Last summer, the chefs Pablo Rojas and Roxanna Mejia, both furloughed from their kitchen jobs, launched Gastronomy Underground, which delivers taco sets and multicourse meals to diners in Brooklyn. That the married couple, who are in their mid-twenties, have been undeterred by the challenges of the past year in their aspiration to cook professionally in New York City comes as little surprise. They met as college students in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, where Mejia grew up and where Rojas moved as a twelve-year-old. After a short time pursuing other careers, their shared passion for cooking (specifically baking, in Mejia’s case) grew into “an itch to work in kitchens,” Rojas told me recently.
In 2019, they sent fifty impassioned letters, cold, to high-profile restaurants around the country. After landing opportunities to stage at Eleven Madison Park and, before long, jobs at the NoMad and Bouchon Bakery, they sold most of their belongings and, with their two-year-old son, moved to New York. “The first eight months were brutal,” Rojas admitted, “physically, emotionally, psychologically”—for a while, they saw each other only to swap places in their apartment between shifts—but “we loved it.”
By the time the pandemic struck, Mejia and Rojas had found their footing. In April, they returned, for a time, to Texas. In July, back in New York, they began to brainstorm. The previous fall, they had secured a domain name for Gastronomy Underground, in hope of launching a rooftop dinner series; now they would take the concept on the road. At first, they partnered with some former colleagues, conceiving of the project as a collective of Mexican chefs in New York. But as those chefs lost their jobs, and in some cases their restaurant-sponsored visas, they returned to Mexico.
Gastronomy Underground, then, is a two-person operation, part of a growing movement of young Mexican chefs determined to deepen New Yorkers’ understanding of Mexican food. In Brownsville, which abuts the Mexican town of Matamoros, Mejia grew up eating in a style typical of northern Mexico, “really big on meat, grilling pretty much every day, flour tortillas,” Rojas told me. Hence Carne Asada Sunday, featuring grilled skirt steak—or vegetarian alambre, a mix of vegetables grilled with cheese—plus floppy handmade flour tortillas and all the fixings: frijoles charros, stewed with tomato, jalapeño, sausage, and dried chili; fluffy rice, steamed in beer and flecked with cilantro and coins of carrot; and toppings from avocado salsa and queso fresco to chopped onion and limes.
I admit that I did a double take when I read the instruction to place the tortillas and meat in the microwave. But doing so brought the steak, which had been a bit pinker than I’d have liked, to the perfect rosy hue. The tortillas grew soft and steamy. (If I’ve learned one thing after nearly a year of eating creative takeout, it’s that the microwave is the unsung hero of the kitchen.) On Taco Tuesday, I achieved similar results with smaller corn tortillas, topped with pork-confit carnitas or squash-and-eggplant pipian. The former, its luscious fat cut beautifully with bittersweet orange peel, pays homage to a style made famous in the state of Michoacán, where it is traditionally slow-cooked in enormous copper pots.
On a recent Friday, Rojas and Mejia offered a three-course tasting menu inspired by Radiohead, with an accompanying playlist. (Mise en place, they noted, could be translated to “everything in its right place.”) None of the dishes—a grain-and-mushroom salad with celery-root purée; a seared steak with brioche; caraway sponge with chocolate ganache, blackberries, and tarragon—were as easy to classify as carnitas. But were they any less Mexican, as a reflection of Rojas and Mejia’s instincts and of the country’s complex identity? “We have a history of French occupation, we have a history of Spanish conquest,” Rojas explained. “Five-hundred-plus years of food culture blending together. We wanted to understand and explore what that would look like within our concept.” (Meals $45-$70.) ♦