When Monica Martinez debuted her “pre-Hispanic snackeria” at the San Francisco Street Food Festival in August, customers lined up to try her tacos stuffed with insects and larvae. “Don Bugito is a street-food project born as a continuation of my interest in edible insects,” Martinez says.
The artist and food entrepreneur, who hails from Mexico City, says she enjoys pursuing “new ways to push boundaries” and is attracted to edible insects for their historical and cultural connections. “The edible insect has always been present in the diet of native people [of North America],” Martinez explains. (In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 1,400 species of insects and worms are eaten in almost 90 countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.) Although many Americans find the idea of eating bugs off-putting, public reception and perception of her fare has been positive so far, she says.
The adventuresome chef insists she’s not trying to convince everyone to munch on insects. “I’m not preaching that ‘this is the solution for the future,’” Martinez says. Instead, she aims to open up a new market for an ancient alternative food source and raise the profile of traditional Mexican foods.
Martinez buys live, squirming insects, then cleans and cooks them. “Sometimes I freeze them for one day, but most of the time, they’re alive in their trays and pans [before they become tacos]. My ingredients are mostly locally and California grown,” she says. Her limited menu features dishes made with fried wax-moth larvae, mealworms, and crickets. “When you bite into an insect that’s not crispy or crunchy, it’s kind of repulsive. All my insects, they had to be really crunchy and toasted.”
Martinez serves the wax-moth larvae in a handmade blue-corn tortilla, spiced with pasilla peppers and pickled onions. She also offers a unique dessert of caramelized mealworms atop vanilla ice cream, bathed in prickly-pear syrup. While waiting for her food cart to be ready — she says the non-stop media blitz has delayed her setup – Martinez has also prepared food for “pop-up” culinary events, in which a guest chef is invited into a restaurant kitchen to cook a special dish for one evening. Customers sample her recipes at special events for now.
Martinez launched Don Bugito with a boost from La Cocina, an incubator kitchen in San Francisco’s Mission District that’s dedicated to helping low-income food entrepreneurs. “They support women, especially immigrant women, in developing a business,” she says. The intense interest in her work has taken Martinez by surprise: She says she’s already fielded many requests for interviews from media outlets, including NBC. “It’s insane,” she admits. “I didn’t think it would be anything like this.”