In the last couple of months, one of the most "talked" about restaurants in Edmonton has been that of Tres Carnales, a taquería, aka taco shop, opened in Howard Way in the Downtown area. Not sure if due to social media engagement from the owners or because it was "something different", it made quite a hit. However, when I visited it, I just thought it was something different but not necessarily the noise it was generating. Then again, it is just me and who cares what I think? Fast forward a couple of months and, in this blog, a post was written where nomnomnom and, just like me, wasn't really enthusiastic about it. What follows is what I consider a huge snafu by the owners: In a tweet, they write: "A bad review...warranted or no? You tell us!" (Facebook link to said tweet here) In my opinion, as a restaurant owner, they should have listened and addressed the situation, not preaching the choir or throwing them to the wolves. But, once again, who am I? Actually, that's where this post comes in. Since I tend to travel with certain frequency, that gives me a chance to try different cuisines from different parts of the world. As a result, I think I can provide some input about the overall subject. If you agree with this premise, please grab your favourite drink, as this will be a long post…
Where to start? How about we do so with the baseline, i.e., a taco made in Mexico City?
|Inside a taquería in Mexico City|
These tacos were made in a regular taquería, one which would be frequented by regular Mexican folks for lunch (I walked by later at night and they were closed so I will assume it is only open during certain hours of the day). When ordering, the waitress - an "old" woman with a pad and pencil - would take our orders and then provide us with the food.
|Tacos topped with nopales|
|Condiments/sides served: radishes, cucumbers, limes and papalo herb|
The tacos were served along with radishes, cucumber and a local herb called papalo. And, what I thought was quite weird (from a non-Mexican perspective), some tacos were topped with french fries. Similar to the signal of a good sushi restaurant, you would order the tacos by the unit, i.e., you would order two or three at a time. Once you consume them, you would order more. If you would be pushed to make a complete order at once… Well, they felt it was sort of pushing things. That also leads to another detail: there is no such thing as one order consisting of three or four tacos of the same type.
You order what you want to eat. Likewise there is another key detail to observe: Notice that tortilla? Specifically, there is only one? As I was explained, there is no written rule on how many tortillas should be in a taco: it is usually left to the taquería and the filling. In the case of the filling, if it tends to be wet (for example, braised or stewed meats), they might use a second one for structural purposes. As for taste and texture, the tortilla was there mostly for containment of the filling. It was thin and you could taste a little bit of it, not much. Some of the fillings were juicier than others but, in a way, it was the intent of the filling itself. For example, the chorizo was cooked through a lot more than the meat from al pastor. What was overall unique was that not much was made about it: that's what they expected. Then again, this is something they eat on a frequent basis and everybody seem had their favourite shop.
Now that we have set up my baseline, i.e., authentic food served to regular folks - not food served in an all-inclusive resort which caters what tourists think is the real deal - let's take a look at the offering from the restaurant in question: Tres Carnales.
|This, along with the second picture, were from my first visit to Tres Carnales|
|Ah… Guacamole, the centre of discussion in the first post…|
It is quite obvious the tacos are different from the ones I had in Mexico. From the type of tortillas used (given it looks so regular shaped, it would indicate mass production) to how they were dressed (cilantro and onions), it is somewhat evident these are not the same type of tacos I consumed in Mexico City. After checking with a Mexican friend, he confirmed that what people consume outside of Mexico is usually the style produced in the northern regions. In a way, that would make sense, as they neighbour the United States and would more easily "flow" towards the American side and eventually further north. As for the product itself, as mentioned, I thought it was OK. Meats were cooked through, though, I wished a bit more on the juicy.
After all, you have the second tortilla for structural integrity! In terms of salsa, they are provided on the side but, alas, they are limited to what is served to you - you don't necessarily have an option to choose the one you want. Furthermore, the mix-and-match issue: the orders I made had four tacos but you can't mix and match the ones you want. Or order a single one for that matter. As for me returning, well, I am not the biggest fan of tacos (prefer other forms of Latin cuisine) so it is a case of I don't care.
Now that we went through the main restaurant of the discussion, how about another restaurant that offers taco? In this case, Azucar Picante in the Northeast side of Edmonton. Now, one big note: While this is a Latin restaurant, this is not necessarily Mexican only. I might be overstating the obvious here: Mexico is just one of the several countries in Latin American and, in now way and form, it is representative of the cuisine in the other regions. In this case, there is no equivalent to the poutine in Canadian cuisine. So, where it is from? After looking at the menu and inquiring the waitress, she told me she is Peruvian. Of course, that's her nationality, not necessarily that of the cooks or owners…
|Not related to tacos; but, to those interested, they have churros!|
In terms of ordering, it suffers the same "issue" as Tres Carnales: they do not offer mix-and-match (I asked) and their order is made up of four tacos. However, unlike Tres Carnales, it comes with three salsas (with different levels of spiciness) as well as a side of beans. And, unlike Tres Carnales, the "filling" is contained in a single tortilla. Flavourwise, I only wished the meat were more caramelized. But then again, this is more in terms of style.
There is a joke that, in terms of cuisine, whatever hits Vancouver, it will eventually hit Edmonton a year or two later [*]. In Vancouver's case, tacos craze came around two years ago with La Taqueria (despite there has been more traditional Mexican restaurants, for example, Doña Cata). So, for comparison purposes, I visited their second location and ordered several of their tacos. Unlike the tacos I ordered in Tres Carnales, I ended up ordering stewed meats tacos - in this case, beef cheeks (cachete), beef tongue (lengua), pollo con mole, fish (pescado) as well as one of their vegetarian options (tinga de hongos). Granted a sort of 1:1 comparison can't be necessarily made since I ordered different types of meat as the ones I ordered in Tres Carnales but one thing is quite obvious: it follows a similar pattern of two tortilla. However, on the flip side, you are allowed to mix-and-match.
In fact, you can order only one if you wanted to. Pricewise, they are better set up: most of their tacos are $2.50 a piece or $9.50 if you order four (slightly cheaper if vegetarian options were chosen). As for salsas, it is self-serve so you can tailor it the way you want.
|Cachete, aka, beef cheek|
|Lengua, aka, tongue|
|Tinga de Hongos, aka, mushroom|
|Pescado, aka, fish|
|Pollo con Mole|
[*] That does not mean trends can't flow the other way either. While Edmonton have had Famoso for a while, the craze for Neapolitan pizza hit Vancouver recently. In fact, Famoso is scheduled to open locations in BC later this year.
As for the food itself, well, not sure if it was because I chose the stewed meat options but they didn't really shine that much (which I found odd as my previous visits to their first location provided better final products). Furthermore, the extra tortilla muted the existing flavours. Is Tres Carnales better than La Taqueria? Well, again, since it wasn't a 1:1 product comparison, I can't say. If I use my previous experience, I would say they are not that different.
One key note: the owners of Tres Carnales mentioned that, too facilitate the product delivery, they are enforcing the 4 tacos per order system. In the case of La Taqueria, the shop itself is even smaller, yet customers flow in and out without any issue. I think Tres Carnales would do a favour to the public if they allowed mix-and-match…
While Edmonton "complain" they wish they have the same type of cuisine options as Vancouver (something that Edmontonians should blame themselves due to the steak-and-potatoes culture as well as being too conservative and "safe" in terms of food), Vancouverites at times wish they had the same options as their neighbours in the South, namely, Seattle. In this case, I was in a trip down there and decided to stop at…Chipotle?!
OK, some of you might be coughing at this but, let's face it, for argument sake, one should include crazy options. In no way Chipotle would fall in the same category as the other options discussed here but I threw it in for one reason: perception. When general public think that is the "real deal", you know that everything will go south from there [**]. As for Chipotle, alas, I don't think what I ate was representative at best: I was there after a long drive and it was quite late (~9:00 p.m., restaurant close at 10:00 p.m.) by the time I got there. Read: the food wasn't fresh and I was a bit tired. Still, by trying their food I got the key note of the intent of the restaurant: in no way it was meant to be "authentic" or traditional. Rather it is just to feed people with what they want to eat. On that note, the order above has three tacos and I asked them topped them with the three different salsas they had. Corn happened to be one of their toppings.
[**] Trivia time: In terms of authenticity, which serves "better" Chinese food, P.F. Chang's or The Lingnan? Answer: neither one. If you consider dishes such as Lemon Chicken and Ginger Beef to be Chinese, that would be as French as french fries.
|La Carta de Oaxaca front. If it wasn't for the sandwich board, you won't know that's the restaurant|
|The lady in the picture is the person hand making the tortillas on a griddle|
[***] Just in case, in the case you google this word, the regular definition, not the OTHER definition.
|Now THIS is a taco!|
Anyway, here is what was ordered - tacos de carne asada. Out of all tacos I ate in this culinary trip, outside of Mexico, this was the best I had. It wasn't only the fact the tortilla was thin and only provided some containment to the filling without interfering (tastewise) with the rest; but it seemed as if each part as a role: The salsa was there to provide contrast (in this case, some heat - and while it is served on the taco, they have a salsa bar, too) to the savoury meat - which itself was juicy and caramelized. Of course, a price had to be paid: an order which contains two tacos were US $6.00 (for purposes of this post, an almost CDN $1:US $1 reference point can be used).
|Mole Negro Oaxaqueño with pork|
|Hand made tortilla - made on-site. Notice the irregularities.|
|Side effect from being too popular?|
|Pescado, aka, fish, and Calamari|
Now that we have seen tacos from different places, here is what I would like to draw as sort of a conclusion:
1) Tacos is not a single entity type dish. A perogie you would find in Edmonton can be pretty much the same as the one you would find in Ukraine, in terms of tacos, it can be quite different as you can see from the pictures.
2) Before jumping in wildly, almost without thinking, to "defend" the restaurant, ask yourself: what is your comparison point? If your previous experience with tacos was that of a hard shell tacos from Taco Bell or Old El Paso… Well, pretty much ANYTHING would be better than that.
3) This is not a popularity contest or an "I like/love you!" contest. If you have an opinion, back it up with solid concrete points. Just because you eat there everyday can also mean you are lazy to walk across the street. Just because you drove three hours to go to Tres Carnales, it could be because you are sick of (insert regional cuisine here). If it is a reasonable substitution, well, that works but say what it is substituting for!
4) "Authentic" cuisine is a marketing plot. Once you are outside of the location of origin, some compromises will be made: either ingredients or taste buds or some je ne sais quoi. For example, the tortillas used in Tres Carnales and La Taqueria aren't made in house.
5) Just because they say so does not necessarily means it is true (see above). And just because they are of that country of origin, does not automatically mean it is good either. I have had bad "Chinese" food made by Chinese people (*cough*Chicken for Lunch*cough*), as well as quite decent French food made by non-French.
6) Despite Alberta is considered to be a conservative region, try expanding your horizons. As shown above, there are different forms of tacos.
In this case, the author of this blog expressed their opinion with some evidence. I am supporting my opinion with evidence myself. The question is, if you are going to comment, what is your supporting evidence?
And, to close this post, if you need to ask, if I were to rate all these places, it would be: Mexico City (doh!) followed by La Carta. What about the rest? Didn't I mention I don't care Mexican food? If you do care, expand your horizons and try to find it yourself!
Tres Carnales Taqueria
Address 10119 100A Street, Rice Howard Way, Edmonton, AB T5J 0C8
Phone (780) 429-0911
Hours Mon-Fri 11am-10pm, Sat 4-10pm
Azucar Picante Restaurant and Cantina
Address 13062 50 St NW, Edmonton, AB
Phone (780) 479-7400
Hours Mon-Thu 11:30 am-10 pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-2:30am, Sun 2pm-8pm
La Taqueria Taco Shop
Address 2549 Cambie Street, Vancouver, BC
Phone (604) 568-4406
Hours Mon- Sat 11:00am-8:30pm, Sunday closed
Chipotle Mexican Grill
Address 401 NE Northgate Way, Seattle, WA 98125
Phone (206) 362-0285
Hours Mon-Sun 11am-10pm
La Carta de Oaxaca
Address 5431 Ballard Ave NW, Seattle, WA 98107
Phone (206) 782-8722
Hours Tues-Sat 11:30-3pm, Mon-Thurs 5pm-10pm Fri-Sat 5pm-midnight
¿Por Qué No? Taqueria
Address 3524 N Mississippi Ave, Portland, OR 97227
Phone (503) 467-4149
Hours open 7 days a week lunch and dinner