Meet Chef Juan Mondragon: The King of Cactus

Did you know that you could have a full meal with cactus in each dish? I learned of this after receiving an announcement about “La Feria De Nopal,” an annual event which takes place in Baldwin Park, California, and promotes the benefits of eating nopal (cacti).  

The more I read about nopal, the more intrigued I became. I just had to try the various dishes and meet Chef Juan whose nickname is “The King of Cactus”. Chef Juan Mondragon was born and raised in Mexico where he received his certification from the Gastronomico Chefuri Culinary Institute.  It all started when he was a very young boy sitting in his grandmother’s kitchen while listening, observing, and assisting her with the daily meals. Juan’s grandmother didn’t only share her family recipes with him, but also the stories of his family’s Pre-Hispanic dishes. “Behind each recipe there is a story to tell,” he says.

Juan is an acclaimed International Chef who has received praises and awards for his unique dishes and his authentic taste.  His commitment to making tasty and healthy food lead him to open Juan’s Restaurante in 2010, a place where you can have an organic, fresh, yet traditional meal; beets, pumpkin, squash, pomegranate and epazote (directly imported from Mexico) are always part of the menu. The restaurant is known for his specialties of nopal (cactus), and xoconostles (green and red pear of the cactus) dishes. Juan likes working with many seeds. Chia, pumpkin, pine, almond, cacao and sunflower are all incorporated in his recipes. With 17 different chiles, some say his mole has the richest flavor they ever tasted.

Not too long ago, on a beautiful late Saturday afternoon, my friend and I drove to Juan’s Restaurante. Upon our arrival, we were greeted at the door by a charming waitress dressed in a long traditional Mexican skirt and white peasant blouse.

We were immediately transported into the heart of Mexico. The walls were painted with rich vibrant red and yellow colors, and the dimmed lights added to the quaint atmosphere.

A few minutes after being seated, the journey of Pre-Hispanic Mexico began with Juan’s signature cactus water with fresh apple ($3). It was followed by the Agua de Obispo (water of the bishop) made with beet, lettuce, and banana ($3).

We were privileged to meet Chef Juan who took a break from his kitchen to welcome us in his establishment.  While sipping our waters, Juan carried on his grandmother’s tradition by regaling us with stories about his start, and how he worked his way up as an immigrant from Mexico, to a caterer for Ryan Seacrest’s radio show. Seacrest loved his food so much that he re-invited him to cater for his special guests including Joan Rivers, Sofia Vergara, Joan Rivers, and Oprah Winfrey.

As the stories went on, we tried two more of his famous water drinks: the horchata, a traditional Hispanic drink, with pumpkin seed and cactus pear juice ($3), and chia fresco filled with seeds from chia, a flowering plant ($3).  All were quite tasty and unusual. Much to our surprise, Juan had already selected a tasting menu, which included 2 appetizers: the sweet organic salad ($11) made with tomatoes, strawberries, cranberries, and cactus pear, as well as the Ensalada de Nopales, which has cactus, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, and oregano ($7).  For the entrees, he insisted we try the Mole de Nopal ($15) (cactus mole) served over a piece of chicken. While the mole was rich and savory, the chicken lacked tenderness.  Not our favorite.

We also sampled the cactus enchiladas ($12), accompanied by rice and beans, with homemade cactus tortillas (three for $1.63); everything was just fresh and delicious! But you haven’t savored anything yet until you try his specialty, Mole de los Dioses, (mole of the gods) ($17) which consists of filet mignon, mashed potatoes with cactus, and a Cuitlacoche (Mexican truffle) based mole. It was made to perfection.

For dessert, Chef Juan brought out his creamy and sweet Flan de Nopal ($4); a great choice to end the evening.  It is astonishing to realize what he can do with a plant which grows in the desert. His innovative cuisine is a must try. I recommend the trip to Juan’s Restaurante.

By Janet Nguyen

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