Nestled in an unassuming spot just a few blocks south of the rowdy punk rock clubs that line Red River Street, the guacamole-green El Naranjo trailer offers up something unexpected to hungry Austinites: authentic Oaxacan cuisine. Chef Iliana de la Vega and her husband, Ernesto Torrealba, opened the trailer this spring as the latest incarnation of their acclaimed restaurant of the same name in Oaxaca, Mexico, which closed in 2007.
El Naranjo is parked in a driveway in the burgeoning Rainey Street district. The couple is overseeing the remodeling of the adjacent house that will eventually become the brick-and-mortar version. In the meantime, the trailer boasts a surprisingly diverse menu that changes daily. “We serve one mole a week,” says de la Vega, who debuts the new type of mole every Wednesday.
When asked what her favorite ingredient is, de la Vega doesn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely chilies!” she says enthusiastically. “I’m always trying to learn more about them; how to deal with them in every way. Fresh, dried or smoked—my passion is basically the chilies.”
Torrealba’s passion is growing several varieties of those chilies, as well as epazote and hoja santa, two herbs commonly found in regional Mexican cuisine.
Both Torrealba and de la Vega are passionate about introducing new flavors and rare ingredients to their diners, like the Oaxacan oregano and Mexican vinegar used in their chileajo (a specialty made with vegetables in vinaigrette). “I don’t want to threaten anybody,” she jokes. “We are working on new recipes—very simple ones to introduce new things to people. We start with comfort foods and as more people get to know us, they might dare to try something that perhaps they have never tried before.”
De la Vega readily admits that running a food cart is challenging. “We thought the trailer thing would be more simple,” she says. “We have the desire to do many more things, and we don’t have much space.” The restaurant-savvy couple has had to carefully rethink storage space, prices, plates, silverware and even how to dispose of wastewater.
Not only a renowned restaurateur, de la Vega is also a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, located in the Pearl Brewery complex, where she’s been instrumental in developing the school’s Latin American Cuisine program. The San Antonio campus is expanding this fall into a soon-to-be-completed, 30,000-square-foot facility, and de la Vega is especially excited about the outdoor Latin kitchen where they will teach students how to make barbacoa (meat slow cooked in a pit covered with agave leaves) and cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork marinated in citrus juice and annatto seed) in a large in-ground cooking pit.
Balancing so many projects could easily strain a relationship, but Torrealba and de la Vega make it work. “We’ve been doing it for so many years,” he explains. While de la Vega manages the food preparation and trailer operations, Torrealba, a former architect, does the accounting and oversees the remodeling. “When you live in a challenge constantly,” she says, “you don’t have time to get bored and fight.”
85 Rainey St.