Spice & Tea Exchange warms us up just steps from the Boardwalk
Cooking classes and demos are a clever way to lure beach dwellers out of their igloos, while at the same time keeping the restaurant paychecks from bouncing. One of the most enjoyable and informal here at the beach is just steps from the Boardwalk at Spice & Tea Exchange. At their popular Taste & Learn Chef Series events, a local chef or cook prepares several courses using spices, sugars, salts, teas – whatever – available for purchase in the store. A multi-course tasting ensues, deftly lubricated with a bit of wine or beer.
With two local stores under her belt (the other one is in Ocean City at 67th Street, across from Touch of Italy), owner Joy Quinn-Whelan knows that the success or failure of a class depends on the individual chef. Last week she hit the jackpot with Leo Cabrera, the chef/owner of Rehoboth’s Modern Mixture. Leo has grown the tiny restaurant into a go-to spot for healthy and not-quite-so-healthy eaters alike. The menu says it all, with endless salads, overstuffed burritos, flautas, quesadillas, house-made tamales, Cuban sandwiches and delicious cocktails with fresh herbs and spices.
Leo earned his associate’s degree in biotechnology from Delaware Tech while simultaneously completing an internship in marine studies. Though English is his second language (you’d never know it), he excelled in chemistry and molecular biology – so much so that he earned his bachelor’s degree in cellular/molecular biology from Salisbury University, and eventually his master’s in applied biology.
Leo ended up as a server at an upscale tapas bar in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, eventually coming to the beach to hone his food-service skills at Crystal, La Tonalteca, Cloud 9 and the Steele family’s Lamp Post restaurant (now Crabby Dick’s). While in school, he worked for his friend Yolanda Pineda at Mariachi restaurant on Wilmington Avenue, but on a cold mid-December day he walked into 62A Rehoboth Ave., just east of First Street Station, and saw the cooking equipment. His reaction was immediate: “I knew the place was mine.” The most recent incarnation of the menu at what is now Leo’s Modern Mixture highlights items like Tampiquena Steak, baby back ribs (with salsa verde!) and tempura tacos.
Last week, Leo shared that experience with us at the Rehoboth Spice and Tea Exchange, working flawlessly with GM Dan Slagle to serve the dishes, bus the tables and keep our beverage cups full.
Leo started with salsa, a Mexican restaurant staple. Though most Tex-Mex joints put salsa roja on the table (made with red, ripe tomatoes), Cabrera departed from the ordinary with his own salsa verde containing bright green tomatillos, jalapenos, garlic, onion and spices. The vegetables were roasted and then blended with the spices. Those who yearn for chunky can crush the mixture by hand using a molcajete (a lava rock version of a mortar and pestle). It is work, and I could see Leo glancing longingly at the blender.
Though he is proud of Modern Mixture’s tres leches cake, Leo is the first to tell you that one of the very best in town is made by Yolanda Pineda at Mariachi restaurant. He compared and contrasted their techniques as he gently poured the three (tres) milks (leches) - sweetened condensed, evaporated and whole milk - overtop of vanilla cake. While the liquid slowly soaked down into the cake, Leo assembled a tlayuda to serve as a scoop for his salsas. Think tostada, but with attitude: Refried beans are slathered on a crunchy tortilla that’s then topped with romaine, avocado, grilled pork and, surprisingly, mozzarella cheese – very much like Oaxaca cheese but with a string-like texture.
With images of that cake dancing in our heads (of course it could also have been the margaritas...) we listened to Cabrera explain that the traditional mole sauce (often slathered over baked or grilled chicken) made with peanuts, chocolate, peppers and a multitude of spices is not the only mole sauce used in Mexican dishes. Before our very eyes he created a mole verde, made bright green with some of those plump, green tomatillos. Roasted pumpkin seeds were blended and acted as a thickening agent. At least seven spices were measured into the mixture, along with serranos, romaine, cilantro and garlic. The result, drizzled overtop of baked chicken, was bright and delicious.
You can see how it would take a master’s-level molecular biologist-turned seasoned restaurateur to conjure up a menu that keeps everybody happy, from vegans to vegetarians to carnivores and omnivores. And if tasting and learning sounds like fun (hint: it is), sniff your way to the Spice & Tea Exchange just steps from the Rehoboth Boardwalk and on Coastal Highway in Ocean City. The schedule is published at www.spiceandtea.com/Rehoboth.