Food & Drink

Mexican food, Nicaraguan soul: Miami chef’s tacos earn a loyal following

Brenda Castellón: The Nicaraguan-born chef of Taqueria Viva México in Little Havana has added her unique twists to the restaurant’s menu over the past three years.
Brenda Castellón: The Nicaraguan-born chef of Taqueria Viva México in Little Havana has added her unique twists to the restaurant’s menu over the past three years. el Nuevo Herald

Through her dishes, Brenda Castellón’s gift is to transport people to a place she’s never been.

“It’s as if I were eating in a corner of D.F. (the capital of Mexico),” Mariah Alvarado said while she enjoyed her lunch at Taqueria Viva México, 542 SW 12th Ave., Little Havana. “The tripe, the pork rinds in salsa verde, everything is very authentic. I always break my diet here.”

Castellón is the chef at the taqueria, one of the most popular Mexican restaurants in Miami. That’s why many people are surprised to learn that she is Nicaraguan.

“It hasn’t been easy because Mexican people are very zealous with their food,” said Castellón, 38, whose dream is to open a taqueria in Nicaragua. “One time a man came in, he heard my accent and said, ‘If you’re not Mexican, how are you going to know how to cook real tacos?’”

Even so, her love for Mexican food has allowed her to gain the trust of a diverse clientele made up of locals and tourists, who learned about the restaurant and its sister bakery through word of mouth or online.

“If you go to French restaurants, many of the cooks are Mexican, Nicaraguan or from a range of other countries. It’s the same in many Chinese or Japanese restaurants,” said Castellón. “I think what matters is to know how to make the food and the love you put into it.”

Her love affair with Mexican cuisine began more than 15 years ago in Costa Rica, where she had moved from Jalapa, Nicaragua, in search of better opportunities. In Costa Rica, she worked in the kitchen of a luxurious restaurant alongside a Nicaraguan chef who specialized in Mexican food.

During slow hours, chef Juan showed her how to prepare home-style meals. Castellón was enchanted by the ingredients, such as chiles and spices, and by the diverse ways of prepping meats.

“I like how artisanal and labor-intensive it is. How one is able to create so many dishes starting with one simple ingredient,” said Castellón. “The salsas attract me more than anything.”

Castellón, who is a single mother of three, decided to move to the United States in 2005. She hasn’t seen her children since then, and they were raised by her mother — a sacrifice that, according to Castellón, has been worth it since she has been able to provide them with a roof over their heads, an education and more opportunities.

Before working at Viva México, where she’s been employed for almost three years, Castellón was a kitchen assistant at Miami’s Mi Rinconcito Mexican for five years. There, she was guided by Maria Gutierrez, who taught her secrets of Mexican cuisine.

“The owner [Gutierrez] is the one who cooks and she’s very loyal to her recipes ... she puts so much love and effort into what she does and she inspired me to learn more.”

The owner of Taqueria Viva México is Andres Tovar, a man from Michoacán, Mexico, who opened the business because he wanted to offer authentic carnitas tacos and other Mexican dishes that can be hard to find in Miami. To her surprise, Castellón said Tovar allowed her to experiment with the menu.

“The carnitas are prepared by the owner with his original recipe, but he’s given me the opportunity to add nopales, carne al pastor, and the pork rinds in salsa verde, which are prepared from my recipe,” she said.

Now Castellón wants to bring Mexican gastronomy to the streets of her homeland. She plans to move to Managua next year — and start with a food truck.

“In Nicaragua, Mexican food is gourmet food, and to go sit in a restaurant you have to have a lot of money,” said Castellón, who adding that she also would like to go to culinary school.

“I’d like to cook my food and make it available for working-class people, like myself, so they can go to the corner and eat three tacos without having to be so elegant … it’s like going to a fritanga and eating a carne asada.”

But her biggest desire, she said, is to be able to serve some Mexican dishes to her kids — ages 20, 19 and 16.

“It has been difficult, especially in the beginning, knowing that you can’t enjoy the things you like with them,” Castellón said with tears forming. “I’d like to cook chilaquiles for them, those are my favorite. I think it’s time to go back.”

Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar.

If you go

Taqueria Viva México is located at 542 SW 12th Ave., Miami; 786-350-6360.