Aarón Sánchez Talks Tequila Cocktails And The Best Tacos In The Country - Exclusive Interview

Award-winning chef and TV star Aarón Sánchez creates bright and delicious creations at his restaurant, Johnny Sánchez, cooking Mexican food with a New Orleans flair. It is safe to say that this chef knows his tacos. This is why we are happy to see that Sánchez is hosting this year's Tacos and Tequila event at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. What started out as a small event has turned into a bustling display of the best tacos around, with Sánchez as the ringleader.

Of course, not everyone can make it to the SOBEWFF. We got the chance to speak with Sánchez in an exclusive interview about his favorite tacos and where to get them. Plus, he provided some helpful tips on making some of his favorite appetizers and cocktails. Even if you can't be in South Beach, you can still learn about making great Mexican food and pairing it with tequila.

Thoughts on the South Beach Wine and Food Festival

I wanted to ask you a little bit about the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. You're going to be hosting the Tacos and Tequila event. What should we expect from this event?

Well, I think what you're going to see is just, first of all, some of the best tacos that are showcased in one single event. I think you're going to see a beautiful marriage between tacos and tequila, and of course Tequila Cazadores is stepping up big time, like they always do, to kind of be my partner in this wonderful event. 

And just to see this particular event that goes into tequila growth is such a grandiose sort of platform, from it becoming like a late-night party in 2017 and now to be the featured event on Saturday night at this incredible festival, I think shows a lot of the popularity of tacos, Latin food in general, and all of us, with this desire to celebrate and enjoy ourselves. And South Beach Food and Wine has always been such a great partner with me, because they understand my passion and my love for life, and to have a great time. And I think it just goes in line with what we're doing at Tacos and Tequila.

Tequila and taco tips

So what are some of your best pairing tips for tequila and tacos?

Well, the best is acidity, acidity, a little bit of spice, but definitely about the idea of having tropical flavors introduced. But you know, the core essence of a great margarita or a great tequila is herbaceousness. There's a little bit of that citrus note, obviously, that really comes through, and then the earthiness by way of either aging the tequila or not. And so, when you're thinking about that in a taco, you kind of want to have that perfect harmony. So you want to have a salsa that has a little bit of chili or spice, have a nice sort abundant amount of lime and tons of cilantro herbs, and then make sure that your protein, whatever you're going to pair with your taco, is well marinated and well seasoned. So basically, one the tacos should not overshadow the tequila and the tequila should not overshadow the taco. They should be a beautiful marriage.

For someone looking to make a simple two-ingredient tequila cocktail, what mixer do you recommend?

I mean, you can go with a straight-up Paloma, which is just the beautiful marriage of grapefruit soda, Tequila Cazadores Blanco, and a squeeze of lime. And you can't go wrong with that. It's a classic, the Paloma. And you can make a very simple margarita, which is just orange juice, lime, Tequila Cazadores, and maybe a little squeeze, a little bit of orange liqueur. So just something like that can make a really huge impact and be able to really lighten up and have a cocktail that is really sort of... It's light, it's airy. Tequila is the only real liquor that's an upper. So it actually makes you feel really good, it really kind makes you smile, and have a great time, and all that good stuff, as long as it's done responsibly, obviously, and everything in moderation.

So it's just wonderful, the fact that we were able to choose all these fantastic chefs that specialize in tacos to come here and show their wares and their passion for what we're doing here for the 23rd Annual South Beach Food and Wine Festival, which is a huge deal.

I mean, up to this point, we've raised over $37 million in support, in drinking, and the proceeds come to help our youth. That's what the festival's about and that's also what I do. I have the Aarón Sánchez Impact Fund, which I started in 2017, around that same time that this started becoming a featured event. And what we do is put Latino kids at the culinary school. And so our morals and our ideology is very similar, on point with what this festival does and what I do. So that's why I'm always excited to be invited back and be able to participate. So this festival benefits the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism, which is part of the FIU, or Florida International University. So there's a lot of synergy there.

Best tacos in the United States

So this is going to be a controversial question, but what's the best taco city in America?

Oof, that's a tough one. I'll give you a couple, how about that? I mean, I feel like you can't go wrong with Los Angeles, obviously, just because of the density of Mexicans there. Houston is a big one. I think personally, Chicago has some of the best Mexican food in the country, that's just me. I think Miami has stepped up in a major way, what they're doing down there, and Homestead and those areas. They have a huge enclave of Mexicans. They're making great food there, great tacos. And then you have some places, like smaller areas like Austin, it's always been kicking ass, Phoenix. So there's many, many places that I'm a fan of.

Beyond your home and restaurants, what is your favorite taco spot in the US?

Oh, that's a tough one.

It's the hard-hitting questions.

I mean, I have so many. I love a place in Chicago called Tacos Uruapan, which does really great carnitas tacos. I love what they do at Big Star in Chicago as well, with my good friend, Chef Paul Kahan. There's a place in Austin that's called Valentina's that does barbecue, but with tacos. Valentina's in Austin, which I really love. Yeah, there's so many. I mean, give me a couple, because I feel like I'm going to piss my friends off. But anyway, there's many different layers, but yeah.

Do you have a go-to order?

Yeah, I always go, I love a good pastor, on a trompo. You know, the place I used to always go, the best one I've ever had, it's called La Gringa in Guadalajara, Mexico, which is my favorite that I've ever tasted. So I always go for a pastor if I see it. I love a great taco de cabeza, you know, like pork head. I love that. If I'm in Rosarito or Baja California, I definitely go for my fish taco, because that's kind of where I love to have it, where it was born and you just really can't touch it.

Appetizers and trends

With birria going mainstream, what is the next big taco trend that you think is going to hit the US?

Well, I feel like right now we went to the big birria taco, right? The birria quesadilla taco, which I feel did its thing and now it might be something different. I just think we're going to start getting into more Mexican regional cuisine. I think what's going to happen, it's not going to be, per se, one dish. I think we're going to start focusing on different regions and specializing in the cuisines from those areas. And I think from that, you're going to start seeing individual tacos come from those places. You know what I'm saying? If you go to a place called Tlaxcala, which is outside of Mexico City, they're very famous for their tacos de canasta. Then, you go to other parts of Mexico and they have their own kind of particular taco. So I just think you're going to see more of the regionality come out.

You recently stated on an Instagram post that queso fundido might be your favorite snack. What makes it so delicious?

Oh, what makes it so delicious is the fact that it has multiple layers and it's versatile. You can do roasted poblano, or rajas, caramelized onions, or you can flip the script, do that, and also put chorizo, a beautiful, homemade, Mexican-style chorizo. Or you can keep it vegetarian and put in sauteed mushrooms, and huitlacoche, and then shave truffles on top of it. So it's just the versatility of that dish that I love, because so many different things go so well with cheese.

Do you have any unconventional ingredients that you like to add?

Well, yeah, I just said the huitlacoche, it's a corn fungus, I think a lot of people, they're not familiar with. I love putting kimchi on it. I love kimchi in my queso fundidos or in my quesadillas. So that would be just a couple.

I someone wanted to make queso fundido at their home, what tips would you have?

Tell them, have a cast iron skillet or like a cast iron mini pan to cook it in. And then I would make sure that you preheat the pan so it doesn't take too long to cook. And then make sure you have a nice cheese blend. So not just do one kind of cheese, but maybe there's a Chihuahua or Monterey Jack. Put a little bit of provolone in there, and then don't be afraid to top it with another cheese as the garnish, like queso fresco, or cotija, or something like that. That doesn't necessarily have to be baked.

New additions to old favorites

With "MasterChef Junior" returning in March, what can you tell us about the upcoming season?

Well, this season, it's going to be fantastic. The kids are more prepared than ever. We are starting with a really good group. We have a bunch of eight-year-olds, going all the way to 12. And the kids are so prepared. We're doing really neat challenges and we're putting them into real-life situations that are going to really challenge their grit and their ability. So we're very excited about this season of "Junior," because it brings out the best in all of us. Now, we have Daphne Oz and we have Tilly Ramsay, [Gordon's] daughter. So it's a really beautiful dynamic of judges and just, it really is about fun and bringing out the best of these kids, and cultivating their love for food.

With Tilly Ramsay coming on as a full-time judge, what does she bring to the show?

Well, she brings a youthful exuberance, obviously, but she also brings out a side of Chef Gordon that's fun, you know what I mean? She pokes at him, you know what I mean? Gives him grief. So it's really nice to see Chef Gordon kind of become a little bit of that softie in front of his daughter. That's what we love to see, you know what I mean? And you'll see that as a common theme throughout the show.

Are there any fun behind-the-scenes interactions between the two of them that you can share?

Yeah, I mean, there's a bunch of them. They're very much, they love to kind of prank each other, you know what I mean? So there's always situations where he'll ... Oh, we'll do some silly dancing or TikTok stuff, that she'll make Gordon dance, which he absolutely despises. And then I subsequently get involved in all that. And then, so it's just a lot of fun, making fun of the old chefs, me and Chef Gordon. So all good stuff.

But I just really encourage everybody to really continue, obviously to watch "MasterChef," but also support the South Beach Food and Wine Festival. The core essence of the festival is helping our youth, which is our most valuable commodity. Tequila Cazadores has really stepped up in a major way, and always been my partner, and always helped really make this happen. Yeah, and I'll be on-site, obviously. So I encourage everybody to stop by, and take a photo, and have a word with me, okay?

Passing on knowledge

With that, you've discussed the importance of learning kitchen skills from your elders and passing down that knowledge to the younger generation. So what are some of the skills that you think are so important to pass down?

Yeah, some of the most important ones are just develop your own style. Don't regurgitate your mentor's teachings. Through experience, and through time, and working at your craft, you'll be able to find your culinary voice, and I think that's extremely important. And figure out what area of food service you want to get into. You don't necessarily have to be a restaurant chef like myself. You can be a recipe developer, you can work as a caterer, you can work as a personal chef, you can do culinary producing on a show. There's many different things you can do. I just don't want our youth to be dissuaded from going into our industry and then thinking that they're required to work in restaurants, you know what I mean?

So that's the one thing. So you can have a balance of life and a quality of life, with family or whatever you want, you know?

The South Beach Wine and Food Festival will be February 22-25, 2024. Purchase tickets at SOBEWFF.org.

This interview has been edited for clarity.