The magic of Mexican food depends a lot on the indigenous ingredients of Mexico and has, until recently, outside of a few special places in the United States (e.g Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo and Frontera Grill), been extremely difficult to reproduce with high fidelity elsewhere. In recent years, as the availability of key ingredients has improved, the quality of Mexican cooking within the United States has increased exponentially with excellent quality popping up throughout North America. New York City has been the epicenter of this new development led by the likes of Alex Stupak with his burgeoning stable of both creative and traditional Mexican restaurants and the recent arrival of Enrique Olvera’s marvelous modernist, Cosme, amongst others. Europe would seem to present a much higher degree of logistical difficulty, but over the past year or two, Spain, in particular, has witnessed the opening of a number of high profile Mexican restaurants. None, however, are higher profile than the two opened in Barcelona by Albert Adriá and Paco Mendez. The germination of these restaurants occurred about six years ago when Mendez, who hails from the Distrito Federal (Mexico City) was working at elBulli. He and Albert Adriá thought it would be fun to open a Mexican restaurant in Barcelona. Since that time, the duo have been doing research throughout Mexico and over the past two years or so, have put the idea on the front burner, opening not one, but two Mexican restaurants within the past six months. The results, as with anything touched by Albert Adriá, are astonishing.
The two restaurants, Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa, share the same entrance and are located in the same neighborhood as the other restaurants of the Albert Adriá universe, all within an easy stroll of the others. Niño Viejo is found in a room past the bar and to the left when facing away from the shared entrance. The room is casual, decorated with Mexican themed art. It is small, but not tiny with space for approximately thirty diners. The theme is street foods from throughout Mexico with an emphasis on tacos.
The specialty cocktail list is limited to a variety of Margaritas, but the selection of Mezcales and Tequilas is superb. We started with two different Margaritas, arguably the national cocktail of Mexico, or at least the most well known internationally. The first was called the Margarita Montjoy, done in the style of elBulli topped with an aire de sal (salt foam). The other, made with Mezcal, was called the Mague and was topped with a foam of sal de gusano (worm salt). Both were refreshing and delicious with neither too sweet.
A parade of small bites and dishes marched to our table, each a version of some traditional, regional Mexican dish. A plate of small olives enhanced with lime and toasted pumpkin seeds with chile de ajo were the first to arrive and served well to whet our jetlagged appetites.
Swiftly following was a plate of chunks of sweet mango and crisp jicama treated with lime, chamoy sauce and taquin chiles. It had superb balance and great flavors.
A fine guacamole came with the seed and pestle as decorative items. The oblong, huarache-like, house made totopos were outstanding with enough body to have a bite taken without shattering. The guacamole itself was relatively simply prepared without much obvious adornment outside of lime. The quality of the avocadoes was outstanding and so they did not require much of anything else.
Queso fundido could be the very definition of comfort food and that made at Niño Viejo, is quite comforting, indeed. Abetted by rajas of chile poblano, the molten ooze was spooned onto house made corn tortillas and lifted into my waiting mouth. There was nothing particularly sophisticated about this, but there didn’t need to be.
Grilled avocado with beet was served with both a tomatillo sauce and cilantro sauce. The dish was good and a very interesting concept, but compared to the rest of the meal, actually felt relatively ordinary. That statement is more a reflection on the outstanding nature of the other dishes than an absolute criticism of this one.
Agua frescas are fruit based drinks popular throughout Mexico. We were served one that was a combination of pineapple, apple and celery with ground Jamaica (hibiscus flower) sprinkled on top. It was as delicious and refreshing as intended.
The proximate dish was a stunner, inspired by the brilliant, fresh seafood of northern Baja California. It was a fresh sea urchin aguachile with lime and avocado purée. The clarity and freshness of the flavors thrilled with each bite of the delicate gonads enthralling and enchanting as a wonderfully subtle picante heat remained on the finish. This was simple Mexican seafood at its finest.
Another aquatic stunner inspired by Baja followed the urchin, but this one featured some of the finest oysters not just of Europe, but of the world. French Guillardot oysters are renowned for their briny complexity and deep dish. These No. 3’s had both, but also a bandera treatment featuring Tequila, lime and sangrita de tomate. Once again, I found a treatment of oysters that respected the purity of the product while enhancing it with a well-balanced, sufficiently subtle and ultimately delicious overlay. They key was the relative simplicity of the preparation that did not obscure the wonders of the oyster.
One of the advantages of crafting Mexican food in Spain is the availability of outstanding Spanish product such as Galician octopus. The tender cephalopod was prepared as a tostada on a crisp corn tortilla blackened with its own ink and supported by a combination of salsa roja, avocado cream and chipotle mayonnaise. While not quite as revelatory as the previous two seafood dishes, it too was an outstanding juxtaposition of flavors and textures.
A trio of salsas was brought to the table along with sliced limes. In order of heat, they were made from three different chiles, serrano, arbol and habanero. They all had great flavor and the habanero packed some nice picante punch. These were to be added to taste to the tacos that were about to come our way.
The first of the tacos were filled with huitlacoche, aka “corn smut.” While the huitlacoche can make an ear of corn unsightly, to the connoisseur, it is a thing of great beauty. Topped with some salsa de chile serrano and a squeeze of lime, this was a lovely treat.
The Yucatan was the inspiration for the next taco, one of cochinita pibil on a panucho. Cochinita pibil is a special Yucatecan pork preparation that incorporates fresh citrus juices and other tropical ingredients in with the simmering pork. Panucho is a Yucatecan fried corn tortilla. This was a marvelous couple of bites, crisp-shelled and very, very savory with a dollop of heat from some habanero salsa.
Another very nice bite was a suadero taco with veal, chorizo and chicharrones augmented with a touch of chile Serrano.
There are carnitas and there are carnitas. If done with a modicum of skill and decent product they are always tasty. When done with a lot of skill and the ribs of the Cerdo Ibérico, as these were, they are otherworldly.
At this point we each had another cocktail. The Lola used Tequila with citrus and a touch of agave syrup to make a nice, bright drink. The other featured Mezcal with Framboise and a conceit of vinegar powder at the base of the glass with an instruction to dip a finger into the cocktail then onto the powder.
Tacos al Pastor were well prepared and tasty, but this was the one area where not actually being at a taqueria in Mexico seeing the meat sliced off the rotating vertical grill detracted from the experience of the dish. This was a surprisingly rare criticism of this superb restaurant and not one that reflects the actual quality of the food on the plate.
Iberico ribs were used for a second time, but this dish was a braise based upon a recipe from Chef Mendez’ grandmother. He grew up eating this dish and the love showed in its rich flavor and outstanding texture. It was another stunner and was the last of the savories – a most worthy finale.
We limited dessert, but what we had was worth every calorie and then some. An ice cream cone made from corn was filled with Oaxacan chocolate de metate, hand ground Oaxacan chocolate. It was simple, but so good!
The other and last bite of the meal was a Margarita macaron with sal de gusano and the colors of the Mexican flag.
Niño Viejo is a restaurant true to its purpose. Mexican cuisine is one of the great food cultures of the world and it is made here with great respect, love and skill. I felt like I could easily have been sitting and dining in one of the best taquerias of Mexico City. Authenticity is a word that gets bandied about quite a lot, but this truly showed Mexican food at its best and with the proper spirit, a remarkable feat for a restaurant so far away. While some modern flourishes and techniques may have been used, the food was essentially true to tradition and its origens. That was less the case at my next meal – Hoja Santa, which took this traditions and elevated them in a way that only Albert Adriá and Paco Mendez could do. Stay tuned!
 This will change in the not too distant future as Albert and Ferran Adriá are working on a restaurant project on the island of Ibiza in conjunction with the Cirque du Soleil.
 A recent trend amongst the best Mexican restaurants outside of Mexico is to make their own tortillas fresh in house. An even more recent and higher end trend is to use heirloom corn imported from Mexico. This is the case at Cosme and also at Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa. The difference is noticeable and a significant reason that the quality of non-Mexico Mexican dining has improved.