Newly opened on Queen’s Road East and Star Street, El Taquero brings authentic and imaginative Mexican flavours to Hong Kong’s Wan Chai.
When I first read that ingredients at Hong Kong’s newest Mexican restaurant would include cactus and grasshoppers I was intrigued. To date, the city’s Mexican restaurants have been pretty ho-hum, their authenticity watered down out of commercial reality as they appeased a dining public that has traditionally preferred middle-of-the-road consistency over palate-challenging innovation.
Fortunately, that’s changing and El Taquero, a vibrant little hole-in-the-wall on the corner of Ship Street and Queen’s Road East, is part of that shift.
When we arrive on a weekday evening, the new 45-seat taco joint (the literal translation of its name), the latest venture by the Epicurean Group, is already heaving, so we take a pair of perches at the low-slung marble-topped cocktail bar.
Like many venues in Wan Chai, El Taquero is designed to transition through the day from a welcoming lunch spot to an eclectic night haunt, one where the bustle of the main road becomes a colourful backdrop for a cosy dining room in coral pink, rustic stone and neon and competes only with the action of the open kitchen.
It’s from here that executive chef Alejandro Ramírez Pérez, a Mexico City native, showcases regional dishes from the likes of Hidalgo, Nayarit, and Jalisco, and traditional Mexican cooking techniques inspired by his grandmother’s home cooking.
After cutting his teeth at some of the most demanding kitchens in the world, including coveted El Bulli, he’s descended on Hong Kong to introduce diners to true Mexican fare.
We kick off with a round of margaritas, a mezcal and orange laced take for me and a bell pepper and honey version for my dining companion. The restaurant has really championed agave-based spirits and traditional Mexican concoctions – including timeless chasers like the Verdita, with pineapple, mint, coriander, and jalapeño – so cocktail lovers are in for a treat. Our margaritas are perfectly balanced and set the tone with their smoky, salty profiles.
Other great margarita rifts include the Sage Margarita, made with reposado tequila, citrus, sage syrup, and apricot liqueur; the Hibiscus Margarita, with reposado tequila, citrus, Ancho Reyes (Mexican chilli liquor) and hibiscus syrup; and the delicate Rose Hip Rose with jalapeño-infused tequila, strawberry, citrus and a touch of ground pepper.
However, if you’re not headed to Margaritaville, you can always try a Michelada, also known as the Mexican Bloody Mary and the perfect heat beater. This popular drink is crafted with a light beer subbing in for vodka and at El Taquero, there’s a variety to sample from, including the Classic, tomato juice, orange juice, hot sauce, citrus, salt, and pepper and topped with Mexican light beer; the Corn Sangrita, with tomato juice, corn syrup, and light beer, garnished with a piece of grilled corn; and the Savoury Michelada, with clamato juice, fresh orange juice, hot sauce, and suds.
If you’re just in for drinks, be sure to order the tortilla chips with five house-made salsas, all of which are made lovingly each day in-house. The selection includes salsa verde, Mexican tomatillo with serrano chilli and coriander; salsa roja, both árbol and ancho chilli with slow-roasted tomatoes; pico de gallo with freshly-chopped tomatoes, onions, serrano chilli and coriander; salsa pasilla with dried pasilla chilli, slow-roasted tomatoes and garlic; and habanero salsa, a blend of marinated red onions, oregano, lime and habanero chilli for a little el caliente at the end of the work day.
The margaritas are followed by a selection of tacos, each served on house-made corn tortillas and each better than the last (and there’s plenty to choose from). My favourites were also the restaurant’s most buzz-worthy; Chapulines (below) is a taco from Oaxaca featuring deep-fried Mexican grasshoppers which are so good I end up munching on them like peanuts, while the Nopales is a combination of preserved cactus (it’s a little like eggplant), pico de gallo, salsa roja and crumbled cheese. My only niggle would be that the chef is a little too generous with his servings – this is not a place where you’ll be eating delicately.
Other great tacos to try include the Fish Sayulita, with battered crispy mahi mahi, shredded cabbage, and pico de gallo, drizzled with chipotle aioli for a hint of smokiness; Bistec, with Prime beef ribeye, salsa verde, fresh onion and coriander; Lengua, slow-poached ox tongue with garlic, star anise and clove; and Pollo Adobado, grilled chicken thigh, marinated with Mexican Adobo made with ancho and guajillo peppers and topped with fresh onion, coriander, and salsa roja.
The main event comes in the form of the Al Pastor, rare find among Mexican restaurants in Hong Kong. Al Pastor is a Mexican dish with thinly sliced marinated pork, slow-cooked on the “trompo”, a vertically rotating spit rotisserie. The meat is topped with pineapple and rests on onions. The theory is that the citrus juices and aroma of pineapple run down the pork while preventing the meat from getting overcooked.
This cooking method was inspired by the traditional Shawarma brought to Mexico around 1800 by Lebanese immigrants. The Mexican adaptation of Shawarma in the 1950s took the form of pork, marinated with a blend of spices, chillies, pineapple, and vinegar, which gave it its distinct flavour and served on a soft tortilla. It is also known as tacos al pastor, tacos de trompo, or simply pastor, and it has since become the taco most associated with Mexico City.
The pork shoulder is marinated overnight with achiote paste, a classic marination blended with annatto seeds, coriander seeds, Mexican oregano, black pepper, cumin, cloves, garlic and a touch of bitter orange juice, and then slow-cooked on the trompo spit grill. We are typically hungry lads and opted for the 500-gram Al Pastor Experience, a DIY sharing platter with Al Pastor pork served with warm tortillas, onions, coriander, salsa roja and fresh lime on the side. The meat is nothing short of heavenly, especially when you top each bite with a slither of roasted pineapple.
One great thing about El Taquero is that the menu is diverse and comprehensive, meaning there’s something for everyone. Don’t dig tacos? Try the Tamales, corn-based masa dough steamed in corn husks and topped with black beans, salsa verde, sour cream, cotija aged white cheese, onion and coriander; the Elotes Preparados, a popular street snack made with whole steamed white corn cob rubbed with mayonnaise, crumbled cheese, chilli powder and fresh lime; or the zesty, impetuous Tuna Tostadas, raw yellowfin tuna kissed with chipotle mayo, serrano chilli, and cucumber and served on top of a crispy toasted tortilla.
There’s also the Ostiones El Taquero, a freshly shucked oyster topped with pico de gallo and tequila and taken in one mouthful; Ceviche Punta de Mita, a combination of lightly-poached tiger prawns, scallops and octopus, served with a tangy salsa bruja; and Chicken Enchiladas, made with corn tortillas stuffed with pulled chicken and cheese and topped with salsa verde, sour cream and red onion.
We finish this sensational meal with the most macho of deserts, the simple but oh-so-effective churro, a street food staple. Deceptively simple, it sums up what Hong Kong’s best new Mexican restaurant is all about, good flavours, good vibes, and plenty of tequila.
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