Scorpion tamales made with chocolate and pineapple, red worm (chiniquile) tostadas, bone marrow with garlic-roasted grasshoppers (chapulines) and ant larvae (escamole) tacos: How's that for a sampler platter?
After facing some initial backlash online, a Mexican chef in Denver has introduced Aztec-influenced dishes in the hopes of educating diners on pre-Hispanic cuisine and a culture that has existed for thousands of years.
Jose Avila, a James-Beard nominated chef at La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal in downtown Denver, first teased his guests about a new menu taco on the restaurant’s Instagram in February. The taco featured chapulines, a pre-Hispanic Mexican delicacy that consists of small grasshoppers that are dried and roasted and often seasoned today with garlic, chile and lemon.
“Most of the bugs by themselves, they don’t taste too much. Just like crickets — they just taste like something crunchy with no flavor,” said Avila, who grew up in Mexico City snacking on chapulines while shopping at local markets for produce with his mom.
The post gathered a little more than 100 divided opinions as some echoed sentiments of, “I refuse to eat bugs. I want steak!” as one commenter said. Others wished they had the chance to try them, “When I was little my cousins and I used to catch them and fry them,” another commenter said.
“A lot of people think that we wanted to start a trend or something, which is ludicrous,” Avila said of the reaction online.
He saw the controversy as a chance to expose people to the origins of pre-Hispanic food and ingredients, which included edible insects, a source of protein that is still common in many parts of Mexico.
“It’s not all meats and tortillas,” Avila said of his home country's cuisine.
Inspired by Mexico’s annual bug festivals — Avila said there are hundreds of edible insects in Mexico — he has created a Festival de Bichos, or bug festival, at his restaurant this week, with a menu that includes the sampler platter.
The event, which continues through the weekend, has already been a success, according to Avila. He said he was impressed with diners who had “killed” the platters, leaving behind only the bone marrow and tamale corn husks.
“Eighty percent of the people that had the platter, they knew what they were expecting. They wanted it. They wanted to eat it, they were craving these things. And the other 20% [got it] because [they were] curious about it,” Avila said.
“For us to be able to keep these traditions and to keep these ingredients, techniques going strong in 2023, it’s just my goal,” Avila said.
The festival's success has made the effort worth it, he said, despite a customs-related delay in the insects' shipment from Mexico. "This is not an item that you can go to a Restaurant Depot and order two cases of this and two cases of that,” he said. The insects are also not cheap; Avila told NBC News some cost him $150 a pound.
Avila has been garnering accolades for his authentic pozole (hominy) dishes and mezcal experiences; he touts that he and his team stick to tradition and curate the caldos, or soups, with ingredients imported from Mexico.
His creative takes on tradition have paid off — in 2021 The Denver Post named La Diabla the city's best restaurant and last year Bon Appetit listed it as one of America's best restaurants.
While Avila loves the recognition, he said it's really about hitting the "soft spot" — when a diner who's from Mexico bites into the food and is transported.
“That’s what it’s all about — to bring memories from these people, from their childhood and remind them of their grandmas and moms ... Perhaps they’re not here with us anymore," Avila said. "Those are the awards."