This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.
Like most visitors, when I first moved to Mexico in 2009 I was endlessly fascinated by the diversity, the complexity, and the incredibly bold flavors of the local cuisine. But after a few months away from home, you sometimes just want a nice meaty burger and a crisp pint of ale. That proved hard to find, with most places merely offering thin, tasteless patties with plastic cheese squares in overly sweet or crumbly buns, alongside bottles of commercial lager. Mexico's burger game was lacking.
Two years later I found salvation in a former bookshop on a quiet street corner in Guadalajara's trendy Americana neighborhood. Sensing an opportunity to broaden the city's culinary horizons, Carlos Barba and his cousin Oscar "Iguano" Martín had just opened their own burger joint and crammed six or seven tables into this tiny space. It was called Pig's Pearls and they served the best burgers I'd ever tried. They were also among the city's first advocates of Mexico's nascent craft beer scene.
Now celebrating it's fifth anniversary, Pig's Pearls has established itself as a local institution and helped usher in a gourmet burger boom. It constantly flits between first and fifth in TripAdvisor's ranking of the top 816 restaurants in Guadalajara and was recently named the city's best burger joint in a survey of 21 chefs, critics, and food bloggers.
Having long since outgrown its humble origins, it now resides in a converted warehouse two blocks up the road—though even with the extra capacity, people still have to wait outside for a table on Friday or Saturday evenings. The walls are decorated with images of a classy-looking hog with a fat pearl necklace draped around his neck. The restaurant's name came about, Martín tells me, because they "wanted something iconic that would show you can find class, elegance, and jewels where you least expect."
The imagery fits with the project's ethos. "We wanted to open a restaurant to demonstrate that the best meals are not always found in the most high-end places," Martín explains. "We wanted a nice, relaxed place where you can go for delicious food, a place that you can go all the time, not just on special occasions, to be with your friends, have a chat, and feel at home."
Barba, the head chef, is the visionary who came up with the ten burgers that put the Pig's Pearls on the map, including pesto, chimichurri, panela, and portobello mushroom creations. The jewel in their crown, though, is the maple burger. Inspired by the sweet and savory flavors of a Canadian breakfast, it is a heroically decadent chunk of minced sirloin or pork, wrapped in bacon, doused in maple syrup, and topped with melted cheddar and caramelized onion.
The succulent lamb burger—which comes with goat cheese, black olives, slithers of portobello mushroom, onion marmalade, and fresh arugula—is another favorite, despite having proven a hard sell at first. Although mutton is often used in birria, a glorious local specialty, lamb remains a remarkably foreign concept in these parts.
"At first it was difficult to get people to try it, but Mexico is a country with strong flavors so we decided to take that risk," Martín says. "It's definitely not for everyone—there are still some people that can't even stand the smell—but for many people it's become their favorite. This burger was inspired by a trip Carlos took to India; that's why it's heavily spiced and has such strong flavors."
Served in wheat and rye buns made with the help of a local baker, the burgers are intended to be enjoyed with a selection of Indian and Arabic-influenced sauces: a cool raita, a surprisingly tasty curry mayonnaise, and a hot, smoky harissa made with chile de árbol.
"Carlos didn't actually used to like burgers much, which is why he tried to make each burger using something that he liked from different parts of the world," Martín says. "He was always looking for flavors from all over in order to create a unique style, but using local products wherever possible so as to support local industry and ensure freshness."
The most Mexican offering on the menu is a burger inspired by tacos al pastor—"the food of the Mexican barrio," as Martín puts it—which combines spicy pork meat with chunks of pineapple, onion, and cilantro. Yet it is the beer list where Pig's Pearls' Mexican identity really shines through.
Stoking the embers in the kitchen.
For decades, Mexico's beer market has been dominated by the corporate duopoly of Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, which makes Tecate and Dos Equis, and the Corona producer Grupo Modelo. Both firms, which are now owned by multinational conglomerates, have a long history of offering restaurants free fridges and furniture in return for exclusivity agreements. Yet Martín and Barba insist they would never sell out. Having decided from the outset to only serve Mexican craft beer, they currently stock a wide range of brews from the western states of Jalisco, Colima, and Baja California, and recently stopped selling the Tijuana, Mexicali, and Cucapá brands because they were bought out by Grupo Modelo.
"We believe in fair trade, and in our country. Despite all the bad things that happen politically speaking, we know what Mexicans are capable of and we have faith in what's made here," Martín explains. "That's why we look to support small producers. It's difficult to have an opportunity to grow in a globalized world where McDonald's and Grupo Modelo reign—or reigned—so we think the only way that locals can succeed is by supporting other local projects."
When Pig's Pearls started out in 2011, most Mexican beers were simply dubbed "clara" or "oscura"—dark or light beer. Few people were accustomed to the more complex, bitter flavors of an IPA or the refreshing citrus notes of a wheat beer. Snubbing commercial beer was not an immediately popular move, given that cervezas artesanales are two or three times more expensive.
"We have had to fight a bit to get people to accept craft beer, but once they try it they're not disappointed. The Mexican beer scene is very strong and it's becoming more and more popular," Martín says. "Fortunately we started out at a time when the people of this city were getting tired of always drinking the same thing and they were looking for other options. So we took it upon ourselves to be part of that change, although even to this day we still have some customers who say they won't come back until we start serving Corona or Modelo."
The Pig's Pearls staff constantly attend tasting sessions to stay up to date with the latest beers on the market. This is vital, Martín says, "so we can tell customers about the products, where they're from, who makes them, what they taste like, and why it costs what it does. That helps us to offer our customers things we think they'll like and it stops us from offering something that they might not like, which could spoil their impression of craft beer."
"The more we involve people in this experience, the more willing they become to pay a little more for a product that they know is very carefully made on a small scale by Mexicans who put their heart and soul into what they do," he adds. "It's about being fair, offering quality products, enjoying our work, and trying to build a pathway to a world where we all all win, one that works without the need for large corporate monsters."
Pig's Pearls' success in championing quality burgers and locally made craft beer is a testament to that mentality.
Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker