John Lewis has long been a brisket evangelist, but these days he’s also preaching the gospel of chiles, pintos, and masa. Just a year after opening Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, the pit master is revisiting the borderland flavors of his New Mexico and West Texas upbringing for the menu at Juan Luis—set to open in April as a stall in the Holy City’s first food hall, Workshop. “I love barbecue,” Lewis says, “but my favorite food is the ‘Mexican’ I grew up on. That’s Tex-Mex, Mexican, and Native American food all combined.” We caught up with him while he was doing some recipe research back home to learn more about his plans.
Tell me more about the food you’ll be serving.
Everything out here is based on chiles. There aren’t a lot of tomatoes or tomatillos. So if it’s red, it’s red chiles. If it’s green, it’s green chiles—which are the same chile as the red, just not as ripe. My great-great-grandparents were chile farmers, so this is what my family has always been into. Field corn and pinto beans are important. For the restaurant, we’ll be getting fresh-dried pinto beans. That gives you the softest bean. You buy from a big purveyor, those beans might be five years old already.
I know you’ve been working on this menu for a while. What’s been the hardest thing to figure out?
Nixtamalizing corn to make masa. [The traditional process of soaking and cooking corn in an alkaline solution to make hominy, which can be ground into dough for tortillas, tamales, and more.] Everybody does it slightly differently, and I’ve come up with my own way. We’ve got a corn mill coming, and that dough will be the basis for a few of our dishes. Not so much for corn tortillas, but for gorditas and fried puffy tacos.
What else is going to be on the menu?
We’ll be doing chiles rellenos, puffy tacos, enchiladas, and probably fajitas. We’ll have smothered burritos, with flour tortillas that we’re making from scratch—because flour tortillas are just as important as corn here. Tacos are such a big fad right now, but this is something different. It’s all rooted in the desert, where the produce is chiles, onions, big sweet onions, garlic, field corn, and pinto beans. It’s homestyle food, with plenty of lard.