‘Fideo Gordo’ is CDMX’s new Udon shop opened by the grandson of the man who started Cacahuates Japoneses
Due to popular demand! Welcome to LA TACO’s new travel column, “Hungry For Mexico,” where we’ll feature TACO-approved places to eat and drink while traveling in Mexico.
Some details are now hazy, but Mexican chef Eduardo “Edo” Ramirez Nakatani can tell you when he first fell in love with food — it was during a family visit to Los Angeles. He was eight or nine years old, in 1978 or 1979, and it happened in a Thai restaurant, near West Covina, where his older sister had moved to start her career as a dentist. He tried larb for the first time, and as he stuffed those lettuce wraps in his mouth, “I realized I really liked eating.” He calls this moment his “revelation”.
As a teenager in Mexico City, Nakatani’s early attempts at cooking often focused on trying to recreate that LA larb. Asian ingredients were hard to come by at that time, and he never quite succeeded. But as he tried, he became more aware that what his family was doing in their home – combining Mexican and Asian cooking ingredients and techniques – was a necessity that led to the invention.
Today, Edo Nakatani (who uses his mother’s maiden name professionally) is an established chef in Mexico City, whose new restaurant, Fideo Gordo, is inspired by the way his family ate and lived. Fideo Gordo is a udon ya, an udon noodle shop. But his five udon preparations reflect Nakatani’s family practice of using what was present to elevate whatever they ate. Cordero’s Obi Udon, uses a barbacoa consomé soup base with grated dehebrada lamb, wide noodles, serrano peppers and coriander. The vegetable udon combines Mexican mushroom broth, soy milk, kombu, bok choy, miso, and Nakatani’s own chile morita salsa. The more conventional Japanese udon bowls – tempura, sesame and clam – come with a side dish of limes and sliced chili peppers, which the Nakatanis used to eat at home.
The restaurant, located in the foreigner-friendly enclave of Roma Norte, has been packed since it opened in January. It’s too early to tell if lamb udon will be the next big thing, but Nakatani’s family has long shaped Mexican tastes.
Eduardo’s grandfather, Yoshigei Nakatani, created one of Mexico’s most popular snacks, Cacahuates Japonéses (peanuts covered in wafers). Japanese peanuts are sold in virtually every convenience store and supermarket in Mexico. Also sold by street vendors, at sporting events, figuratively anywhere people want a snack to go with a cold beer.
Yoshigei Nakatani began making them in 1943, selling them in and around the city’s sprawling Mercado La Merced. Yoshigei had arrived in Mexico in 1932 at the age of 22 to work in a factory that made mother-of-pearl buttons.
When the factory closed during World War II, he took odd jobs at Mercado La Merced, where he met Emma Ávila, a tall blonde. guera whose parents had immigrated from Spain. The two got married and started doing mueganos, sugar-glazed fried batter snacks, and another version called “orandas” after a popular aquarium fish in Japan (goldfish before goldfish). They were hot sellers, and Yoshigei decided to try recreating a Japanese snack of peanuts coated in crispy rice flour and a shell of soy sauce. But without soy sauce or rice flour, Yoshigei Nakatani used wheat flour, caramel coloring and piloncillo. It was his customers who first called them “Cacahuates Japonéses”. Japanese Peanuts were also a hit, and in the 1970s, after Yoshigei’s children persuaded him to expand and industrialize, Japanese Peanuts became the ubiquitous item they are today. .
Yoshigei’s children also became cultural forces. His eldest son, painter Carlos Nakatani, was a key figure in the Generación de la Ruptura, the cadre of avant-garde artists who broke with Mexican muralism beginning in the 1950s. Perhaps even better known was Yoshigei’s youngest son, Gustavo, known by his stage name, “Yoshioa major Mexican pop singer in the 1970s and 1980s.
By the time Edo was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, tío Yoshio songs were on the radio, tío Carlos was a major figure in contemporary Mexican art, and Cacahuates Japonés were figuratively everywhere.
Edo was a bit capricious. He thought he might be a post-punk guitarist and described himself as an awful student. He worked in the family peanut factory during his twenties, then decided to focus on cooking, his passion that began long ago with that San Gabriel Valley larb tasting.
He enrolled in a program at the Culinary Institute of America in Mexico City and was hired by celebrity chef Mónica Patiño to help her start the Asian-influenced MP Cafe Bistro. There, he created dishes like shrimp tacos with tomato sambal and homemade kewpie-style mayonnaise. The shrimp were marinated in sesame oil, chili, and lime, and the tacos were held together in a hoja santa sheet instead of a tortilla.
During this time, and after leaving the restaurant in 2016, Eduardo sought to deepen his understanding of Asian cuisine through multiple visits to Los Angeles. “It’s easy to get there [from Mexico City]“, he explained, “unlike Asia. After a three-hour flight, one could reach Little Tokyo, Chinatown, and Koreatown within hours. In addition to several trips to Los Angeles and New York, Eduardo spent two months on an intensive culinary tour in Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand and Taiwan.
More than he saw in Asia, Edo was inspired by the work of chefs from Asian America: Lien Ta of Here’s Looking at You Babe in Los Angeles, and Danny Bowien and Angela Dimayuga of Mission Chinese Food in Brooklyn.
Last year, Edo decided his own restaurant would focus on udon noodles, which aren’t as well-known in Mexico City as ramen. He got a fortuitous boost when Yoshi Iwanami, a recent Japanese immigrant to Mexico City, followed him on Instagram. Iwanami had brought with him to Mexico the machines to make noodles, to provide bespoke ramen and udon to restaurants. Edo now had a local source for handmade udon.
Edo had a real hole in the wall in mind, serving udon through a window to customers on the sidewalk. But when he called his niece, designer Carla Valdivia Nakatanito work on the concept, they decided that not only would their food reflect their family’s history in Mexico, but they would create a space that embodied that very personal identity.
Carla grew up in Manhattan but spent summers with extended family at CDMX. She returned to Mexico City nine years ago after completing her university studies in London, hoping to deepen her connection with her family and her Mexican identity.
Fideo Gordo’s style is inspired by memories of the home of his great-grandparents Yoshigei and Emma. The speckled terrazza bar, for example, recalls the floor of this house; the way the chopsticks sit upright in small glasses, cradled by paper napkins, is how Emma placed them on her table. The restaurant’s plates come from Mercado La Merced, another tribute to Yoshigei and Emma.
The name Fideo Gordo (“oily noodles”) came from a discussion with Edo in which he mentioned that people in Mexico City generally don’t know what udon is; they call them “fat noodles,” he explained. So, just as customers bought the name “japanese peanuts”, Edo and Carla decided to call the restaurant the people called udon.
Carla identifies as Mexican and not Mexican American. But after spending her formative years in New York, she said she used to cry during ‘being Mexican American is hard’ scene in the 1997 film “Selena” (in which Selena’s father states “we have to be twice as perfect as anybody else”). Fideo Gordo was a chance to challenge this identity dysphoria. Simply describing the reality of the Nakatani family history, it is neither Japanese nor Japanese-Mexican. It’s just mexican borderline sin.
A painting in the restaurant, by Carlos Nakatani, Carla’s grandfather and Edo’s uncle, captures the family ethos. It shows Edo’s mother, Graciela Chiyoko Nakatani Avila, as a young child working with her parents, Yoshigei and Emma. They make Orandas. Graciela is a little girl standing on boxes rolling out the dough, with her mother Emma sitting at a counter cutting the orandas and her father Yoshigei frying the pieces.
There are Japanese ink wash and watercolor influences, but the scene is all Mexican. When Carlos Nakatani used Japanese techniques, he did so to affirm the Mexican goal of the Generation of the Rupture artists, who was to transcend what they saw as dogmatism and narrow nationalism at the time Mexican muralism.
“It doesn’t have to be boxed,” Carla says of the restaurant’s identity, “it’s just representative of who we are.”
Fideo Gordo is at Colima 5, Roma Nte., Cuauhtémoc, 06700 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico