When Braden LaGrone moved to Guadalajara, Mexico six years ago, he found a familiar sense of place. Locals treasured their native ingredients and invested deeply in regional specialities and preparations. The fierce pride and emphasis placed on food felt like Acadiana, his former home and the place that kickstarted his hospitality career.
Stray too far in any direction, and you may be able to find “Cajun-spiced” dishes or kale-filled gumbo, but the soul of Cajun cooking is undeniably regional in nature. Anyone who’s ever imported boudin from Lafayette to Baton Rouge knows that there’s a relatively tight geographic fence around the dishes that remind them of home — but LaGrone is trying to widen that fence all the way from Guadalajara, the capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Originally from Shreveport, LaGrone fell in love with the cultural focus on food, drink, and the experiences that go with them on moving down south to attend the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His bartending career eventually led him to New Orleans, where he worked at Cure, an Uptown cocktail lounge that recently made its debut on the ‘North America’s 50 Best Bars’ list. While at Cure, LaGrone developed a passion and speciality around agave distillates — specifically, Jalisco’s world-renowned tequilas and mezcals.
“I would travel down there and go out to the pueblos to see the distillation and learn more about it. I just noticed the good food and seafood culture, and thought, somebody from Louisiana would love it here,” he says of his move from New Orleans to Guadalajara in 2016.
LaGrone has continued to specialize in sustainable agave-based craft cocktails, and as a bartender and consultant has helped to usher in Guadalajara’s boom in cantinas offering independent and locally distilled options. He has also become a sort of ambassador for Louisiana through hosting pop-up events and offering cantina snacks featuring Cajun and Southern favorites — like boudin, biscuits with cane syrup butter, fried pickles, and pimento cheese.
“People here love it,” says LaGrone, talking about Tony Chachere’s, Louisiana Hot Sauce, and other staples that he brings down from home. “There are similarities between the two gastronomies that boil down to the idea that it’s the food of the poor, from times of necessity.
“Down here, when you didn’t have goats and chickens, you would eat grasshoppers from the field — now they’re chapulines, with all the great seasoning. In south Louisiana, you wouldn’t have eaten crawfish for fun, you turned to them as a source for protein. And both cuisines use a lot of seasoning and spices. If you are cooking with whatever you have available, sometimes you need more seasoning to balance it out.”
Here in Lafayette, many chefs, business owners, and community advocates hailing from across Latin America are doing similar work to share their cuisines and culture with Acadiana residents. On October 6, the Asociación Cultural Latino-Acadiana will host a Latino edition of Downtown Alive!, featuring music, dance, and vendors offering Latin cuisines. Pablo Estrada, ACLA President, says that Louisiana- and Latin-based dishes have another similarity: the best meals are held to the standard of how grandma used to make them.
“Here, when grandma cooks, people know and understand what’s what — because she’s been doing it for so long. It’s the same thing in the Latino culture, the love and respect we have for the kitchen and the grandma. It’s the love that goes into the pot,” he says. “That’s universal.”
Daniel Lugo of Lafayette’s Patacon Latin Cuisine feels that the act of offering food from outside of the dominant culture plays an important role in building understanding. He thinks of his parent’s restaurant — which serves street food from the western side of Venezuela — as a safe space for customers to learn about his native country.
“That’s one of the cornerstones of the restaurant, helping people understand Venezuela,” says Lugo. “A lot of the news about the country is very negative, but my parents have always instilled in me this idea that it’s not all crisis. There’s a positive side. If a customer is willing to learn more about our country, I’m 100% willing to talk about it. I consider it part of my responsibility as an American citizen and a Venezuelan citizen.”
This culinary diplomacy is reflected in LaGrone’s work in Mexico, which has helped to foster connections and appreciation between the food cultures of his two homes. This September he hosted staff from The Columns Hotel in New Orleans, working with local chefs to bring a Mardi Gras-themed weekend to Guadalajara. The menu consisted of crowd-pleasers with a fusion spirit, like fried chicken biscuits (doused in cane butter with a hint of agave syrup) and Cajun-marinated shrimp with corn ribs — cut from the cob and thrown on the grill like a rack of ribs, as is fitting for a region where corn, instead of rice, is the preferred starch.
Chef Gabriela Lopez took her inspiration for the evening from a work trip last April to New Orleans and Lafayette with LaGrone, where she absorbed the tastes of the Louisiana festival season. For the Guadalajara pop-up she worked to recreate some of their guests’ local flavors, making her own hot sauce (inspired by Crystal and Louisiana Hot Sauce), creole seasoning, and pepper jelly to complement the dishes.
“I saw that food is involved everywhere,” says Lopez of her visit to South Louisiana. “I’ve never been so full in my life. What blew my mind is how different it is from the rest of the US. You can really see the roots, the tradition, why the dishes exist. People don’t make things in a certain way just because it occurred to them.”
Lopez, a Guadalajara native, also thinks that her local dishes reveal a superior taste — further proving the shared “ours is best” culinary emphasis between Mexico and Louisiana. “When companies release a new item, they pay attention to Jalisco,” she says. “We’re picky. And if it works here, it’ll work across the rest of Mexico.”
Given the high standards present, it may have been nerve-wracking to serve food to a mixed crowd of tapatíos (people from Guadalajara) and Louisianans – but the sold-out dishes indicate that the standard was reached during LaGrone’s Mardi Gras event. “It went really great,” says Lopez. “Thankfully, everyone loved the flavors.”
LaGrone points out that “food is important to people here just like it’s important to people back home, and it’s all about the local. You can have a long conversation on the bus, ‘my mom made it like this.’ If you are trying to make a bridge between you and a stranger, you bring up food.”
Showing the culinary partisanship that is especially — often proudly — endemic to South Louisiana and Acadiana, he goes on to say that “in a lot of places in the U.S. it isn’t like that. I mean, you can find good food, but it won’t be from there.”