Strike up the mariachi band,
it's taco time
Mexico's culinary gift to the world is conquering Vancouver (by truck or taqueria) one neighbourhood at a time
Holy tamole! Only a decade ago, it was almost impossible to find a decent taco in Vancouver. Today, there are taquerias in every neighbourhood. Sure, Mexican food is one of the hottest trends worldwide. And there are lots of reasons to love this humble, hand-held snack that can be stuffed with endless combinations of juicy meats, fried fish, charred vegetables and spicy salsas. Still, the dizzying explosion of tacos has left poke in the dust and is quickly catching up to ramen as Vancouver's favourite form of quick-service sustenance. While it would be tough to review every little mom-and-pop shop and the city's many rapidly expanding chains, I had fun munching up a mess at three notable – all vastly different – new openings.
1326 Davie St.
It's probably safe to wager that smoked tempeh and kabocha-stuffed squash blossoms are not standard taco fillings in any state of Mexico. But who cares when they taste this great and come wrapped in warm, colourful (spinach, corn and flour) tortillas smeared with punchy salsas and bold, thoughtfully balanced fixings?
Owner John Cooper, a former partner at Cuchillo, took over the old Lolita's space in Davie Village and replaced it with an all-vegetarian (half-vegan) taqueria that expends its energy on labour-intensive preparations rather than preaching.
The small, narrow room is painted black and rather gloomy. Again, who cares when an excellent margarita is rimmed with brightly salted lime zest (the bar also offers a short yet sweet collection of tequila, beer and wine) and there is so much sunshine bursting from simple, paper-lined metal trays?
Of the three tacos I tried, it would be tough to choose a favourite. Achiote-spiced cauliflower is deep fried without coating for a tender, teeth-sinking texture. It's paired with toasted pumpkin purée and sweetly tangy orange salsa.
Chili relleno, a regularly recurring special, is deep-fried in a golden batter and stuffed with a mix of finely minced mushrooms. The spinach-corn tortilla is lined with smoothly pureed black beans, topped with slivered cactus, squiggled with a dark-red smoky salsa and sprinkled with moist crumbles of fresco cheese.
The smoked tempeh, paired with bitterly blistered shishito peppers, pickled chayote and dark chimichurri, is intensely meaty and exceptionally satisfying.
Although I stuck to tacos, the menu also offers a few interesting snacks (chickpea fritters, smoked eggplant ceviche, BBQ jackfruit nachos) and a popcorn ice-cream sundae – a tempting reason in itself to return.
1206 Seymour St.
If you're looking for authenticity, look no further than this tiny tortilleria where the walls are hand-painted with pineapples, the loud music is jangly and joyous and the meat comes in one flavour – fatty, crispy pork carnitas, hand-chopped to order.
Ernesto Gomez found himself frustrated by the lack of decent tortillas in town. Not wanting to serve the standard wholesale variety (the ones that mysteriously last more than a month in the fridge without wilting or moulding), he opened this casual, counter-service shop, partly to service his upscale restaurant, the full-service Fayuca in Yaletown. Although the long-term plan is to make tortillas using B.C.-grown white corn (Klippers Organics is testing several types), he is currently using masa from Mexico to make his very light and airy, handmade tortillas that are also sold by the dozen.
The menu is simple. The meat is carnitas – spice-rubbed pork that is flash-fried in boiling lard, then slowly simmered for hours as the fat cools down. You order by weight (quarter, half or full pound) and have a choice of maciza (shoulder), panza (belly) or campechano (a mix of both). I suggest the latter, which gives you a good blend of crispy skin, shredded meat and squishy fat.
The meat comes on a tray lined with toasted tortillas (onions and cilantro are optional, but recommended) with small containers of salsa (the red charred-arbol chili is dark and deeply addictive), thickly stewed pinto beans and dry-pickled red cabbage. If you're not a meat eater, there are also daily changing selections of seasoned potatoes and vegetables.
Does Chancho make the best tortilla you'll ever eat? Probably not. Is this the way most tacos are made in Mexico? You bet. Is it worth checking out? Most definitely.
1050 W. Pender St.
The little taco truck from Tofino keeps growing and expanding. This new Coal Harbour location is its fifth brick-and-mortar restaurant. It also has three trucks in rotation.
Each outpost has a different menu and vibe. This 40-seat dining room with expansive patio and pale-pink decor is noteworthy because the taco menu was created by Stefan Hartmann (the company's new regional executive chef) in collaboration with founding chef and co-owner Jason Sussman. Mr. Hartmann, as you might recall, is the Michelin-starred German chef who opened Bauhaus, but left the upscale Gastown restaurant for better wages, benefits and working conditions.
His fine-dining pedigree is evident in the duck-carnitas taco, which comes with dried apricots, roasted corn, soy-sauteed shiitake mushrooms and black-chili mayonnaise. If you took away the yellow-corn tortilla, the fillings could stand alone as a fully composed plate.
Beef barbacoa is a very dark, rich, thickly reduced stew with big chunks of shredded meat that have been slowly braised with cumin, cinnamon, star anise, paprika and other warm spices. Does it taste typically Mexican? Not really. Is it nicely balanced with pureed peas, waxy pea sprouts, mint, black mole sauce, fried onions and lime crema? No, it's a big, hot mess that makes no sense at all.
But at least the beef taco is easier to eat than the tower of curried cauliflower and sliced beets on a rock-hard tostada. Or Tacofino's signature fish taco, available at every location and ridiculously overflowing with so much cabbage the flour tortilla doesn't even fit around it.
Tacofino has legions of loyal fans. I have never been one of them and this new menu didn't convert me.