Foodstuff: Flammable, Instagrammable fare at Chica Aspen
For chef Lorena Garcia, a photogenic menu has family roots, too
At what point of repetition does a symbol lose its meaning? I’d guess it’s some count south of however many skulls I saw at dinner two Tuesdays ago.
Not real skulls, dummy. I know Aspen has a reputation for consumption that toes the line of legality but I’m still pretty sure you can’t order the most dangerous game from any restaurant within the downtown core.
What I saw, over and over and over again, was the hottest dessert (in temperature and in popularity) at Chica, the latest restaurant to claim the space at the base of Ajax located just to looker’s right of the gondola. Order “The Flaming Skull” and you’ll get exactly what you asked for: a gold, almost-to-scale sugary cranium doused in alcohol and lit on fire tableside so it melts to reveal the chocolate lava cake underneath.
Sam, my friend and tablemate for the night, compared the dessert to a memento mori, the morbid reminder-by-motif — via skulls, candles, hourglasses, flowers, fruit — that we’ve all gotta croak at some point or other. (The term is Latin for “remember that you must die.”)
But by the end of dinner, we’d lost count of how many skulls we’d seen melt into a sparkly, boozy puddle. Whatever the tally was, it was well past the tipping point at which a flaming, melting skull stops reminding us of our impending mortality and starts looking just plain cool.
Culinary arson seemed to be a recurring theme on the Chica menu: We spotted a bouquet of churros delivered with festive pyrotechnics; Sam’s drink, “Rum, Smoke and Spice,” was served with a flourish of visual evidence to prove something somewhere behind the bar was charred for the purpose of flavor; one diner at another table went wide-eyed when their server brought out a smoldering order of “Al Pastor” ribs that earned its menu moniker, “The Smoke Show.”
It was all very flammable and very Instagrammable, the latter of which seemed to be a selling point for some of the buzzier menu items at Chica, which has two other locations in Miami and Las Vegas. Par for the course, I had figured going into the night, given that the restaurant helmed by a celebrity chef at the base of Aspen Mountain was marketed as a “hotspot” for “stylish visitors and locals.”
So when I asked our server for his recommendations on the menu, I wasn’t expecting him to mention a couple of dishes that might be better depicted on Ancestry.com than Instagram: empanadas with roots in Garcia’s grandmother’s kitchen; Meyer lemon chicken developed in Garcia’s home kitchen, cooking for her family.
“I am who I am because of my grandmother and my mother, because of the food that they prepared and that I was always in the kitchen looking (at) and watching and then helping and then making it and then taking notes and then making it my own,” Garcia said in a phone interview on Dec. 13. “It’s an evolution.”
Garcia is a classically trained chef with a resume of experience that includes an apprenticeship at a Michelin-starred establishment in Paris, a tour of culinary cities, a third-place finish on a season of “Top Chef: Masters.” She acknowledged that making dishes that are “beautiful and eye-catching” — and, yes, “Instagrammable,” like that flaming skull — is important to the concept at Chica.
But so is flavor, and symbolism, and her family and her roots. She was born in Venezuela, lived for years in Mexico as well as Argentina, has spent the better part of two and a half decades in what she describes as a “melting pot” in Miami, takes inspiration from Caribbean foodways and Peruvian cuisine.
“I was able to take the culture, the Latin culture as a celebration and a departure, to create all the food and the recipes that I create,” Garcia said. “But taking into consideration the food that I grew up with, you know, seeing my grandmother cooking and making the dough from scratch, that is something that I always keep so close to my heart. If I can create that memory or that connection with my customers when they come to Chica, that’s why I do it, for sure.”
If it can be immortalized on the internet too? Well, that’s just an added perk.
Kaya Williams is a reporter for The Aspen Times and The Snowmass Sun who thinks her sunny disposition might belie her morbid interests. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.