Adrian de la Torre, owner/chef of Poblanos Mexican Cuisine on Chattanooga's North Shore, was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, during a turbulent time in the city's history. After a difficult childhood and broken home, he moved to Atlanta, and it's there that he found his calling.
Most of the job opportunities at that time were in the restaurant industry, so he worked on his resume and soon found a job washing dishes at Marietta Diner. That didn't last for long, however. He had an inborn talent that was noticed by the chef, and soon he found himself being trained by some of the best in the city, climbing the ranks from dishwasher to prep cook to sous chef and finally to executive chef at Farm to Fork in Ringgold, Georgia. The food served there was mostly American fare, except for one day a week when the special of the day was Mexican.
"It soon became the most-popular day of the week," he says.
Here he talks about all the great cooks in his family, how he differentiates Poblanos from other Mexican restaurants and the trip to America that changed his life.
Q: What are your fondest memories of food in Guadalajara?
A: Mostly the street food, going to the market and being able to sit down on a very small table. Oh man, the food is amazing. One of my favorites was the tripe stew. They serve it with fresh handmade tortillas. Another thing that reminds me of Guadalajara is tejuino — a fermented dough that's served with lime ice cream. Oh, and I can't forget the barbacoa tacos. So good.
Q: Do you come from a family of good cooks?
A: Yes, my grandmothers, my parents — they all love to cook. I have memories of my grandmothers teaching me when I was little. Also my mom and dad love cooking — especially my dad. He is like me. He likes to invite people over, cook and have some tequila.
Q: Why did you choose to come to Chattanooga?
A: I don't think I'm the one who chose Chattanooga. I think Chattanooga chose me. I think everything happens for a reason. And, well, I'm here now, and we will see how we can make it better.
Q: What changes have you made to Poblanos?
A: Mostly everything. I've changed the logo, the interior, there are new tables, chairs, booths, bar, a hand-painted mural which tells a story and some other murals on the restroom doors. We also have a new lunch menu, and we have a new dinner menu and bar.
Q: What new things have you added to the menu?
A: Carne Asada, Flames Queso Fundido, Colombian empanadas, burrito machos, exclusive tacos, al pastor and new desserts. And I changed most recipes and presentations.
Q: There are a lot of Mexican restaurants in town. What are you doing to make Poblanos different?
A: For one thing, we make our dishes from scratch. The only things in our freezer are ice cream, shrimp and the mahi-mahi. We try to promote our art, like our handmade murals. We want to give Chattanooga something new and different, a new concept — something no one has.
Q: What's your favorite thing on the menu?
A: Uhh, that's a tough question. I think tacos are my main thing. I eat tacos every day. But the Colombian empanadas and the flamed queso fundido are the bomb.
Q: Do you have much free time now that you own a restaurant?
A: Not really. I work about 120 hours a week. I'm always here. Owning a restaurant is not as easy as people may think.
Q: At what point did you decide you wanted to own a restaurant rather than be a chef for someone else?
A: I've dreamed of owning a restaurant of my own for years. Working for someone else was not ideal to me, but it was a learning experience for sure. When the opportunity was given, I had to take the chance of a lifetime to try to succeed in the American dream. I want people to try my food, to get to see my ideas and learn about my story.
Q: What are some of your hobbies?
A: Well, right now, I just enjoy being with my daughter when I have time. I try to do everything with her. But I also have a drone I like flying.
Q: What is something people might be surprised to know about you?
A: I came to the United States not because I needed money but because I was on the wrong path in Mexico. I came when I was 18 years old. I was on vacation and decided to call my father and tell him I wasn't coming home. [Then] I met my wife, and, well, she saved me. I was making good money in kitchens, but I had always dreamed of being legal, owning my own restaurant and being able to provide a good life for my daughter. Now I'm a permanent resident.
Here's one of his favorite restaurant recipes.
8 cups vegetable oil
5 poblano peppers
6 egg whites
10 ounces queso fresco
10 ounces rib-eye steak, diced and run through food processor for coarse grind
4 ounces ground chorizo sausage (available in Mexican food stores)
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken broth
5 roma tomatoes
1 small white onion, quartered
1 habanero pepper, seeded and chopped, optional
6 dried New Mexico chile peppers, stems and seeds removed, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 chipotle peppers in adobe sauce, chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup tomato paste
Sour cream and extra queso fresco for garnish
Heat oil to 350 degrees. Brush peppers lightly with oil, and roast in 400-degree oven for 20-30 minutes or until skin is roasted, turning halfway through cooking time. Remove from oven, and place in plastic bag for about 15 minutes to steam them. This will make the skins easier to remove.
Put the egg whites in a bowl, and whip until foamy.
Clean poblano peppers, running them through cold water, removing all seeds. Make sure they don't break. Once clean, stuff with queso fresco and set aside.
Pour a little oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, and cook ground rib-eye to medium-rare. Remove from heat, and mix with chorizo. Fill each pepper with some of the meat mixture, using toothpicks to hold them together, if needed.
Dip each pepper in flour, then into egg whites. Heat oil in a skillet deep enough to fry peppers. Fry peppers for 2 1/2 minutes per side or until golden brown. Set them on a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
To prepare the sauce: Bring chicken broth to a boil with tomatoes, onion, habanero pepper, New Mexico peppers, garlic and chipotle peppers, and allow to simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes.
Heat a skillet with 4 tablespoons olive oil. Strain sauce into preheated pan, and add oregano, cumin, salt and pepper. Add tomato paste, and reduce sauce until thickened.
To serve: Place a chile relleno on a plate, and top with ranchera sauce, sour cream and extra queso fresco.
Contact Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.