Restaurateur Dan Quinn has announced Julio Aguilera will take on the role of head chef at Baja, his new Mexican restaurant scheduled to open in Fortitude Valley next week.
Aguilera is one of the bright young lights of the US dining scene. He began his professional career in San Francisco in 2009 and worked at Ozumo, Waterbar and Leopold’s before joining the then two (now three) Michelin-starred Saison as chef de partie of that restaurant’s wood-fired hearth. Aguilera’s first executive chef role was at La Urbana, where he earned praise for his elevated interpretations of Mexican food. Most recently he’s been running his highly regarded El Destilado restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico.
In short, it’s an intimidating CV. And now Aguilera is moving to Brisbane.
“Brisbane is becoming this big thing,” Aguilera says. “It reminds me of San Francisco in 2009. There are a lot of pop-ups, different types of ethnic food. People just want something different to what's already there – it’s a really responsive town.
“You have all these big Thai restaurants opening up, [and they’re cooking food that’s] very spicy and authentic. That kind of showed me that the city is ready for another type of flavour.”
Aguilera says his first menu is about putting a modern Baja California riff on classic Mexican dishes. So, a queso fundido (a traditional dish consisting of melted cheese served with tortillas) becomes burrata du buffalo with buffalo-milk burrata served with smoked cashew salsa and charred garlic toast. “I’ll use vegetables you wouldn’t normally use in Mexican food, like asparagus, parsnip, celery root, but cooked in a Mexican-style and flavour,” he says. “The number one thing is it’s got to be spicy.”
Other menu items include boneless chicken wings served with a pomegranate molasses glaze, red onion escabeche (a type of marinade popular in many Spanish-speaking countries) and a buttermilk-coriander dressing; octopus cooked in its own ink with soy citrus roasted chillies and chile de arbol powder; and a king fish and coconut ceviche with chilli oil, cucumber, basil and fried shallots.
There will also be plenty of classic Mexican street food such as tacos and burritos. “[The burritos aren’t] like the ones you guys have where they’re really big,” Aguilera says. “The ones [in Northern Mexico] are really thin.” Fillings will include marinated grilled flank, miso-stewed mushrooms and buttermilk fried chicken.
Aguilera says the menu will season local produce using hard-to-find, specially imported Mexican chillies and spices, including worm salts and chilli from Oaxaca. “This last year I have just been doing research all around Mexico,” he says. “Baja is where I want to showcase all these amazing things [that I’ve learned].”
Quinn and Aguilera met through Naim co-owner Vince Estacio during a recent Aguilera pop-up at the popular Paddington cafe. Quinn says they hit it off immediately. “We wanted to bring something super special to Brisbane but not overly complicated,” Quinn says. “He sees that vision. To me, he’s super exciting.”
Once Aguilera was on board with Baja it shifted the focus slightly away from drinks-driven sessionable food to something more elevated. “We can actually back what we've been trying to achieve and bring something special to Brisbane,” Quinn says. “To offer that unique dining experience where the traditional flavours from Mexico are brought into the Brisbane food scene by using local produce, [but] sourcing many spices and chillies from Mexico.”
Aguilera is due in the country in early September, meaning he’ll miss Baja’s opening next week. Don’t worry, though: cooking in his place will be Valerie Frei, a colleague of Aguilera’s from El Destilado who most recently worked at Rutz, the two Michelin-starred Berlin wine bar and restaurant.