Create: Fresh Mex

Photography by Janet Warlick :: Styled by Muriel H. Wilkins


My favorite go-to source for authentic Mexican recipes has always been Chicago’s Rick Bayless, and a couple of my favorites from his cooking show are highlighted here. That said, in Arkansas we have several exciting chefs who are delighting us with “fresh Mex.”

Local Lime and The Fold, both in Little Rock, and Big Rub BBQ Truck in Bentonville are just a few that come to mind. Chef Alex at The Fold recently shared the ingredients for the restaurant’s ever-popular diablo shrimp taco with me. Although my version did not come close to being as delicious as the real thing, it is a good second for days when I can’t get to the restaurant. And the chipotle crema is good on chicken or tilapia as well.

Brava Steak

(photo above)

Here is a Latin take on grilled rib-eye steak using lime juice and jalapenos as a marinade. Serve this garnished with tomatillo salsa and mashed sweet potatoes with coconut milk; recipes follow.


  • 6 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 2 jalapeño chilies, halved and seeded
  • ½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice, about 2 limes
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 2 rib-eye steaks, 1-inch thick
  • tomatillo salsa


Roast the garlic cloves and jalapeños either under the broiler or in a skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally, until soft and blackened in spots, about 5 to 10 minutes. Puree the garlic, chilies, lime juice and oil in a blender or food processor. Season with salt. Pour into a shallow baking dish; add the steaks. Marinate steaks for 1 hour at room temperature or 2 hours in the refrigerator.

When ready to grill, wipe the marinade from the steaks and discard. Brush the steaks with a little oil and grill 3 to 4 minutes per side for medium rare. Serve with tomatillo salsa.

Serves two to four.

Adapted from

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa


  • 2 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • 4 to 5 medium tomatillos, husked, rinsed and cut in half
  • hot green chilies to taste, roughly 1 serrano or 1 small jalapeño, stems broken off, roughly chopped
  • salt
  • ¼ cup very finely chopped white onion
  • about ¼ cup, loosely packed, chopped cilantro


Line a medium skillet with foil. Set over medium-high heat. Lay in the garlic and tomatillos, cut side down. When the tomatillos are well browned, about 3 or 4 minutes, turn everything over and brown the other side. The tomatillos should be completely soft.

Scoop the tomatillos and garlic into a blender or food processor. Cool to room temperature, about 3 minutes. Add the chilies and ½ cup water. Blend to a smooth puree. Taste, and season with salt, usually a generous ½ teaspoon.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Coconut Milk

Using coconut milk makes this a dairy-free dish. Don’t skip the nutmeg, and use more or less cilantro and bacon to your taste.


  • 2 pounds sweet potatoes, about 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 ½ cups coconut milk, warmed
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper, more to taste
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped, more or less to taste
  • ¼ cup fully cooked, chopped bacon, optional garnish


Boil the sweet potatoes in a large pot of cold salted water until very tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and let stand in a colander for 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl; mash, then stir in the coconut milk. Add the garlic powder, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Just before serving, garnish with cilantro and bacon.

Adapted from


We prepared these gorditas like mini-pizzas using pulled pork or shredded chicken with a variety of vegetables.


These are similar to hot water cornbread, and cook quickly in a skillet. We prepared these like mini-pizzas. The toppings are up to you — you can serve them as-is and pass the toppings or assemble them in advance of your meal. Traditionally these are shallow fried to create a puffy interior with a crispy outside texture.


  • 2 cups masa harina (found in the Mexican section of your grocery store)
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 1 ½ cups warm water
  • Toppings: pulled pork or chicken, avocado, cherry tomatoes, sour cream, tomatillo salsa


Forming gordita dough into balls


Pressing gordita dough into rounds


Combine the masa harina, flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. Press in the shortening with a fork or pastry cutter until combined. Make a well in the center of the mixture, pour in the water, and stir until dough forms. Make a large ball and keep covered. Cut the dough into 14 equal pieces. Working one at a time, form the dough into a ball and, using the bottom of a glass, press into a circle 4 to 5 inches in diameter and about ¼-inch thick. Cook in a skillet over medium high, 2 to 3 minutes per side, until lightly browned. When you take them out, pinch up the edges, or press with the back of a spoon, to form a rim.

Heat ¼ cup oil in a large, heavy skillet until shimmering. Fry the gorditas, 2 or 3 at a time, turning frequently, 1-2 minutes, until the two sides are lightly brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels and keep warm until all are fried. Serve warm with your choice of toppings. Makes 14.

Adapted from Quaker Oats

Local Lime’s Zucchini Salsa with Pumpkin Seeds


Local Lime’s Zucchini Salsa with Pumpkin Seeds. Photo by Sara Edwards Neal

Local Lime’s zucchini salsa is a prime example of “fresh Mex.” Here is a version of owners Scott McGehee and Ben Brainard’s creation.


  • 1 medium zucchini, roasted
  • 1 medium green chili, either poblano or Anaheim, roasted
  • ½ cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup Mexican crema or sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • ½ teaspoon salt, more to taste
  • ¼ cup hulled pumpkin seeds, toasted, for garnish


Cool down the zucchini and chilies completely. Combine all ingredients except the pumpkin seeds in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle the pumpkin seeds on top. Serve with freshly baked chips.

Courtesy of Local Lime, Little Rock, Arkansas

The Fold’s Diablo Shrimp Taco


The Fold’s Diablo Shrimp Taco. Photo by Sara Edwards Neal

Alex Smith, The Fold’s chef, told me “… while our menu has evolved, we have kept our emphasis on fresh and original without straying into other cuisines.” Their diablo shrimp taco is an example of this philosophy. The shrimp are sautéed to order, the toppings are carefully constructed and the tortillas are made locally.


  • 1 pound (16 to 20 shrimp) peeled, for 6 small
  • or 4 medium shrimp per taco
  • Salt and pepper
  • chipotle crema
  • 4 ounces Mexican crema
  • 1 teaspoon pureed chipotle peppers
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon cayenne, more to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon cumin

Start with small amounts of seasoning, combine all ingredients, taste and adjust according to your desire for heat.


  • 2 poblano peppers, halved, seeded, brushed with olive oil and roasted or grilled
  • 4 green onions, slivered on the diagonal
  • a few stems of cilantro, snipped
  • 1 teaspoon grated pepper jack cheese
  • 4 to 6 corn tortillas, taco sized, local if possible

Prepare the poblanos, the chipotle crema and the garnishes. When you are ready to serve, salt and pepper the shrimp, then sauté in a large skillet in a tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat until firm and no longer translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Heat the tortillas. Divide the shrimp among them, and add the garnishes — don’t go overboard with the cheese. Drizzle on the chipotle crema. Serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 tacos.

Note: Pureed chipotle peppers are available in the Mexican food section of the grocery store. Also, you may substitute sour cream or crème fraiche seasoned with salt and lime juice for the Mexican crema.

Courtesy of Alex Smith, The Fold, Little Rock, Arkansas

Fresh Chips

The best part is that baked this way, you can eat them warm.


  • fresh corn tortillas
  • canola oil
  • salt
  • directions

Cut tortillas into triangles, and lay on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Brush lightly with canola oil. Sprinkle with salt. Bake at 375 until crisp, about 7 minutes. Serve immediately.

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