HAVE YOU ever made a family recipe, following it to a T, and it still didn’t taste like Grandma’s? Love is the ingredient often missing from those recipes, making the essence of the dish hollow.
As an Italian-American, I know about authenticity when it comes to food from my family’s homeland. While the ingredients play a role in the dishes that remind us of home, cooking them just right is a labor of love.
When dining in a restaurant I often wonder about the owner or chef’s story. Maybe it’s the food writer in me, but I want to know what inspired them, what obstacles they overcame and most importantly, I want to taste those experiences.
It is restaurateurs like Absalon Arnoldo Gomez Soto — everyone calls him Arnold — who embody the heart and soul of his country in the food that he serves.
Arnold is the founder and owner of all Cilantro’s Mexican Grill locations that stretch from Savannah to St. Simons Island.
While success from these establishments has been rising, Arnold was ready for a new chapter. On March 10, Arnold and wife Nancy celebrated the grand opening of their newest Mexican restaurant in Savannah, Mexicali Fresh.
“Mexicali Fresh is now our new baby...the inspiration comes from the idea to always be an innovator, to never stop thinking, to make things better. New ideas, modern decor, fresh ingredients, new dishes...that’s what Mexicali Fresh is all about,” Arnold shares.
Arnold is from Matamoros, México and came to Savannah about 20 years ago to find a better life for himself and his family.
He worked in just about every restaurant position, from busboy to assistant manager, with a dream to someday develop a space of his own.
In 1999 Arnold opened El Mariachi Grill in Hagan, Ga. He split with his business partner three years later to open the first Cilantro’s Mexican Grill in Claxton.
However, the stress of opening a business without a partnership took a toll on Arnold. He turned to God for an answer and received a sign one rainy day.
“I was driving in the rain, I saw... three or four drops of water joined on the windshield. When they joined together, they moved faster. That was it! I needed more people with the same dreams to succeed,” Arnold expresses.
For Mexicali Fresh, Arnold teamed up with Hugo Alfaro from Guatemala and Felipe Salazar from Mexico City. “We are a great team,” Arnold confidently states.
It was mid-week when I visited Mexicali Fresh. Salazar greeted me the same way he welcomed all customers, with a warm handshake and a comforting smile.
Patrons sat at the bar, while others noshed outside on the patio and inside in the colorful dining space. Children scribbled drawings while watching Netflix in a designated area meant just for them. People began pouring in as time went on, yet none were in a hurry to leave.
Salzar pointed out guests, friends rather, from the neighborhood, explaining that they were all regulars. He knew them by name, just as they knew him.
Salazar drew a map of Mexico on paper napkin, diagramming where the city of Mexicali was located. As a city that sits right on the Mexico and California border, the name speaks for itself.
The word authenticity came up and he set the record straight. Not only is nothing at Mexicali Fresh ever frozen—emphasis on “fresh— but also the chefs, owners and partners are all from Mexico.
“You can feel the soul of Mexico here,” Salazar passionately expresses.
The food speaks for itself. Mexicali Fresh has an expansive menu filled with classics and Mexicali Fresh originals. The menu ranges from sopas (soup), ensaladas (salads), burritos, mariscos (seafood) and carne (meat).
Indulge in any number of aperitivos (appetizers) from tableside guacamole to ceviche. The ceviche is a refreshing and crisp starter meant for those sweltering Savannah days.
Fresh tilapia marinated in citrus is cradled in boats of romaine lettuce, topped with pico de gallo and creamy avocado slices.
The modern taqueria menu offers scrumptious authentic and newfangled tacos. Each order comes with three scratch-made tortillas heaping with all the trimmings.
The Tacos al Pastor are as traditional as it gets. At Mexicali Fresh, the conventional method of cooking the meat on a trompo is utilized.
The term trompo is derived from a wooden Mexican toy that resembles a top spinner. This vertical spit of stacked marinated pork slices rotates alongside a flaming fire and the meat it trimmed off as it cooks.
For tacos al pastor, onions are skewered at the bottom of the trumpo and a pineapple is set on top so that the sweet juices run down the meat.
The tacos are served with charred onion and pineapple as well as marinated adobe chili pork, salsa verde and showered with effervescent cilantro.
If you’re looking for a Southern style twist, scarf down the Mexicali Chicken Taco. Juicy grilled chicken breast and stringy melted cheese is topped with chipotle mashed potatoes, spicy chorizo and served with a secret house-made red chili sauce that is savory and sweet rather than spicy and punchy.
Mexicali Fresh offers all the traditional bebidas (drinks) from non-alcoholic sips like Jamaica (hibiscus tea) and Horchata (milky rice water) to boozy favorites like mojitos and frozen margaritas.
When it comes to authenticity and tasting the love in food, Mexicali Fresh has it figured out. It’s no wonder why neighborhood locals come often and stick around.
With plans to plant more Mexican restaurants around Savannah and surrounding areas, Arnold sets his dreams ahead while staying grounded in his roots.