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.

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.

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.

Follow @ocweeklyfood on Instagram! And check out Dave’s podcasts: Memphis Mondays and Fat Drunk And Happy!


2 Replies to “Diatribe with Dave: Achiote?! Gesundheit!!, Or: Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen’s Ass-Kicking Achiote Sauce”

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