If it seems like most mid-priced Mexican restaurants serve the same half-dozen combo plates, maybe it’s time for a change. That’s what Alejandro Cuellar thought when he opened Balvina’s in Laguna Hills.
Former Break of Dawn general manager Cuellar and his business partner, Rigo Peres, took over this space in September. While Cuellar still serves some of former chef Dee Nguyen’s breakfast dishes, the heart of the menu has been completely revamped, featuring dishes Cuellar grew up eating in Mexico.
Since mid-November it has been serving dinner, continually adding dishes. From posole to pipían, this menu features dishes from the Pueblan de Cuellar background as well as wines from the Guadalupe Valley, wine margaritas, Mexican beers, micheladas and more.
“Balvina is my mother’s name, she is my inspiration,” he said. In 1994 he came to California as a teenager. “I started working in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher in 1996 and have since worked my way up as a prep and then line cook,” the decades-long veteran says. in the hospitality industry with companies such as Black Angus, PFChange’s, and the Ritz-Carlton.
“I’m the youngest of 13 siblings and the only one in the United States. My whole family lives in Mexico,” he said. Cuellar likes to keep things traditional. He’s not a big fan of fusion cooking or putting his own spin on every recipe.
“I cook like my ancestors, exactly the way people have been cooking in Puebla for generations,” he said. His mole poblano is served with Jidori Airline braised chicken breast ($24) or on a plate of two chicken enchiladas ($20) bathed in gravy and served with rice and beans. Made from 26 ingredients, this mole has a sweet warmth and a long, warm spice-rich finish.
Diners can also order the same chicken breast with pipían sauce ($24) that’s steeped in history. Cuellar’s mother only made it once a year and when he asked her why she was telling him that story.
“Hundreds of years ago, the situation was very bad for everyone in Mexico. There was no food, so the mums had to use whatever they could to put something on the table,” he said. “They picked up some seeds and put them in a little jar.”
Chilli seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds were patiently and carefully harvested, then roasted and ground by hand on a volcanic stone metate, as his mother still does.
“They created the pipían with very few ingredients: onions, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, peppers, chili seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds – that’s it, very simple,” he said. he declares.
The resulting tan-colored sauce has been a favorite of hers since childhood. But another sauce he likes to tell customers about is one made from ground and dried ants.
“There’s a famous Mexican chef, Enrique Olvera, who put it on his table and people think he created it. But it is a natural phenomenon,” he said.
Flying ants arrive during the May rainy season in southern Mexico. “So people pick them up, wash them, remove the wings and roast them. The flavor tastes smoky, like tobacco, it’s really good. So, I don’t want to say that I created this dish, it’s the original, the way people have eaten it in the villages of Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas, for hundreds of years.
So far, the ant dish, which we have tasted and enjoyed, has not made it onto the printed menu, but Cuellar continues to add more recipes. Although some of the house specialties may seem exotic, the bulk of dinner selections consist of Mexican and American fare, like pork loin tacos ($18), enchiladas Suizas ($20), fajitas ( $22 for the New York steak or $20 for the Chicken Jidori), a 16-ounce rib eye ($48), and an Alaskan halibut Veracuz ($42).
For breakfast, there are eggs Benedict ($15), crispy chilaquiles ($15) and huevos rancheros ($15) — he sandwiches refried beans between two corn tortillas before topping with fried eggs, chorizo, avocado and fresca cream. Feel free to bring the kids for buttermilk pancakes ($12) or French toast ($15).
The organic coffee ($4) comes from Mexico. Cuellar knows an importer who brings it from an area a few hours north of the internationally known region of Huehuetenango in the Guatemalan highlands.
It’s another bow to tradition that Cuellar adheres to strongly because he knows it leads to delicious results, as he will tell you with a smile. “Why should I change the recipes when they are perfect? »
Balvina’s Mexican cuisine
Find it: 24291 Carlota Avenue, Laguna Hills; 949-587-9418, balvinas.com.
Open: 8:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. for breakfast and lunch daily; 5pm-9pm for dinner from Sunday to Thursday, 5pm-10pm from Friday to Saturday.