Food & Drink Review: Culinary Explorer
Chef or cook: No matter what you call her, Wendy Lopez has an extraordinary way with food at Reyes Mezcaleria.
Even if you’re not aware of the cuisine-trotting endeavors of restaurateurs Jason and Sue Chin (Seito Sushi, Osprey Tavern), you’ve probably heard of Reyes Mezcaleria, their restaurant and agave-centric lounge in downtown’s North Quarter that bridges casual, street and fine dining. Inspired by the work of Rick Bayless and immaculately styled by Sue, Reyes opened in early 2017, and the pan-Mexican menu has come into its own under the helm of Chef Wendy Lopez.
Lopez was born in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, attended high school in Flagler County, trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, and worked the kitchens at Disney and at Spanish restaurant Tapa Toro. She has headed the Reyes kitchen since late 2018, and recently I had my first opportunity to sit down as a regular diner to experience her remarkable cooking.
And cooking is the word, according to Lopez.
“When you come from culinary school, everyone says, I’m a chef now,” she says. “No. I’m still a cook to this day.”
When do you get to be a chef? I ask.
She looks bemused. “I don’t know. People call me chef, and 90 percent of the time I don’t answer. ‘Oh, me?’ ” she says with raised eyebrows. “I keep myself normal.”
I hate to disagree in her own space, but Lopez is a chef, and culinary explorer, of the highest degree. Endlessly fine-tuning ideas and always moving, an Alphonse Mucha-like tattoo of Frida Kahlo on her right arm, she creates food with the subtlety, sophistication and measure of whimsy that comes from talent and vision.
“Regionally inspired” is how Lopez describes the menu. “I want to make sure I can explore different parts of Mexico: the Yucatan, Veracruz, the cities where there is an abundance of street food, fast food, a lot of fine dining. The chicken mole from Oaxaca, esquites (shucked corn salad, crumbled with cheese, spices and lime) from the city, fish from Veracruz.”
Aguachile, shrimp bathed in spicy serrano-infused water, from Sinaloa; queso fundido, house-made chorizo baked in cheese, from Oaxaca; pork chop pibil, marinated in sour orange and roasted, from the Yucatan—all of these spotlight Lopez’s exploration of her homeland. Her huachinango Veracruz filet ($25) uses line-caught red snapper, roasted tomatoes, olives, capers and rice for a simple, very flavorful meal, while the 28-ingredient mole (her mother’s recipe) is a profound special occasion dish she likes to present every day.
“A lot of my dishes are from Michoacán. … I have these duck enchiladas ($25). Growing up, we didn’t use duck, we used chicken or rabbit, and it was something eaten on the street. Tortillas are dipped in a chili, garlic, oregano and onion sauce, grilled on a plancha, it gets nice and bubbly and crispy, and then filled with cotija and Oaxaca cheese. The duck is on the top. You eat it with pickled onions and cabbage. It’s like salty, sweet and tangy.”
Carnitas Michoacanas tacos, filled with tender confit pork shoulder and belly and fresh pico de gallo, ($10) is a recipe that her grandmother gave her.
“These recipes are near and dear, and can always bring joy,” Lopez says. “Corn tamales, fresh corn. When in season I use Zellwood—off the cob and into a hand grinder, a little bit of masa, baking powder, salt, black pepper. You form and steam them and you eat them with salsa verde and they’re like …”
Lopez’s eyes roll up in pleasure at the memory. “So that moment, when my grandmother and grandfather showed me how to make it, is important to me.”
At one time her parents owned three La Hacienda restaurants between St. Augustine and Tallahassee (one is still open). “I was so involved in my parents’ business that it seemed like a natural transition. I knew what I wanted.” Culinary school confirmed her ambition.
“I just want to know the why,” she says. “Why we sear things before we braise them. Why we add wine to deglaze. I knew the way my parents ran a restaurant; it was successful for them. I wanted to know another way, and the why.”
It’s become clear with the current generation of chefs (or cooks) presenting Mexican food in Orlando, that the food is as complicated and intricate as any cuisine on the planet.
A lamb stew from Jalisco, birria de borrego, is a dish Lopez has been working on for a while, a complex combination of slow-cooked loin and a rich, multi-chili broth perfumed with cumin, coriander, cinnamon, oregano and cloves that can rival any French or Indian creation. It should be on the menu by the time you read this. Get it.
“I hate to say we want to teach people what Mexican food is,” Lopez says. “Eat my food, and then if you’re into it, I’ll talk to you about it.”
“By eating,” says Chef Lopez, “you’ll learn.”
821 N. Orange Ave. Orlando
In Very Happy Spirits
With more than 140 mezcals and blanco, reposado, and añejo tequilas, the wall behind Reyes’ reclaimed cypress bar looks more like art gallery than saloon. Whether filled with a smoky spirit worthy of sipping, or blended mixto distilled for cocktails, the striking glass and ceramic bottles make it almost impossible to resist asking, “What’s that one? “ Which, obviously, is the point.