada con huevo, served with thick cuts of flank steak topped with eggs and pico de gallo, and enchiladas de mole rellenas de huevo – scrambled egg enchiladas laden with the legendary sweet-spicy Mexican sauce.
Steaming plates and pots of coffee were dropped off in front of customers sitting in a classic Southwestern-style dining area appointed with furnishings purchased from the previous tenant – basic, yet comfortable wooden tables and chairs complemented by warm, muted colors offset by splashes of floral decorations hung along mimic adobe walls.
Aside from the vigorous Latin music that now streams from the restaurant’s stereo system, before the food arrives, there is little to distinguish the space from its predecessor, placing an even greater onus on what happens in the kitchen.
In his element
In the back of the restaurant, Matus emerges from behind a cloud of fragrant steam like an apparition and tosses a dozen shrimp a few feet in the air. The small crustaceans land back in a flaming pan, and with a few quick movements, Matus dashes the shrimp with dried spices, drapes them in grilled peppers and lays them in a bed of corn tortillas on a stovetop nearby.
“Shrimp tacos,” Matus shouts to his sous-chef, who trades him a green chile hamburger patty for the tacos, which he quickly transfers to a plate at the pickup station before a server scoops them up.
The kitchen has been Matus’ element, his sanctuary since he first began cooking as a teenager in his hometown of Xalapa, Mexico, where he first learned the Mexican food traditions that continue to be the staple items on his menu today.
One of Matus’ favorites is a Mexican delicacy: chicharrones.
“In Xalapa, there is a little town nearby called Banderilla,” he says. “As you go just about 10 minutes outside of my city, you get to a little town there, which is known for chicharrones, which are made from the pork belly and come in all different types in Mexico.”
Here in New Mexico, Matus says that Mexican food is often oversimplified, if not somewhat bastardized, as chicharrones, for example, are commonly presented simply as fried pieces of pork served in a burrito.
“Every Sunday, my family would go to the town to buy a few kilos,” he continues. “When we got home, we would serve them in small tortillas with special sauces: tomatilla sauce, suiza sauce and mole poblano.”
The last sauce he lists is treated with a certain culinary reverence in Mexico. The chocolate- and nut-based mole sauce even carries its own series of legends that attempt to explain its true origin. In Puebla, for example, one story says that a group of nuns first created mole for a visiting archbishop during the early Spanish-colonial period. Upon tasting it, the archbishop supposedly proclaimed it the best sauce in Mexico. One nun explained that it was a simple “mole,” which translated to “mix” in Spanish.
Whatever the sauce’s true genesis might be, mole has become an internationally renowned food – but like other adopted forms of Mexican food, Matus says it’s essential that mole be “done right.”
“First, you have to clean the peppers,” he says as he demonstrates the way he cleans them with his hands. “And they have to be the right peppers, too: chile mulato, chile ancho, chile pasilla. You have to seed them out and take the stems off. Then you roast the peanuts, almonds and sesame seeds that give the sauce its color – but you have to be careful,” he warns. “If you roast them too much, the sauce will be too dark. If you don’t toast them enough, it will be too light.”
All told, it takes about four hours, Matus says, before he adds spices, onions, garlic and a special Mexican chocolate mixed with cinnamon as the final ingredients.
'Here to stay'
Matus and his wife and business partner, Sarah Matus, first met while working at El Patio Restaurant (now The Alley Cantina) 15 years ago. Sarah Matus has been the chef’s business partner and front-of-house manager ever since.
“It’s hard work, but we love what we do,” she says. “We’re really happy in this space. It’s a beautiful spot. We’ve been so overwhelmed by all of the feedback from the community and the comments from our friends and fans. We’ve moved around a lot over the years, but this time, we’re here to stay.”
When brunch wraps around 2 p.m. and the last customers leave for the day, kitchen staff, owners and servers alike sit down for a meal together – like a family – a final, unseen piece of the authentic cultural experience Antonio’s seeks to bring to its new location in Taos.