Tiara Darnell has no formal culinary training, zero experience in hospitality, and has never run a business of any kind. So, her decision to open the soul food restaurant Blaxicocina earlier this year was a bold one. Even bolder is the fact that she opened the restaurant in Mexico City. However, having already visited 40 countries, including a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, stepping outside of her comfort zone is nothing new for the Maryland native.
Darnell is a problem-solver at her core and relentlessly positive, two essential traits for a successful restaurateur. Still, she said that opening Blaxicocina was an especially difficult undertaking. “I think that I underestimated the amount of education that I would have to do about what soul food is,” Darnell said. “In a place where the influx of Black people has only happened in maybe the last five years, there hasn’t been much exposure to our culture even though a lot of culture from the U.S. is consumed here.”
Often, the best way to introduce unusual food or cultural items is to ground them in something familiar. Unfortunately, Darnell’s attempt at a Mexican-soul food fusion menu upon the restaurant’s opening was lost in translation. “I quickly realized that because there’s no cultural context for this food here, or not one that people recognize, a lot of the locals who would come by to check out the menu would be just very confused about what I was offering,” she said. A riff on shrimp and grits, such as shrimp served chilaquiles-style over tortilla chips cooked in a savory sauce, was delicious and inventive but ultimately didn’t connect with diners.
Her menu now is filled with familiar versions of soul food favorites such as crispy fried chicken and cornmeal-dusted fish, macaroni and cheese unsullied by neon orange powder, and savory oxtail. Even after Darnell decided to pivot to more traditional presentations of soul food, there were other challenges.
To make masa, the dough used in tortillas, tamales, and other classic Mexican dishes, corn is first soaked in an alkaline solution, a process called nixtamalization. However, the process makes the corn unusable for dishes such as cornbread and grits. She thought of a lesson she had learned from her extensive travels to make the fluffy, buttery cornbread and creamy grits she was accustomed to.
“When I was in Morocco, I craved the things that I missed from the U.S., and I remember one of the first Peace Corps volunteers that I met invited me to her house, and she made cornbread by grinding corn herself” into cornmeal, she recalled. “And so it’s just like I had to do certain things to adapt to where I was to have those tastes from home, and now here I am doing it again on a larger scale.”
Obtaining collard greens was not as simple as a trip to her local grocery store or farmers market. She couldn’t find them anywhere near Mexico City, so she had seeds brought in from Virginia and partnered with local farmers to grow the greens. Old Bay Seasoning, certain kinds of hot sauce, and even packets of Kool-Aid for a specialty cocktail must be brought in when friends and family visit.
Besides being determined to get things right, Darnell seems to be motivated by a genuine love of feeding people the food that she grew up on, American expats and Mexico City natives alike. Darnell hopes to build a community in Mexico City, which is experiencing a high level of gentrification, primarily from folks from the U.S. who, taking advantage of the opportunity to work remotely, came during the coronavirus pandemic for cheaper housing.
Blaxicocina is located in the Narvarte neighborhood in the Benito Juárez borough of Mexico City. Once quiet and middle-class, its beauty and tranquility have made it a popular destination for expats. Rising prices for locals and the inherent tension from outsiders encroaching are familiar to Darnell, who grew up in the Washington metropolitan area in the 1990s and 2000s when the city’s gentrification began. However, Darnell has found herself on the other side of the issue.
“Sometimes, when I’m in Ubers riding around the city, or if I’m at a street taco stand or something, someone will ask where I’m from. When I tell them I’m from Washington, D.C., they’ll ask, ‘Why are you living here? Don’t you like it there better?’ ” Darnell said. But even though she’s encountered some skepticism, she’s gotten way more positive feedback. “Generally speaking, most people are glad that Mexico City is becoming even more cosmopolitan than it already was with all these different people coming.”
Beyond the food, Darnell wants to create a vibe for anyone who visits Blaxicocina. Songs blaring out of the speakers at a family reunion and Uno cards next to hefty plates of food and cold drinks are close to the atmosphere she is trying to replicate in Mexico City. She has partnered with several DJs, including native Mexicans and Black folks from across the diaspora who’ve made their way to Mexico City, to match the soulful food with equally flavorful music.
After enduring the ups and downs common to first-year restaurateurs, Darnell wants to use the lessons she’s learned to create memorable experiences for her customers. On Nov. 9, the NBA is hosting a regular-season matchup between the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic in Mexico City as a part of its efforts to expand the game internationally. Darnell said she sees this as an opportunity to showcase Blaxicocina and the restaurant’s evolution from a new kid on the block to an established part of the Mexico City scene.
“If you’re Black from the U.S., you come, and you have a feeling of being at a home away from home, and you have something to eat that feels exactly like what you would get at your mom’s house, but I want people who are Mexican, who maybe have been interested in Black culture, but maybe don’t know that many Black people, to come and feel like they can get something authentic that’s not somebody else’s interpretation of what Blackness is.”