Focusing on traditional favorites from Mexico City, this new restaurant skips the chips and salsa

La Garnacha hopes to connect customers with “the real Mexico ... that’s when the magic happens.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune)A pambazo at La Garnacha restaurant in Herriman gives customers a traditional representation of food from Mexico City.

Mac and Carlos Tapia’s journey toward opening La Garnacha began with some detective work.

Interested in their ancestors and their food history, they started looking into traditional Mexican fare. They researched how Aztecs broke down corn and cooked it in an alkaline solution to take advantage of its nutritional properties.

Then, they tried to figure out how to bring to Utah a specific Mexican maize that doesn’t make the body feel heavy after a full meal.

These are the kinds of details the Tapia brothers deemed important for the conception and execution of La Garnacha, a restaurant that promises to bring a piece of Mexico City closer to Herriman. The name refers to the many street foods in the capital city, local slang similar to “grub.”

“I think as long as people get to know the real Mexico, which is deeper than what is being shown, or standardized, that’s when the magic happens,” Mac Tapia said, “and that’s where connections happen.”

So one standard offering you won’t see there: chips and salsa. While the ingredients of chips and salsa can be traced to ancient Mesoamerica, using salsa as a dip and serving tortillas in other forms — such as tostadas — began to spread in the U.S. in the early 1900s, The Austin Chronicle has reported.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sope at La Garnacha restaurant in Herriman.

Chips and salsa are not ubiquitous in Mexico City — and that’s the place La Garnacha tries to recreate, with a minimal decor of pieces that can spark conversations about life there. From his childhood in the capital, Tapia remembers streets ruled by food vendors who filled tortillas with meat.

Outside the restaurant, the letters “CDMX” (shorthand for Ciudad de México) stand in black and bright pink, a replica of the installation in Zócalo Square, the main plaza in central Mexico City. Inside, customers are guided by colorful signs emulating those of the Mexico City Metro.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mac , Carlos, Vicente, and Barbara Tapia, owners of the La Garnacha restaurant in Herriman.

Tapia lived in Mexico City until he turned 10 years old. He remembers that as a kid, he would pick up a guajolota, a popular street sandwich filled with a tamale, before school.

But he couldn’t wait for recess and would sneakily have a few bites under his desk. By providing a simple menu with no sour cream or Mexican blend cheese, he tries to encourage customers to find and engage with traditions.

Seeing La Garnacha’s dishes, some customers say, “I used to do it this way, too,” or “We used to eat this way, too,” Tapia said. “So they make this connection and all of a sudden, this culture becomes one with other people,” he said. “And now, they feel part of something.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A gordita at La Garnacha restaurant in Herriman.

Finding clues about his ancestry helped Tapia answer questions about how he wanted to shape his future. When he revisited Mexico, he realized that the hectic pace of trade was part of the capital city’s nature, which he felt explained an important part of his own personality: his interest in entrepreneurship.

That is how Tapia wants his customers to feel in his restaurant — a connection to their identities, “and what better way to connect than with food?” he said.

There are only six options on the menu. One of the most popular dishes are the huaraches, lightly fried 13-inch corn tortillas filled with beans and topped with salsa, a protein, onions and cilantro.

The other items include pambazos, an artisan bun dipped in chili sauce filled with meat or vegetables.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) La Garnacha restaurant in Herriman gives customers an authentic representation of Mexico City, without sombreros, or chips and salsa.

The family used to sell smaller versions of the dishes from their home. Evelyn Alpizar followed the Tapias’ work at the beginning of the pandemic, before they opened La Guaracha in August 2020, and she now drives from Cottonwood Heights around four times a month to visit and enjoy their snacks.

”My dad is from Mexico City and I also have him hooked on it,” she said.

“I definitely think that they’re not just like your Tex-Mex kind of restaurant,” Alpizar said. “I feel like at La Garnacha, their culture is super important, as important as the quality of their food, versus just like a place that’s decorative Mexican style.”

Even though her family is from Mexico City, Alpizar is still adjusting to one issue with the menu. “I love chips and salsa,” she said. “I think it’s really funny that they don’t do that and that they say that it isn’t authentic. Because it really isn’t. So that is true. But I mean, it’s not a big deal to me.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A white axolotl salamander named Chachita is one of the mascots for La Garnacha restaurant in Herriman.

During October, customers have been invited to place photos and favorite foods of their ancestors at an ofrenda (or memorial) inside La Garnacha.

And reflecting the brothers’ interest in finding meaning in family roots, the restaurant will host a Day of the Dead workshop on Nov. 1 and 2 to invite customers to learn more about their ancestry.

“We’ll be taught ways to find our ancestors and continue to connect with them throughout the year,” the restaurant’s invitation on Facebook says.

In his own DNA analysis, Tapia found out he is 70% from the Mexica indigenous group, which coincidentally is in the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family.

”It’s funny because if you ever study about them,” he said, “the Mexica will go from Mexico City all the way up to Utah.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carlos, Barbara, Vicente, and Mac Tapia, owners of the La Garnacha restaurant in Herriman.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inside La Garnacha restaurant in Herriman.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.