I first met Steve Sando online. His passion for Mexican food was apparent. I didn’t need to look into his eyes to see it. The love of Mexican culture and Mexico itself spilled onto the screen. I met him in person for the first time at the Ferry Building Farmers Market in San Francisco. He was hawking beans and I’d been given requests by Portlanders aplenty to mule some back north.
Since then, Steve has taken the lowly bean from a neglected legume to superstar-status ingredient. Sando’s company, Rancho Gordo, grows, imports and promotes heirloom and heritage varieties while working directly with consumers and chefs like Thomas Keller, Deborah Madison, Paula Wolfert and David Kinch.
Sando’s seed saving, bean production, and marketing efforts provide professional and home chefs with heirloom beans that would otherwise have been lost to history. The beans, along with corn, chiles, and tomatoes, have become key ingredients in the new American food revolution centered in Sando’s native San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, Sando and Rancho Gordo were named number two on Saveur magazine’s “The Saveur 100 list for 2008.” Bon Appetit magazine declared Sando one of the Hot 10 in the food world of 2009. Food + Wine magazine placed Steve “at the forefront of the current seed-saving movement.” Steve’s two books are Heirloom Beans and The Rancho Gordo Bean Growers Guide.
He now grows more than 25 varieties in California and works with small indigenous farmers in Mexico to import their heirloom beans for the U.S. market. He lives in Napa and travels frequently throughout the Americas.
Taco Trail: I use your beans at Mi Mero Mole, as you know, for frijoles charros. One time I ran out and tried regular pinto beans. I ended up giving the soup away rather than selling it because it was so much worse. It doesn’t even seem to matter which bean of yours I use for the soup. It turns out great with every variety I’ve tried. Why in the hell are your beans so damn good?
Steve Sando: My first guess would be that they’re fresh, as in less than a year old. I don’t want to tell you how old some commercial beans are. It’s not right. There are variations within pinto beans, but they are a very light colored bean and only get darker as they get older. You really want to eat them within two years if you can.
This will sound ridiculous, but most everyone at Rancho Gordo loves beans and none of us would tolerate an inferior product at this point. If there were problems, or even if beans were lackluster, bells would go off long before the problem got to me, let alone the consumer.
TT: Is there a region of Mexico with especially interesting or diverse beans? If so, what are some favorites and why?
SS: One of my favorite places is Oaxaca and they have lots of different types—and like the chiles, they don’t seem to travel. You can only get them there. But I’m always surprised how an odd bean will turn up when you don’t expect it. I was in town just outside of Patzcuaro, in Michoacan, and found this beautiful bean that was a mix of pink and yellow. I just loved how they looked and when I asked the name, they said, “Frijol”. I knew it was a bean but I kept asking and he kept repeating and it dawned on me, as far as this guy was concerned, this was called “bean.” Later I found out that they were known in the areas as Patzcuarences and somewhat obscure.
But the heirloom growers are feeling the pressure to grow bland commodity beans for the superstores and sadly heirloom beans are getting harder to find all over Mexico. I actually understand being busy and wanting to get all your shopping done in one place, especially if you are working for very little money and life is tough. I feel like it’s my job to create markets so that the heirloom farmers can continue.
TT: Is there a region of Mexico that really knows how to prepare beans, where the beans are the tastiest? What’s a favorite dish or two and why?
SS: Let’s see. I think refried beans made from Mayocobas or Canarios in Jalisco makes a great dish. The fat black bean rolls, loaded with good lard and topped with chips and queso fresco in Veracruz, make me melt a little. Charro beans all over are good. That thin layer of refrieds on a tostada makes me weak.
It’s hard for us to understand the importance of beans. And for the most part, Mexicans have them often but not always in what we call “dishes.” A bowl of good beans, about three-quarters of a cup’s worth, on the side, is always appropriate. In high altitudes, they tend to make them with pressure cookers. And I do think the texture suffers and the flavor is a little dead from lack of evaporation, but Diana Kennedy told me she starts out in a pressure cooker and ends up finishing them in a good old clay pot.
TT: Do you have an everyday bean, one that’s so versatile and delicious that it’s your go-to?
SS: If pressed, I’d say Good Mother Stallard, Moro and Buckeye are my favorites. But almost every time I cook a new bean, or cook an old one after a time, I swear it’s my favorite or the best bean ever. I’m a true infidel.
TT: In as few of words as possible, what’s the secret to making great beans?
SS: When you are cooking them and bringing them up to a boil, let them boil for 10 or 15 minutes. Really let them know that you mean business and you’re the boss before you reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. I think they end up always cooking faster and better when you do. I also think the secret is to use good beans and cook them in water. Save your stock for soup. Let the beans taste like beans.
TT: I know you love Mexican cookbooks. What’s the best for a beginner? What’s your personal favorite? Are there any you wish were available in the United States or would be reprinted?
SS: I started with Diana Kennedy and you can read her books like novels. But I also think Rick Bayless is great and one of the best is his Mexican Everyday. It’s not traditional, but some of his crockpot recipes are brilliant. Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s Verde is out of print and just in Spanish but it’s one of my favorites. It was supposed to be part of a trio, along with Rojo and Blanco but I doubt it will happen. He made a rushed version of all three but it’s not as special. But his Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronomia Mexicana should be on every serious shelf. I also love Alquimias y Atmosferas del Sabor by Titita of the El Bajio restaurants in Mexico City. She’s a wizard and this book is pretty magical.
TT: Where do you love to travel in Mexico generally for food? What are some of the most memorable dishes or meals you’ve had?
SS: For traveling, I’m happy just to be in Mexico and not sitting at my desk answering emails or working on spreadsheets. I love meeting our farmers and producers and seeing the shock in their faces when they understand I really love their beans as much as they do. I love the coasts but it’s hard to find something not too expensive. The Huasteca is just gorgeous and you’d be crazy not to enjoy Mexico City. I love it all.
In the south of Oaxaca, in Pinotepa Nacional, I had mole negro in the market by a lovely old woman and worlds opened up for me. I have to admit I like mole poblano, but not in a lusty way like with Oaxacan moles. And this negro from Pinotepa was incredible.
The first time I went “modern” and ate at Pujol, Enrique Olvera’s restaurant in DF, I was very cynical, yet ended up becoming a huge fan. I think my basic thinking is that I’m just starting to really scratch the surface of this cuisine. Why would I want to eat someone’s experimental version of it? He slapped my mouth shut with his incredible food. We’ve become friends and he’s always learning and trying to improve while helping everyone else.
In DF, there’s no way you’re going to keep from Contramar. I think it’s my favorite restaurant in the world. It’s not pretentious but it’s very glamorous and the fish and seafood are all top-notch.
My favorite meal, though, is parking my rear end on a beach in Veracruz and having buckets of shrimp and buckets of beer brought out to me between bodysurfing sessions.
TT: What’s your go-to taco, whether in California or Mexico?
SS: Al pastor, when it’s done well. I’m finding more and more kitchens are just adding barbecue sauce to pork. It’s nasty and it’s not pastor!
TT: Is there a style of taco you wish would find its way to the United States or be more easily found near your home?
SS: A good taco dorado is a fine thing but I’ve actually had it where they use a prepackaged hard tortilla shell and called it dorado.
I think good sopes or chalupas from Puebla would be great. Huaraches would be easy enough. I love tacos but there are plenty of other good things to be made from corn masa.
TT: What’s your favorite couple places to get tacos in wine country?
SS: Despite a huge Mexican population, you don’t come here for the Mexican food. Napa has a few trucks and many very bad restaurants. Sonoma is mostly the same, but on Highway 12, between Sonoma and Santa Rosa, there are some really great trucks—and on Sundays, families make pop-up restaurants. The butcher also grills chicken. It’s about two miles of very good eating and I assume it rocks on Sundays because the health inspectors aren’t around.