There’s Never Been a Better Time to Crave Tacos
Thanks to an influx of superlative tacquerías, Vancouver is in the midst of its own Mexican revolution.
September 3, 2015
The nine-seat Tacomio launched in Gastown in early March. Its chef/owner, Fhernando Llanas, left his role as executive sous-chef at the Vancouver Club to open it—which kind of sums up how much of a phenomenon the taco has become in our town.
I trace the beginning of the trend to 2009, when Marcelo Romero and Alfonso Sanz threw open the doors of the first location of La Taquería, on West Hastings. It was the first place in Vancouver where I saw de lengua (beef tongue) tacos on the menu, and I might have eaten them in that tiny turquoise hole in the wall 100 times since then. (Conveniently, it was located across the street from my office.)
Maybe it was the location—the debut outlet of Nuba had exploded out of the same storefront—but more likely it was chemistry between culture and site and moment: more ESL students from Latin America, the opening of W2, and the gentrification of the Victory Square neighbourhood. The arrival of authentic Mexican street food seemed perfectly timed: bold, unexpected flavours, sold by a couple of guys and their friends, who hung a sign next to the cash register that read (something like), “Yes, this is what we’ve done with our education.”
Which turned out to be quite a lot. Type “taco” into Yelp nowadays and you get 42 pages of local results, with everyone from Joey to Biercraft selling them. Tour the city and you can observe the revolution yourself, in small, delicious bites that definitely require a napkin.
Los Amigos (1118 Davie St., 604-559-0220) is where I began my own taco tour, visiting mostly new arrivals to the scene. Opened late last year by Mazen Adas and Adriana Orta, this is your basic family taco joint: a wood-and-linoleum interior, 10 seats, a couple of señoras in the kitchen turning out classics like tinga, mole, al pastor, and carnitas. The surprise hit was the nopalitos: cactus with chipotle, cilantro, and Mexican cheese. It doesn’t look like much but has a nice, salty heat. The rajas con crema was a winner, too, with its poblano and corn flavours singing through. All were very homey and pleasantly traditional. And at $8.50 for four tacos, it was the bargain among the places we tried.
Tacomio (435 Abbott St., 778-868-7041) is its antithesis. This is fashionable, upmarket Gastown, at the mouth of a cleaned-up alley that used to be among Vancouver’s grittiest. The lively room attracts a well-dressed lunch crowd that snakes out into the street. Early on a Saturday afternoon, I snuck in just before Llanas shut the doors, having run out of the roast-ham torta that was the day’s special offering. I got the last one and ate it in Victory Square with sharp, hot pickles, crisp chicharrón, and guacamole. Vibrant, spot-on flavours. Excellent.
I visited again for tacos: carnitas, flaked cod, tinga de pollo, nopalitos with chorizo. Counter service here means the fillings are in heat trays, assembled into tacos as they’re ordered. But without a grill to introduce a sear, the flavour profiles are subtle. These are clean, fresh bites you can spike with pickles and house-made hot sauce. But I’d welcome a more pronounced chipotle smoke in the tinga, some crisp on the carnitas.
Meanwhile, in Hastings-Sunrise, Tacofino Commissary (2327 E. Hastings St., 604-253-8226) takes the new-school taco to even newer-school levels. Opened in 2012, it has a loyal local following, meaning the place is jammed. But it’s a great room. I especially love Omer Arbel’s looping, spiralling light fixtures, which are somehow designed to support dozens of tiny cacti. And the tacos, if not always adhering to tradition, are brilliant. The pork jowl is crisp and rich, brightened with pineapple and sriracha. The crispy chicken comes with black-chili mayo and Brussels sprout kimchi. And the fish taco, with a perfectly crusted piece of ling cod and crunchy cabbage, was by far the best of its kind we tried. These are high-energy plates, both visually and on the palate, with heat and sweet, salt and texture constantly in play. Two of these will satisfy you if you save room for the banana churros with chili-cinnamon ice cream—which you really, really should do.
I saved La Taquería (various locations. Lataqueria.com) for last. It had been a couple of years since I moved my office from Gastown to Point Grey, and that first location had grown in the meantime to a mini chain of five.
I worried success might have ruined them, but I needn’t have. It was exactly as I remembered: chili and cilantro aromas, Mexican pop music, a laid-back air. I ordered like I’d been there yesterday. And then they came: the originals (and still, for my money, the best). De lengua—tender, ideal. Al pastor—bright with achiote. Carnitas—crisped and darkened on the flat-top. And tinga de hongas, with rich, earthy chipotle flavours. There’s my smoke. There’s my layer of gentle heat. Some extra pickled onions, a squirt of hot sauce, a bottle of Dos Equis Amber, and a seat at the back—perfection.