May 8, 2011

la taqueria (downtown)

I can count the number of times I've eaten at a Taco Bell/Times/Del Mar/Hell on 1 hand. 2 fingers actually. Once was to figure out what the heck "mexi-fries" were (tater tots? really?). The second, I was with a large group of people and it would've been gauche to cross the street to the Jack In The Box by myself. The commercials have never interested me, and quite honestly - downright horrified me. It just didn't look like food, and the very concept of combining violently-neon "cheese" to lettuce has always been wrong to me. Actually, it's just the "cheese" really. And don't get me started on refried beans *shudder* (not a bean fan in general, but I have had great refried beans at a REAL restaurant).

I have to thank Anthony Bourdain for introducing me to real tacos via his show, No Reservations. The Mexico City episode ranks as one of my favourites shows, and is a permanent fixture on my phone. If you haven't seen it, Tony and his former colleague from Les Halles, Carlos, go to a taco hut which specializes in offal. There is literally a bubbling vat where pieces of pig bob up and down through the broth. You choose your pig part, dude grabs it, chops it up, tosses it into a soft corn tortilla (my general preference - don't like wheat tacos) and hands it over. General ecstasy follows.

It also doesn't help that Vancouver isn't known as a bastion of Latin American cuisine, let alone Mexican food. A joint called "Los Margaritas" (not too far off from Taco Bell in terms of culinary reach) routinely wins "Best Mexican" in town. Sadly even now, after several SIGNIFICANTLY better Mexican places have opened, they somehow still manage to walk away with the award. It says more about demographics and the type of people who vote in these awards than anything else.

When La Taqueria opened up a few years ago, I heard their MO - organic, sustainable and local ingredients, prepared with the same love and care that are expected of Mexico City tacos. I had my doubts. It screamed "hipster trap." Outside of Portland Oregon, that term is usually a bad thing. The design of the website and the semi-ironic name "Pinche Taco Shop" made me a tad queasy.

It's nice to be wrong sometimes.

The decor is authenticity with just a touch of kitsch. The outer facade was aged a little bit which is a nice touch. The little figure above greets you at the cash register as you wrestle with the menu. There are 12 tacos on offer (4 vegetarian), and 1 weekly special (cycles between chorizo, lamb, mushrooms in garlic sauce, and pork in orange/achiote sauce). Meat tacos are $2.50 each (4 for $9.50) and veg are $2 each (4 for $7). 1 taco serves me well as a quick snack, 3 is a meal.

I have a habit of running in for a taco when I'm around, and they always ask if you have been there before to ensure you're aware these aren't food court-sized monstrosities. There's enough stools for about 10 people inside - no tables - just counters along the wall. It's cozy in all the right ways. A small condiment section offers 3 sauces and pickled onions.

This is one of my favourite food shots of all time. It's my profile pic! There's something beautiful about the range of colour, and the perfect amount of lighting on the shot. It's a pork in adobo sauce special. Spanish-style adobo usually includes paprika for colour, some spices, garlic and a touch of vinegar. Related, but inherently different from the Filipino adobo. That's a whole history lesson that I'm not about to go into. The adobo was flavourful, a touch tart - and was freshened up quite well with the salsa on top. The pork had a toothsome quality, not completely fall apart, but had just the right amount of chew.

This is a regular special called cohinita pibil (pork in an orange and achiote sauce). Achiote (also called annatto) is a spice native to Central America and very common in Mexico, as well as some countries in Asia (including the Philippines). The seeds of the plant are used, and usually grinded to provide a deep-dark-orange hue to dishes, as well an earthy element to the flavour. The pork was cooked and pulled tender - but I didn't love the sauce. It was quite watery, and surprisingly mellow? I wanted more flavour to this sucker. I had to add pickled onions and some tomatillo salsa to get some satisfaction from it.

This gorgeous creature is pollo con mole (chicken with mole) - mole is a thick cocoa-chilli sauce with a million and one ingredients in it. Every family has their own preparation, and the instructions would make any neophyte cook blow their brains out. Rick Bayless during Top Chef Masters said it took him over 20 years to develop his mole recipe! I'm not sure where this mole recipe came from, but it is good stuff! The flavour of the chicken still came through,

Here we have de cachete (braised pork cheeks) - cheeks are a part of the animal that are just full of flavour and terribly underappreciated. Actually, any meat from the head of an animal is usually full of good eating (lamb brains = AMAzing!) Here's the thing - the menu said these were pork, but I'm almost certain it's beef. Pork isn't capable of producing the range of flavour I tasted. The meat was braised in a flavourful stock for a few hours then torn apart into what you see here. It's got a complicated flavour with a slightly stringy texture, reminiscent of canned corned beef. If you've never had beef cheeks before, I highly recommend you try it.

I suppose we have to try the veggie side at least once right? I went with the tinga de hongos (sauteed mushrooms in a spicy chipotle sauce). They also have a revolving special using a garlic sauce, which I can't wait to try. The sauce does take centre-stage here - the mushrooms are simply there for texture, and are not a factor, flavour-wise. The spice is very mild, I'd say a 3 out of 10 in heat. The flavour of the sauce? Meh. I can't say anything stood out about it.

Finally one of my favourites, de lengua" (beef tongue). Every classic civilization has some preparation of this - usually stewing or boiling the living holy crap out of it until it's tender. I remember as a kid being served a whole tongue - and it tasted fine... but I had severe issues with all the little veins and postules staring back at me and I still remember the exact meal when I decided I couldn't take it anymore back in 1991. Now? All chopped up and semi-unrecognizable? I can deal just fine. This lengua was beautifully moist and bouncy tender. The stock burst with a mild saltiness and infinite levels of beefiness. Just absolutely fantastic.

With all this protein, sometimes you just need something to cool you down. Enter: the horchata (pronounced or-cha-ta). It's a drink made from rice with flavour from cinnamon, and sugar. I've had many different versions, and I can honestly say this is my favourite thus far. Very smooth and homogenous, there's just the right amount of cinnamon and not over-powering at all. I've had some that were chalky, over-sweetened, and all sorts of other unpleasantness. This? I chugged it all down. Absolutely fantastic.

La Taqueria is one of my absolute favourite places in Vancouver, and home to Vancouver's best tacos. I've had pretty much everything on their menu over the years, and I find myself returning to the pollo con mole, and the de lengua regularly. As for the more "normal" tacos (asada, carnitas...) I've had much better in the States, and locally as well (Don Guacamole, Doña Cata). But overall, their specialties can't be beat. They will also prepare everything in quesadilla form for an extra charge.

Located by Victory Square in downtown, on 322 West Hastings, they're open in time for lunch, until 8 PM everyday. They send out the weekly specials on Twitter (@LaTaqueriaYVR). Currently, on Tuesdays, they offer a free horchata if you order 4 tacos - a heck of a deal! Give them a shot for lunch, quick snack, or a pre-game munch! You won't be disappointed.

La Taqueria Taco Shop on Urbanspoon


Michael Kwan said...

You should try Dona Cata on Victoria and 35th too. $2 tacos, salsa bar, sustainable and authentic. She shot Dot Com Pho: Mexican Edition there.

slif said...

Oh I'm VERY familiar with Dona Cata - I work a few blocks away, so I've been there quite a few times :-)