Scorpion Tamales, Grasshopper Tacos in Denver Mexican Restaurant
Chocolate and pineapple scorpion tamales, red worm tostadas (chiniquile), garlic-roasted grasshopper marrow bones (chapulines) and ant larvae tacos (escamole): how’s that for a tasting platter?
After facing initial backlash online, a Mexican chef in Denver has introduced Aztec-influenced dishes in hopes of educating diners about pre-Hispanic cuisine and a culture that has been around for thousands of years.
Jose Avila, a chef named James-Beard at La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal in downtown Denver, first teased guests about a new taco menu on the restaurant’s Instagram in February. The taco featured chapulines, a pre-Hispanic Mexican delicacy made up of small grasshoppers dried and roasted and often seasoned today with garlic, chili and lemon.
“Most insects alone, they don’t taste too much. Just like crickets, they just taste like something crispy with no flavor,” said Avila, who grew up in Mexico City munching on chapulines while shopping at local markets with her mother.
The post garnered just over 100 split opinions as some echoed sentiments of “I refuse to eat bugs. I want steak!” as one commenter put it. Others wished they had the chance to try them, “When I was little my cousins and I would catch them and fry them,” said another commenter.
“A lot of people think we wanted to start a trend or something, which is ridiculous,” Avila said of the online backlash.
He saw the controversy as a chance to expose people to the origins of pre-Hispanic food and ingredients, which included edible insects, a protein source that is still common in many parts of Mexico.
“It’s not just meats and tortillas,” Avila said of her home country’s cuisine.
Inspired by the annual insect festivals in Mexico – Avila said there are hundreds of edible insects in Mexico – he created a Festival de Bichos, or insect festival, at his restaurant this week, with a menu which includes the sample platter.
The event, which continues throughout the weekend, has already been a success, according to Avila. He said he was impressed with the diners who had “killed” the platters, leaving behind only bone marrow and tamale corn husks.
“Eighty percent of the people who had the set, they knew what they were expecting. They wanted it. They wanted to eat it, they wanted those things. And the remaining 20% [got it] because [they were] curious about it,” Avila said.
“For us to keep these traditions and keep these ingredients, these techniques are getting stronger in 2023, that’s just my goal,” Avila said.
The festival’s success was worth it, he said, despite a customs-related delay in shipping the insects from Mexico. “It’s not an item that you can go to a Depot restaurant and order two cases of this and two cases of that,” he said. Bugs aren’t cheap either; Avila told NBC News that some cost him $150 a pound.
Avila has won awards for its authentic pozole (hominy) dishes and mezcal experiences; he boasts that he and his team stick to tradition and make the caldos, or soups, with ingredients imported from Mexico.
His creative visions for tradition have paid off — in 2021, the Denver Post named La Diabla the best restaurant in town, and last year Bon Appetit named it one of America’s best restaurants.
Although Avila loves the recognition, he said it’s really about hitting the “low point” – when a Mexican restaurant bites into the food and gets carried away.
“That’s what it’s all about – bringing back memories of these people, of their childhood and reminding them of their grandmothers and mothers… Maybe they’re not here with us anymore,” Avila said. “These are the rewards.”