Aki Fresh Mex is thriving in Marina, a small city that has dozens of restaurants preparing food from many different countries in its 9.8 square miles. For those seeking a taste of Mexico, this hidden gem promises a flavorful experience. And perhaps the best part is that Aki Fresh has dishes that attract omnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike – from chile verde pork to mole, nopales rellenos asados (grilled stuffed cactus), veggie tacos and more.
The restaurant is owned and operated by mother-daughter duo Isabel Escorcia, the chef, and her daughter Danna Herrera, who works the front-of-house. Escorcia says that growing up, she wasn’t interested in cooking and would spend her time outside on the fields with her father. Now, she is a self-taught chef who got inspired by watching cooking shows and movies. Before wearing an apron, she worked in the fields picking strawberries and zucchini. She also worked as a waitress for over 20 years before starting her cooking adventure. But being a chef was new – “I never worked in the kitchen,” she says in Spanish.
Escorcia’s work in the kitchen started in 2019 with a catering business. A year later, in January 2020, she opened her own restaurant. The timing was tough: Just a few weeks later the Covid-19 shutdown and shelter in place began. But the restaurant survived thanks to word of mouth and take-out orders. “People like the food because it’s authentic,” Escorcia says.
Escorcia says Chef Jason Balestrieri, the owner of Cantineta Luca in Carmel, was her inspiration. “I always felt greatly inspired by his dedication to his work,” she says. When Escorcia was learning about the restaurant business and specifically meat cuts, Balestrieri lent her some books.
Escorcia uses fresh ingredients and makes all the dishes from scratch, including tortillas (made fresh every day), moles, salsas, chorizo and carnitas. Carnitas may seem easy to make, but it requires a lot of dedication to make sure it’s tasty and tender. On some days the restaurant offers specials using seasonal ingredients, like stuffed squash blossoms or chicatana mole (chicatanas are winged ants – a Oaxacan delicacy – that appear after the first rain in the summer).
Every Thursday from 6:30-8:30pm the vibe of the restaurant changes when it’s filled by the sound of violin. Rafael Vazquez and Momo Wang – who make up a duo called Bohemian Strings – play a variety of music.
Escorcia’s interest in cooking began when she started missing her mom and grandmother’s moles. Escorcia remembers calling her mom and grandma, who had Alzheimer’s, to ask them for their mole verde and mole recipes, respectively. She got the ingredients they use for their signature dishes, but “moms normally don’t use measuring cups,” she says.
Escorcia played with measurements and cooked her grandma’s mole every week for three months until she got it right.
Escorcia says she doesn’t follow her mom’s mole verde recipe to a tee. She leaves out the epazote – a Mexican herb with an anise-like flavor (if used in excess, it can overpower other flavors). “It’s bitter,” Escorcia says, adding that it is OK to modify family recipes. “That’s the way you make it yours.” And while there was a lot to learn about being a chef, Escorcia’s past jobs also provided some useful knowledge. From picking zucchinis from the field, she knows how to slice them, grill them and stuff them to create two favorites: Calabacitas Mexicanas and stuffed zucchini. Escorcia uses zucchini squash instead of Mexican squash. “I started with Mexican squash, but it doesn’t work the same,” Escorcia says – because of its pear-ish shape, Mexican squash doesn’t cook evenly. Other favorites on the menu are the mole, Isabel’s chiles rellenos and the Aki Molcajete – a dish with grilled chicken, pork, steak, house-made chorizo, cactus and cambray onions, topped with queso fresco and molcajete sauce.
“What we are looking for is the Mexican flavor,” Escorcia highlights. The goal, she says, is to take people to Mexico with one bite.