Chef Roberto Santibañez on His New Book, and the Perfect Chilaquiles

Growing up in Mexico City, chef Roberto Santibañez was surrounded by women — his mother, his aunts, his grandmother’s sisters. Luckily for him, they loved to cook.

“I learned most everything I know from them,” says Santibañez, who formerly helmed Austin’s Fonda San Miguel and now owns Fonda, a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn that's become a favorite of foodies and food writers. 

“My grandma used to travel around the world and she’d bring back recipes. All of a sudden on Monday, she’d be back from a trip and we’d have chicken with tamarind and papaya-tapioca puree, because she had gone to Southeast Asia. I learned so much from them. They were really into cooking. And not only Mexican, they were really into cooking anything.”

Santibañez’s Mexican recipes have been featured in magazines across the United States, but his new cookbook, “Truly Mexican,” goes a bit deeper, aiming to teach home cooks the building blocks of Mexican cuisine.

The book focuses on moles and pipiánes, guacamoles, adobos and salsas.

It’s full of details on proper consistencies and textures, and offers a chart on how to roast different types of dried chiles and how to tell them apart. Plus he's got a few creative twists, such as apple-tequila guacamole.

Here’s more from Santibañez on what he hopes aspiring cooks might get from his book.

Q: Why focus on salsas, moles and adobos?

A: Those are the things that really make our cuisine so unique. Every culture broils, bakes, fries, boils, steams. Everybody does that. But the flavorings are what give us the uniqueness.

Q: Is the goal for cooks to be able to create their own dishes later, once they know these techniques?

A: Yes, if you’re an avid, knowledgeable cook, and you’re respecting the platform of flavors textures and colors that unite us all as Mexicans. If you respect that, I’ll be fine if you create your own.

More than anything, it’s to be able to identify things. You sometimes go walking in the market in Oaxaca or anywhere, really. And you see this chicken, the pieces floating in this reddish sauce. If you really went through my book and you really learned what you were doing, you would be able to tell me if that chicken was made in a tomato sauce, or whether it was made in an adobo de chile ancho or guajillo. Why?

Because we taught you how to differentiate that.

Q: How do you know people are ready for that information?

A: If you really like Mexican food, that’s the first question, I think you’re ready after so many years of Mexican food already co-existing with the U.S. People know now, and they can differentiate between what’s really good and what’s really bad. I think little by little we’re getting rid of the perception of the creamy burrito.

Q: What would you cook for your mom for Mother’s Day, if you had all the time in the world?

A: I’d do breakfast. I’d do chilaquiles and serve them with a couple of eggs.

Q: Does she like them crispy or soft?

A: That sort of perfect mix, where it’s crispy and it’s getting soggy.

What I would do, if it was a meal and people were coming, to make my life easier I’d do a couple of stews I could make ahead, and set a table with different salsas and guacamoles, and arroz and frijoles, so you could pass by and make a buffet. Or I’d do a barbecue outside. So I’d have all my stuff marinating already and I’d make a couple of salsas, and tacos de carne asada, de pollo asado. And some chorizo that I would buy. I’m not Diana Kennedy so I’m not going to make my own chorizo. (laughs).

Lesley Téllez is a freelance writer in Mexico City, where she also gives food and beverage tours.

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