Oh, gracious jar of beauty...
Oh, gracious jar of beauty...
All photos by Dave Mau, if you already haven't got the drift...

Diatribe with Dave: Achiote?! Gesundheit!!, Or: Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen's Ass-Kicking Achiote Sauce

Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he's on to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

Until the last few years, achiote was a relatively unknown ingredient outside the humble kitchens of your favorite abuelita and has only recently become a cryptic culinary possibility with most of us crusty gabachos. Mexi? Maybe. Less Michoacán, más Yucatan. Perhaps as much smell as taste, a waft of flowers floats to the roof of your mouth mixed with pungent spice, earth and a hint of citrus. Our own Niyaz Pirani did a great spot on its use in Cochinita Pibil here.

There are several kinds (even a green achiote) that range from sort of the bland El Mexicano stuff in the brick form to spicy, briny, citrus concoctions from home.

I also like using it for puerco pibil, a steamy, delicious blend of roast pork, banana leaves, achiote and citrus (I dig orange and Meyer lemon juices mixed 1/2 and 1/2). It also makes an unexpectedly good addition to boliche, Cuban pot roast with a chorizo slid into it just for good measure. Some people swear by mixing achiote with scrambled eggs but I'm still not sold on it; I prefer using adobo. I've also seen some festive red sopes and tortillas around the holidays that have used achiote for coloring and flavor.

Ready for a rubdown...
Ready for a rubdown...

I'm a big fan of the Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen mission. They certainly have every right to be as pretentious as some of the one-dimensional, Johnny-come-lately restaurants on The Circle but aren't. I like what a good friend of mine from The Biz said when they opened up--"They're killing it and they don't even have a sign!"--the polar opposite of a not-to-be-named shop on the north end of Glassell which seems to change owner/concepts like A-Rod goes though bats. Gabbi's is straight-up solid, even by my jaded industry standards.

The queso fundido at Gabbi's is great, the open kitchen stellar and, like I said almost a year ago in my first piece for the Weekly, the interior is like a Mexi-womb. I want to crawl in there and sleep using a pack of warm corn tortillas as a pillow. Standouts on the menu include the quesadillas de huitlacoche (pretty hard to find outside of chilango spots), pollo en mole oaxaqueña and I'm bonkers for their nopales. The multi-colored chips for salsa dipping throws me off, but that is a personal trauma that we won't discuss here--no fault of theirs.

Gabbi's stealthy launch almost seven years ago coincided with the opening of the (thankfully) now defunct Aldo's across the street and set The Circle on its ear. With its gloriously rustic, brick-and-beam interior and open front restored to original speldor when the building was a market, Gabbi's popped up before you could say "what the f?" Next thing you knew, that end of Old Town went from sleepy, roll-the-sidewalks-up-at-six to having a bit of vibrancy after normal business hours.

One of the few known photos of Gabbi's not completely slammed
One of the few known photos of Gabbi's not completely slammed

Last fall, while sneaking in for a quick beer after working the YMCA booth at Street Fair, I bumped into co-owner Ed Patrick. We were talking shop biz, street fair and tequila when he handed off a jar of their house-made achiote, asking if I had tried it. "Why make achiote?" pretty esoteric thought I. Little did I know until I got home how stellar it is. Theirs has a coarser grind, bolder flavor and is not cut with masa to get twice the product like some brands. It sticks to meat better than any I have ever used and has more moisture as well, not as chalky as others. But flavor was what struck me: the usual notes in the nose but also an additional rumbling of roasted garlic in the back of my throat, preceded by a quick wipe down of my tongue by the cilantro and cider vinegar. Much different than some brands that are, at times, like glorified food coloring. I built a couple dishes with it and it stood up fo sho, especially on the grilled chicken quesadillas (I like 'em a little burnt).

Gabbi's achiote followed behind the launch of their hot sauce line and they are possibly now moving on marketing their amazing tortillas as well. That is in addition to their coffee, which is pretty impressive. Not bad for a former (literally) new kid on the block! Nobody on The Circle deserves it more.

Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check out www.dinnerwithdave.com for the latest!

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