tacos in 'the old world'; or, europe's failed attempt to appropriate mexican cuisine.
by sam. 28 july 2011
Almost exactly 25 years ago, Paul Simon described a scenario many of us unfortunately (and metaphorically) experience at some point or another in our short lives. Trapped in the ‘bubble’ of our typical daily experiences, we end up eating our daily ‘baboon heart’ in ‘slo-mo’ and in utter, abject fear of the ‘bomb in the baby carriage’. Well, sometimes you have to defuse the bomb, pop the bubble, and order your baboon heart diced, grilled, and placed on a corn tortilla. In that spirit, during the month of July tacosmog embarked on our first ever ‘Transcultural Enjoying Every Taco Holiday ‘(TEETH). No, in this case we did not follow Paul’s advice. The amateur taco-reviewer would expect a journey of taco-discovery to take place in one of the many Central American nations bordering the US. But, I mean, come on. Everyone knows that all nations bordering the US have indisputably delicious Mexican food. And what can you really learn by observing somebody do something extremely well due to a long cultural heritage and passion for their work? No, the truly best education is observing someone who fails to meet your preconceived notions of what you want, most likely due to different market demands or a lack of available training, then criticizing them on the internet. Thus, I enlisted the aid of my business associate and official tacosmog.com translator Nina, boarded a Boeing 757, and ventured off to the continent of Eurasia!! (subcontinent Europe).
The particular Boeing 757 I boarded happened to be owned and operated entirely by peoples of Icelandic origin. Thus, the flight was aborted over the North Atlantic for a quick stop in Iceland, ostensibly to ‘relax’ and ‘enjoy ourselves in a beautiful nation.’ Well, wising myself quickly to their tricks, I resolved to only eat lobster soup and hot dogs from Iceland’s most famous restaurant, and not publicize their taco scene in the slightest. Not to say that there weren’t options for delicious Mexican food around literally every corner:
And around the second corner (as a somewhat circular [circuloid?] nation, Iceland has only been able to acquire two corners from much more geometric nations).
Having sufficiently ignored both traditional Icelandic dishes and Mexican food for long enough to prove our point, we re-boarded this Iceland-controlled airplane and finished the flight to Eurasia. Unfortunately, it was here that our luck would take a turn for the worst. While my business associate Lilly warned me against all Amsterdam-made tacos, I felt it was my patriotic duty to at least give them a shot. Word reached me that a place named The Taco Shop was supposed to be quite good. However, due to an overload of stroopwafel and pannekoeken, our taco journey was delayed until the last day. On a Monday afternoon, we walked over to The Taco Shop, and were met with an unfortunate sight. Apparently, they're on a summer schedule and failed to notify the proper taco authorities.
Dismayed, Nina and I escaped Amsterdam as quickly as possible, determined to get some delicious tacos somewhere to allow the entire trip to be written off as a business expense. Due to a slight miscommunication, we jettisoned to Prague. Upon arrival, we were dismayed to find that the Taco Bell was nowhere to be found and we were, in fact, on the wrong continent. Determined to make the best of a bad situation, we did some browsing, and found a place of great renown. The internet led us to believe that Las Adelitas is the premier Mexican food in the Czech Republic (a nation more circuloid than not). Even better, it is located on Americka Street, so it was almost like we were back in Minnesota after all.
Generally the first thing I notice upon entering a restaurant is the vibes. Las Adelitas had quite good ones. There was a bunch of people sitting around and relaxing; brightly colored walls and tables; and an enormous selection of made-in-Mexico hot sauces. After a lengthy look over the menu, we placed an order for some guacamole, 3 tacos al pastor, and (for my business associate) the enchiladas mixtas. The al pastor was lacking in flavor, but not bad overall. The clearly dominant flavor was the sweetness of the pineapple with a mild spicing. The meat itself seemed to be of respectable quality. While it wasn't bad, it could have used a bit more tang to counteract the pineapple flavor and provide the contrast that we all know and love about al pastor. The tacos were on single soft corn tortillas which appeared to be homemade (though I've been tricked before). They were a bit tough but had a nice corn flavor and on the whole weren't bad. Of all the hot sauces, most were made by a company I'd never before tried, Lol-Tun. As HotChili-Mike mentions, it's pretty spicy but dominantly a vinegar flavor, which I'm not a huge fan of. The Valentina was a much better option for these al pastor tacos. The tacos were also served with a side of mediocre rice and mediocre beans. Nina's enchiladas mixtas were topped by three different salsas: red, green, and mole. Unfortunately, each of these sauces was sweeted than we would have liked, and could definitely use some improvement. We walked away from Las Adelitas feeling satisfied (after all, these were the first tacos I had eaten for >10 days) but also disappointed. While the prices weren't super-extreme (USD$10 for my 4 tacos), they weren't cheap, and Las Adelitas definitely caters to the European sweet tooth.
Next stop on TEETH was Dubrovnik, Croatia, home to the legendary Chihuahua Cantina.
It's got an 88% excellent rating on TripAdvisor, is #2 of 118 Dubrovnik restaurants according to LonelyPlanet, and the general attitude is that 'everyone goes to Chihuahua at least once' and that it's full of 'young assertive people.' Well, we arrived there at around 7PM for dinner and the place was more or less empty and we got some choice outdoor seating overlooking the wall defending the old port. It was at this point that my business associate Nina chose to inform me that we were eating dinner embarrassingly early, and nobody in Meditteranean culture dines before 9PM. I guess because it's hot there? I'm still not entirely sure. Struggling to wrap my head around this concept, I placed an order for my tacos. My business associate (perhaps getting a bit complacent about the tax write-off status of the trip) ordered a Greek salad and the nachos. After a refreshingly brief wait, our food came out. The tacos were served quesadilla-style, with melted cheese, beef, chicken, and chili stuffed inside a folded-over flour tortilla. They were topped with a dab of salsa, a small bowl of sour cream, and some lettuce sprinkled around the plate. After several attempts, I was forced to eat these tacos with a knife and fork, an immediate strike against Chihuahua Cantina (though, to their credit, they gave me a somewhat futuristic 3-pronged fork that felt somehow akin to an alien's claw). Inside the taco, the unique beef-chicken-cheese mixture was presenting my mouth with all sorts of new sensations. The chicken had been cooked a little too tough, but had a refreshing bit of spiciness. The beef, on the other hand, was chewy and tasted strangely sausage-esque. The cheese was pretty mild and overpowered by the wackiness of the beef. The tomato-based salsa was not noticeable, flavorwise, and was in such a small quantity as to render itself irrelevant. Considered as a whole, these tacos were quite weird, as even from a chewing perspective the sausage-beef/chicken combo along with the heated flour tortilla was quite strange to chew. Prices were not cheap, coming out to USD$12 for my tacos, though Dubrovnik in general is not a cheap place to visit. The highlight of our trip to Chihuahua Cantina must have been the tortilla chips used in the nachos - they were light, salty, crisp, and crunchy. Significantly better than the chewy chips from Las Adelitas; the food, however, was a bit less satisfying.
Convinced that we had consumed all the Mexican food that Croatia had to offer, our final destination was a fancy new taco shop in Paris, Candelaria. Convinced that we would need a real Frenchman's perspective, we acquired an additional companion, my erstwhile business associate Francois. (For those of you keeping track, Paris is a circular city within a dropped-ice-cream-cone of a country).
Along the way, we encountered a large amount of precipitation falling from the sky. However, buoyed by the recent spate of fancy food people complimenting Candelaria, we decided it was worth it to push through, and arrived at Candelaria completely soaked. Apparently Candelaria's chef is from Mexico City, lending them some street cred, and they also have a cocktail bar in the back in the 'deliberately-hidden-but-actually-obvious speakeasy' style which is becoming popular nowadays (I have a theory based on exclusivity, boastfulness, and Paleolithic sheltering instincts, but that's a story for another time). And you know it's a hip place because they played both The Arcade Fire and The Talking Heads. Anyways, many people seemed to have the same idea as us on this Saturday night, so we arrived to a packed house. Having consumed a late, falafel-based lunch, we decided that we could afford to spend a bit of time drinking (overpriced) beers in the bar while waiting for some space to clear up and for our clothing to dry off. After a couple hours, the inside was still quite full, but there was space enough for our cohort to get three spots at the counter. I placed an order for 3 tacos: one bistec, on carnitas, and one alambre (a mix of fried cheese, mushrooms, potatoes, and peppers). The tortillas were clearly homemade; we saw them go onto the grill as soon as we placed our order. They were also among the smallest of all tacos I've encountered in my travels. They were corn but with mysterious black specks (maybe black corn?) and were quite tasty. All the food was prepared right in front of us at the counter, and looked extremely delicious because we were so hungry. I started off with the bistec, which was very mild spice-wise but had a strong overall flavor. So strong, in fact, that it tasted more like chicken than beef; but perhaps this was the rain playing tricks on my taste buds. It was particularly good with Candelaria's house salsa, which was an interesting orange color and the spiciest food I found my whole journey to Europe. Talking later with the chef, my business associates and I found out it was a peanut-based salsa, which was a first for me, and very enjoyable. Next up was the carnitas, which was also mild and tender and obviously pork. Of all the meats, I find that pork goes best with lime, and I was truly disappointed that my tacos were not accompanied by a wedge on this day. However, with the salsa and pork alone I had an enjoyable meal. The alambre was good with spectacularly flavorful green bell peppers. Maybe the most juicy sweet bell peppers I've ever tasted. I don't know how or why this occurred, but it was truly mind-blowing. The alambre was also good with the salsa de cacahuates. While none of the tacos had an extreme taste (except the peppers), all of them were well-complimented by the salsa and tortillas, and formed a very enjoyable whole. We also got some guacamole on the side which was tomato and lime-heavy but clearly fresh and quite enjoyable. The quantity was miniscule and the price exorbitant. Candelaria had the best tacos I found in Europe, though unfortunately at some of the most extreme prices. The tacos were 3 Euro, or almost USD$4.50, apiece, and were among the smallest tacos I've ever been served. It also cost 6 Euros (USD$8.70) for a beer, which seemed a bit outlandish.
So, there you have it. Another of the world's continents has been explored by the intrepid mind behind tacosmog.com, and categorized as a 'no-win' zone. Either your tacos cost a lot and aren't anything special, or they cost a TON and are very good. Therefore we give Europe a mighty 'MEH' rating on the official tacosmog.com world atlas. But a true explorer never gives up, and there may still be some hidden gems out there. I intend to explore The Ukraine at my earliest convenience.
In summary, if you're looking for tacos in Europe, here's what to expect:
-Definitely no free chips + salsa (or water)
-Expensive as heck
-No ranchero music
Overall, definitely a less enjoyable taco experience than many (but not all) places in the good old U.S. of A.