Apr 13, 2021 Restaurants
A new taqueria nails one Mexican classic, though other dishes disappoint.
Before eating at Mr Taco, I hadn’t had a taco in nine months. While that’s probably in line with most New Zealanders’ intake of Mexican food, for someone coming from Los Angeles, it was cause for alarm. Mexican food is the lifeblood of America’s second-biggest city. It’s as common as the sunshine. Nearly 40% of LA County’s 10 million people are of Hispanic ethnicity. It has the largest population of Mexican people outside of Mexico. From the 50,000-plus street vendors (most of who sling tacos) to the boundary-pushing modern Mexican cuisine of chefs like Enrique Olvera, the food that makes Los Angeles special is undeniably Mexican.
Living in Los Angeles means you will inadvertently come to know the women at the frutas stands by their rainbow umbrellas lining the streets, selling juicy chunks of pineapple, melon and mango dressed in bright lime and chilli. You’ll also come to find your favourite regional style of taco: Baja-style fish, the best being lightly battered mud shark that you order one at a time to enjoy piping hot; or maybe Tijuana-style lamb barbacoa, which stains your fingers the deep red of achiote paste as you take bites between sips of gamey consommé made from the bones and skull. It’s the kind of food I have missed viscerally since finding myself here unexpectedly this last March.
If I were to paraphrase all the Mexican expats and chefs I have asked where to find authentic Mexican food in Auckland, the answer would be that there isn’t any. This is usually followed by a short list of spots that keep them going, given with a caveat or three; Cielito Lindo in Henderson is often at the top of this list, while others prefer downtown’s La Fuente. That’s because most of what you’ll find here is more in line with the sort of MexicanAmerican cuisine pioneered by San Bernardino’s Mitla Cafe in the 1930s: the kind of combination plates and crunchy hard-shelled tacos that eventually went on to inspire regular customer Glen Bell to open Taco Bell.
The truth is, searching for good Mexican food in Auckland can feel like an exercise in edible masochism, which is why I stood outside Mr Taco trying desperately not to get my hopes up.
Mr Taco is a small taqueria, the sort you stand in to quickly devour your tacos — warm and fleeting — before slipping back onto Federal St just as fast. Inside, a handful of metal stools, a humming drinks cooler, a tin or two stuffed with napkins for your taco juices, and two plancha grills, hidden behind a large sheet of plywood. Across it, a hand-painted mural of a moustache in a sombrero. This is Mr Taco, or Manuel Moreno Gonzalez, the man behind the moustache, who you can find most afternoons bent over the plancha.
Aucklanders have kept Mr Taco busy since it opened in June. Busy enough that Moreno will, in the coming weeks, be opening a new outpost in the space next door, specialising in tortas.
The offerings here are pretty extensive for the size of the space. Pick your filling (there are seven). Sometimes there’s a special. If they’re out of something, you’re out of luck. If you whine, Moreno will likely shrug, unapologetically.
While Moreno is from Mexico City, the fillings of his tacos jump around to multiple regions and styles of Mexico. You can find birria, a traditional braise of goat or lamb (and in this case beef) hailing from Jalisco, alongside pork carnitas, a staple of Michoacán. It’s an interesting choice considering most taquerias focus on one or two regional styles of tacos in the same way a ramen shop in Japan will specialise in one specific bowl.
While the birria is flavourful, tried on multiple visits it doesn’t have the sloppy juiciness that can make this dish so craveable. Similarly, the carnitas, which is traditionally pork braised for hours in a bubbling cauldron of spices and lard, is often puzzlingly dry and lacking the complexity that could result if more of the animal was integrated into the dish. It begs for the cuerito (wobbly bits of pork skin) and for the adventurous, the buche, rich morsels of pork stomach diehard carnitas fans live for.
What you really are here for is the al pastor. There are about as many ways to cook al pastor as there are people who cook it, but generally speaking it’s pork marinated in an adobo of vinegar, chillis and spices. While the spices are negotiable, the vinegar is not. At Mr Taco, distinct hints of cinnamon zing through the heavily spiced shreds of pork, pairing perfectly with the requisite bites of pineapple. Hot off the plancha and covered in nothing more than a spicy salsa made of dried chillies (I suggest the hottest, if you can bear it), a handful of diced white onion and fresh coriander, housed in a corn tortilla, it’s a textbook al pastor. The first bite makes me feel Mexico and Los Angeles in the pit of my stomach; a delicious bittersweetness which feels like being home and, at the same time, being wildly aware that I can’t go home at all. It’s the first time in my life I find myself sitting over a plate of food trying to hide that I am welling up with tears.
Of course, there are things I could nitpick over. The al pastor should technically be cooked on a trompo, a vertical rotisserie spit similar to what you’d find at a kebab shop. The tortillas, which vary in quality and kind by day (occasionally blue corn, other times yellow) are not made in-house (they are from Mexican foods distributor Tio Pablo). But, really, these points are just examples of why Mexican food is largely not very good in Auckland. While some of the responsibility lies in the white-washing of Mexican food to make it more palatable for white customers, the other half can be blamed on how hard it is to get proper Mexican ingredients and cooking equipment in this country.
Moreno relies on a combination of Tio Pablo, local supermarkets, and Facebook groups that buy, sell and trade Mexican ingredients like precious jewels. If the country’s top chefs can’t get their hands on a fresh tomatillo, one of Mexico’s most staple ingredients, how could we expect Moreno to? As with any emerging cuisine, it’s a dance between what you’re able to work with to elevate that cuisine and what your consumer is willing to try.
64A Federal St, Auckland Central
09 282 5754
Hours: Seven days, 10am-9pm
DINNER BILL Three tacos for $12
This review was published in our Summer 2020/21 issue, which was released in November 2020.