Mario Navarro was born in Culiacan, Mexico. Culiacan is in the state of Sinaloa,42 world-known fruit and tomato growing region. Mario jokes that tomato is Sinaloa’s logo! He moved to the United States 12 years ago.
Mario learned his way in the kitchen by watching his grandmother. He remembers that on weekends the entire family of parents, siblings, uncles, and cousins would gather at grandma’s and she cooked a meal for everyone! Since he was the only one who lived with her, he would keep her company in the kitchen and also at the market, where he learned from her how to find the best produce. “I can tell a good watermelon just by tapping on it, I know if a melon will be sweet… a peach you can tell by the smell, the pineapple, it depends on the color on top. There are many details to remember,” he said.
And there are tomatoes. Culiacan is in the Pacific coast, and he has early memories of driving past tomato and vegetable patches on the way to the beach. “Tomato is used as a base for salsas, mixed with cilantro, onion, cucumber. Entomatadas, chilequile are popular, topped with cheese. You can make tomato sauce, tuna-filled tomatoes, many types of salads,” he lists.
Tomato has been a constant in his life and a staple in his kitchen. Former owner of Agave Azul and Soccer Taco, he now owns and directs Meksiko Cantina, in Farragut, Tennessee.43 “I want tomato to be the concept of my restaurant,” he explains, “I want people to know and appreciate Mexican food of the Pacific states.” Mario shows a couple of sketches by artist Rafael Casco, depicting his beloved tomatoes. “Any type of sauce has tomatoes, whether a tomatillo sauce, or green sauce… they are all made from tomatoes.”
Mario worked for more than twenty years as an engineer. The change of career proved to be good! He recently was awarded the second best entry prize in a local Top Chef competition, against some to the most renowned restaurants in Knoxville. His restaurant features traditional Mexican food, family recipes past generation to generation, which he spices as it is customary in his state. “From my grandma I learned how to make less hot a hot chile pepper, how to give flavor to a sauce, which vegetables need salt and which ones don’t”.
Cooking in Mexico is more common for women than men, even at this time where women work eight hours a day. “Women are organized; they keep cooked and refried beans in the fridge. They may have salad or a cold soup. Then when they get home from work, you just heat everything up, and voila!” He makes it sound so easy! He recalls the first recipe he prepared on his own was pickled poblano pepper stuffed with tuna and seafood ceviche.44 He is about to open a second restaurant, featuring fish and seafood!
Photo 90: Mario Navarro sits at his restaurant and shows two designs for a tomato mural, by artist Rafael Casco. Photo by Rafael Casco.