Oscar Diaz didn't grow up with the foods of Southern comfort.
Diaz was the middle brother in a family of five, raised by parents who migrated to America from a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He left Chicago and his father's chauffeuring business, heading to culinary school (he quit) before shuffling between a few inspirational cooks at high-end restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. On a whim, he took a temporary gig preparing some suburban bistro for an unceremonious launch in North Carolina.
But five years later, Diaz is the co-owner and head chef of Jose and Sons, a downtown Raleigh staple whose raison d'être is mixing the Mexican foods of Diaz's heritage with his adopted cuisine. The mission required research.
"I'd never seen grits. I didn't know what a hush puppy was," he says. "I started traveling around and going to eat in any small place I. I started buying Southern cookbooks. I had servers who were Southern, and I would ask them. I started throwing these ideas out."
One of Diaz's first—and most delicious—experiments was the collard-wrapped tamale, a staple of Jose and Sons' lunch and dinner menus. Diaz cuts the stems from the broad leaves, forming circular flaps that he blanches. He then adds a layer of masa, which he's careful to make moist with extra water and pillowy with baking powder. Over the masa, Diaz adds one of two fillings: tinga, made by letting a vegetable mixture simmer with chicken, or a classic rajas, made by slowly reducing an assortment of peppers and pureed tomatoes. At last, he folds the layers like a traditional tamale and wraps the result in a banana leaf. After it steams for an hour, he peels the banana leaf away.
On first bite, humidity rushes from the leaf, like steam from a green geyser. The twice-cooked collard adds a hot, bright skin that gives way to the medley of masa and vegetables. It's deceptively simple and a touch deceptive, too.
"The collard mimics that banana leaf color and look so well that, at first, people were taking the collard leaf off," Diaz says. "That tells me it's a good move—a really cool interpretation of a tamale."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Southern Accent"