How Cannella’s & Taco Taco’s executive chef nearly became a lawyer.
Photos by John Taylor
Luckily for Salt Lake City taco lovers, Chef Alberto Higuera Calderón didn’t follow his initial impulse to become an attorney. Otherwise, he’d be crafting closing arguments instead of creating killer carne asada.
Calderón, who’s the executive chef for not just Cannella’s (204 E. 500 South, SLC, 801-355-8518, CannellasRestaurant.com), the venerable downtown Italian restaurant, but also for the hip, adjoining Taco Taco (208 E. 500 South, SLC, 801-428-2704, TacoTacoSLC.com), grew up in La Paz, in Mexico’s Baja peninsula, and was always curious about cooking. He’d pop into the kitchen now again as a kid and mess around. Problem was, “It was old-school,” he says. “The women in my family thought they were the only ones who were supposed to cook.”
So, his mother, grandmother and aunts would often hand Calderón a tostada with beans and cheese and shoo him away. But that didn’t dissuade him from the culinary world. What nearly did, though, were his thoughts of practicing law.
A champion competitive swimmer in Mexico as a teenager, Calderón earned a scholarship to the University of Sonora with the intent to become a lawyer. “But I realized, sometimes lawyers have to do bad things, you know, and I’m too honest for that,” Calerdon says of the profession, laughing. While at Sonora, he cooked for himself and his roommates and that’s when he realized he wanted to make a living as a chef.
After college, Calderón and two buddies wound up in Boston, working low on the totem pole at the Chart House restaurant, but mostly cooking for Odyssey, a cruise-boat company that ferried tourists around Boston Harbor.
That was in 2001. Then came 9/11. Because of the cruises’ proximity to Logan airport, Odyssey was forced to temporarily cease operations, and Calderón suddenly was out of work. Not wanting to return to La Paz, he landed in Utah, where an aunt was living.
Calderón worked line-cook gigs at Chevy’s Tex-Mex, Ruth’s Diner, Fresco (where he was a sous chef for eight years), the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and Trio before learning of an opening at Cannella’s.
“I met Berto in 2008 when I interviewed him for a job after he came highly recommended,” co-owner/operator Joey Cannella Jr. says. “I liked the guy within the first minute and, once I saw him in the kitchen, I knew he was going to be great. You can taste the love in his food. He cooked Mexican and Italian food at my wedding in 2009 since my wife is Mexifin (Mexican and Finnish), and I’m Italian. It was the best wedding food anyone ever had, and it’s still talked about to this day.” Adds Cannella: “Fortunately, he got to know and work with my dad (Joe Sr.) before he died in 2008, so I feel blessed to have his presence on our corner of the world.”
Calderón says of Joe Sr.: “He was a great guy—very good to me. When I’d make a special that he really liked, at the end of the night, he’d hand me an extra $100 bill, wink and say, ‘Don’t tell my wife.’”
At Taco Taco, a hit since it opened in summer of 2014, Calderón’s specialties are his insanely good carne asada, cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork marinated in citrus juice and annatto) and his latest creation, spicy chicken chile verde. “It’s off-the-charts good,” Cannella Jr. says. “None of this bland, trendy gringo crap.”
When Calderón isn’t working, he’ll whip up some fresh ceviche and enjoy a cerveza or tequila with friends at his apartment—which just happens to be right above Cannella’s.
His favorite local restaurants are Mariscos Ensenada (4855 S. Redwood Road, Taylorsville, 801-269-4535, MariscosEnsenada.com), Kyoto (1080 E. 1300 South, SLC, 801-487-3525, KyotoSLC.com) and Takashi (18 W. Market St., SLC, 801-519-9595)—and, yes, in addition to cooking divine Mexican, Italian and Chinese food, the versatile Calderón can even make sushi.
“The secret,” he says of cooking well, “is passion.” The Cannellas, as well as a growing number of Taco Taco fanatics, can attest to that: Taste the flavor and feel the love. ❖
2 tablespoons canola oil
4 ounces dried árbol chiles*—about 20-25 chiles, depending on size—stems removed
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
10 Roma tomatoes
1. Add the oil to a cast-iron skillet (or similar) over medium heat and char the chiles until slightly browned (about 2-3 minutes), then set aside. Note: Don’t get the heat too high or you’ll burn them, which will result in a bitter salsa and a smoky kitchen.
2. In a stock pot, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add the tomatoes. Cook for 10 minutes, drain and let cool for 15 minutes.
3. In a food processor, combine the chiles, tomatoes, garlic and red-wine vinegar. Pulse for 1-2 minutes until the texture is smooth and consistent.
4. Add kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
Makes approximately 1 quart
*Editor’s note: Dried árbol chiles (also known as bird’s beak chiles) can be found at Rancho Markets and other Mexican grocery stores. They are quite potent (about an 8 or 9 on a scale of 1-10 if a habanero is a 10, estimates Calderón). So, warn family, friends and/or guests if they’re, ahem, heat sensitive, although the profile of this salsa is smoky, with a nice back-end burn and just the right amount of kick. It can be served with chips, drizzled over everything from eggs to enchiladas or even used as a marinade.