Señor Pico, the Mexican restaurant at the Rembrandt Hotel Bangkok, is eerily quiet when I arrive mid-afternoon to meet with Chef Carlos Antonio Bravo Torres. But then I hear a noise in a far corner and there find the 26-year-old native of Mexico City quietly tucking into a late lunch of pad krapow.
“I love Thai food,” he beams. “I’ve been in Thailand for a year and I’ve been deeply impressed with the cuisine, and I still have lots more to try. Equally, I think Thais have an affinity for Mexican food. As with Thai cuisine, Mexican cooking makes use of fresh produce that offer sweet and sour flavours and, of course, the heat of chili peppers.”
The many Thai patrons seen on any given evening at the popular restaurant attest to this. They are frequently joined by staff from the Mexican embassy looking for an authentic taste of home in the form of traditionally prepared ceviche, enchiladas, quesadillas, fajitas, and burritos.
Today Chef Carlos, who learned his craft at technical college, where he took courses including the study of pre- Hispanic Mexican food, is preparing a chicken chimichanga.
“It’s a Mexican staple,” he explains. “In essence it’s a burrito, except that it’s finished off in the deep fryer. In the early days, chimichangas and burritos were considered food for the working classes, comparable to pizza in Italy, but we aim to elevate them to a higher form.”
The dish comprises refried beans, cubes of chicken, and Mexican rice flavoured with a classic pico de gallo — salsa made of tomato, coriander, jalapeños, and habañero peppers — cheddar and mozzarella cheese, and cream, all wrapped in a locally made flour tortilla.
Chef Carlos puts two frying pans on the burner to heat. In one he mixes rice and a generous spoonful of the piquant sauce. While this warms, he lightly fries cubes of tender chicken in the other pan. After four or five minutes, he removes the pans and lets them rest while he lays out a large tortilla on a wooden board and, intriguingly, cuts a long piece of string.
Next he spreads a large spoonful of refried bean paste in the centre of the tortilla, followed by a thick layer of the warmed rice and fried chicken. To this he adds more of the pico de gallo and a large dollop of fresh cream. “Now comes the fiddly bit,” he says with a laugh as he deftly rolls the tortilla around the filling, tucking in the ends to form a sealed envelope, and ties the ensemble with the string (a bit like dressing a joint of meat prior to roasting).
The chimichanga is then deep-fried in very hot oil for three or four minutes. While this is happening, Chef Carlos prepares a serving plate with a garnish of shredded lettuce and dips of cheddar and habañero salsa and some sour cream. The chimichanga is then plated and served dressed with more grated cheddar, salsa, and coriander.
The result is a vibrant one-meal dish that combines a crisp crunch from the fried tortilla with the creamy textures of the filling. It is satisfying and rich, full of tangy flavour, but not overpowering, with a lovely lingering bite from the chili.