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I sat down with Mike Beary on a Saturday night right before Zocalito opened. He seemed relatively calm even though a busy night of service was in front of him. We sat outside his charming restaurant and chatted about grasshoppers, peppers and why he opened his own place. Later in the evening I descended on Zocalito with four of my foodie friends to experience it for myself.

Zocalito means “the little center of the town” and that definition fits Aspen’s Zocalito perfectly. Chef Mike Beary opened Zocalito because he didn’t want Aspen to be without an ethnic restaurant.  To keep everything authentic he travels every six months to Oaxaca, Mexico to bring back sugars, chocolate, spices and peppers. Pasilla de Oaxaca, taprich and chilhuacles are just some of peppers that Mike uses on his menu and he won’t hesitate to tell you what makes each flavor unique and why it’s essential to the dishes that come out of his kitchen.  After having dinner at Zocalito, my favorite dish was the chicken breast and mozzarella. Wrapped in a santa leaf, topped with Iberico ham and served with a chamoy vinaigrette and tomatillo salsa we literally swooned as we ate this.

Before Zocalito Beary worked for 10 years as the Executive Chef at Cache Cache. Today he uses French cooking techniques from the Cache Cache kitchen and his extensive knowledge from traveling through Spain, Argentina, South and Central America to bring the tastes of the region to Aspen.  “We try to feature a little of everything — we’re just trying to show people how good this cuisine can be, on the rustic edge of Central and South America,” he says. “We’re trying to heighten awareness.”

Any rules in your kitchen: Taste everything

If you could eat anywhere in the world: All over Provence

What would you put on the menu if you didn’t have to worry about it selling: Grasshoppers. They’re actually on the menu and they do sell.

On grasshoppers: “I brought back a couple of scoops of them from Oaxaca as an experiment, and the reception was just crazy — my supply was gone in a few weeks. In Oaxaca, they’re even sold in the stands at baseball games,” he says. The United States is one of the few countries in the world whose citizens do not routinely eat insects.

What trends are you loving right now: I have a garden at my house, which I use to supply produce at the restaurant. Currently Mike is using his own kale, radishes, carrots, raspberries, peaches, currants, cherries and peaches.

What makes a good food city: If the people in a city are good eaters, then it’s a great food city.

What next: I would like to open up a few more Zocalitos and start an import company from Oaxaca.

Hardest part about being a chef: To get people to believe in you and get on board with you. Motivating my chefs every day is a challenge, but it’s necessary.

Best part of being a chef: The creativity. The art of doing anything you want in a kitchen.

Do you work on the line: Yes, I work on the grill. I do all the entrees.

Favorite kitchen utensil: Damascus knives. I love Japanese steel.

Favorite ingredient: something you haven’t seen before. I love using grasshoppers and worms of the agave.

Zocalito is open 5:00 – 10:00 p.m. nightly. Order from the tapas menu and be sure to try the cocktails. The mojitos are especially good and are made with mint from Mike’s own back yard. Keeping with the theme of the restaurant, all the wines are Spanish or Central American.

Zocalito – 420 East Hyman Ave., Aspen. 970-920-1991.