First of all, I want to welcome any new readers that have arrived here thanks to my dear friend D’s (entirely undeserved) praise of my blog. D, whom my regular readers I’m sure remember as the gracious host who fed me oh-so-well in Berlin, is really one of the best people I’ve ever met and I’m lucky to call her a friend.
One feature that new readers might not be aware of here at Keeping the Bear Garden in the Background is the Hungerdome, where two culinary contestants enter and only one leaves the victor. The first Hungerdome was held in August and put three Parisian macaron bakeries head-to-head in what became a vaguely nauseating and startlingly mathematical battle. My regular readers will surely suspect that I have forgotten entirely about the second Hungerdome, where I meant to evaluate the meagre Mexican offerings available in the City of Lights.
Here’s the deal. Even though I did enjoy my evening at Hacienda del Sol, I’ll admit that the experience left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. How bad? Ninety euros bad, people. In absolutely no universe should that kind of food cost that much money, France or not. Many people had recommended that I visit Anahuacalli and evaluate it in comparison to Hacienda del Sol. A real live Californian even said that he had the best enchiladas verde of his life at Anahuacalli (an admission that makes me question his standards more than anything else). But the idea of spending another hundred bucks or so on a meal that I could probably make better myself left me cold, especially with a visit to the States on the horizon in which I plan to eat Mexican food until I burst at the seams.
Moreover, I don’t want to brag here, but I’ve started to really get cooking Mexican food here in my miniature Parisian kitchen down to a science. The discovery of a basement Portugese section in a Monoprix in the first arrondisement means that our pantry is well-stocked with black beans. B and M together are a ferocious tortilla-making machine. We even discovered an errant batch of fresh jalapeños a little while ago that had somehow mistakenly ended up in a French supermarket, which we purchased in bulk and froze. The result of all this legwork was that few weeks ago we hosted a carne asada taco night, one that was roundly received as one of the yummiest dinner parties on record. I can whip up some pretty killer Mexican food any night of the week here, so any restaurant claiming to do the same better bring their game face and not cost a week’s salary.
Two Parisian newcomers do just that. The first, El Nopal (3 rue Eugène Varlin, 75010 Paris, Métro Colonel Fabien), is as close to a Mexican taqueria as you are going to get in this town. Run by super-friendly Alejandro from Monterrey and some lovely Ecuadorians (whom B seems to think are Alejandro’s in-laws), El Nopal offers up a limited but tasty menu of tacos and burritos out of a shoebox-sized shop just off Canal St. Martin. Regrettably, there is practically no space whatsoever to eat inside, but I suspect that El Nopal will be the place to be come summer when eating by the Canal is de rigueur for all of the cool kids.
B, M, and I ventured there on a cold and rainy night, and squeezed in to the tiny space. We quickly made friends with Alejandro, who obviously realizes that it is the Americans who are the bread and butter of any Mexican joint in this town. We each ordered a basket of three tacos. Alejandro keeps the selection small, and the night we came in all he had available was an Ecuadorian spicy chicken and vegetable and beef and potato taco regional to Monterrey. Both were quite good, especially when served on the corn tortillas that Alejandro makes to order with an enviable little tortilla press and spread with refried beans. Best of all, he serves his tacos with a genuinely spicy and flavorful salsa, which we greedily doused ourselves in (and more of which was quickly provided). Washing down our tacos with bargain-priced (for this town) Bohemia beers, we were three happy campers. So happy, in fact, that we commandered the tiny space for another round of tacos and beer and a delightful Ecuadorian coffee-flavored dessert. While we ate, Alejandro shared with us secrets of where to buy spicy chiles in Paris (Asian markets) and how to keep our homemade tortillas from sticking to our remedial press (plastic shopping bags, not cling wrap). We left, aglow with booze and good cheer.
I quickly posted the image above of our tacos from El Nopal on Facebook, so that my Parisian friends of past and present would know that there was now a decent taqueria in town. The responses were mixed, including several from past inhabitants of this fair city that amounted to “That’s nice for you, and it would have been nice for me a year ago.” Another Paris resident and a loyal reader of this blog (hi L!) suggested that I should also try Rice and Beans (22 rue Greneta Paris, France 75002, Métro Etienne Marcel), a new burrito joint run by Americans that has just opened in the former space of much-lauded Rice and Fish, a sushi shop that has changed locations. Thus a new Hungerdome was born.
Rice and Beans, from which ate takeout last night, is a bit of a different animal from El Nopal. While both have a kitsch-filled aesthetic, Rice and Beans’ Luchador-centric decor feels a bit affected. The menu is quite extensive, offering a variety of tacos and burritos, as well as tamales and the restaurant’s namesake black beans and spanish rice. We arrived at the restaurant right when it was supposed to open and were told that the kitchen wasn’t running yet and that we should come back in a half hour. We acquiesced and browsed a lousy used bookstore nearby to kill some time. When we arrived back, we ordered a variety of things from the menu, including two chile colorado tamales, a carnitas burrito with all the fixings, and a selection of three tacos (chipotle chicken, fish, and chorizo). The (white) guy behind the counter was obviously an American, and the ever-affable B quickly struck up a conversation. He revealed that he was from Portland, which I regretted knowing, as I can officially say that the second worst Mexican food I’ve ever eaten was in the Pacific Northwest (the titleholder was in Berlin and wins due to the morale-annihilating case of food poisoning that accompanied it). Nevertheless, we tried to make conversation with this guy about the pitfalls of making Mexican food in Paris, having had a rousing conversation with Alejandro of El Nopal to the same effect. Rather bizzarely, he immediately became suspicious when we described the various places we had successfully located dried red chiles and corn masa for tortillas, and asked in a rather bullying tone if B intended to start his own Mexican restaurant in Paris. B laughed and explained that he was a scholar of medieval literature and would be returning to the states in less than a year, but you could tell that this guy’s guard was up. When B shared his (in my opinion, amazingly brilliant) idea of opening a taco truck on the gravel pit in front of the Louvre, the guy scoffed with the kind of disdain that one can only muster for a really good idea that one wishes he had thought of first.
Our rather chilly reception aside, I was still excited to get our Rice and Beans food home. I immediately dug into the burrito and was generally quite pleased with the results, as it tasted like a decent (if somewhat bland) burrito from anywhere on the West Coast. I’ll give extra points to anything that involves good guacamole, and this burrito certainly did. The tamales were moist and well-handled, despite the fact that nothing resembling red chile had ever touched their filling. The beans and rice were fine, in the way that unspectacular black beans and spanish rice are always fine. But the tacos quickly veered off course. It was entirely unclear what kind of substance was being billed as “chorizo,” but it certainly didn’t resemble any kind of chorizo I’ve eaten on this or any other side of the Atlantic. The deep-fried fish was good, if fishy (these guys did run a sushi shop, after all), but the “chipotle” chicken was as sad of a heap of limp, flavorless, dried-out chicken breast as I’ve ever seen. The worst offender was the homemade salsa, which was glorified marinara sauce in a tiny plastic cup. It was the culinary equivalent of squirting ketchup on your meal, and we quickly trashed it in favor of our own smuggled-in bottle of Tapatio for flavor and heat. They did have a variety of bottled hot sauces available at the restaurant, so perhaps that is more of the go-to condiment at Rice and Beans than the salsa, which seemed like a bit of an afterthought.
I guess I wouldn’t be so sour about the actual quality of the meal, which was totally decent by Paris standards for Mexican food, if we hadn’t been accused of being spies eager to check out the competition and steal their culinary secrets. To be honest, should B and I ever decide open up our taco truck, we’d give those guys a hell of a run for their money.
So, let’s Hungerdome this beast, shall we?
Round 1: Food
There’s really no contest. On one hand, you have a Mexican guy running a genuine taqueria with his family’s recipes. He understands what salsa is supposed to taste like and that Corona is not the only beer that one can import from Mexico. On the other hand, you’ve got some American guys running a burrito joint largely modeled on other European burrito joints that are modeled on Chipotle. While Rice and Beans does have a more extensive menu, El Nopal makes sure their small list of offerings are all perfect. As a fan of quality over quantity every time, this one goes to El Nopal. Lest I sound like the mean girl, however, I do want to say that Rice and Beans makes quite a good burrito, the likes of which you will be unable to find elsewhere in Paris.
Round 2: Booze
Mexican beers at both El Nopal and Rice and Beans are both a rather steep 4 euros a bottle, but that’s change compared to the cost of those beers anywhere else in Paris (B and I both had a seizure when we realized we were being charged 8 euros a pop for Negro Modelos at Hacienda del Sol). El Nopal serves Bohemia, however, which is my Mexican beer of choice. Thus this round goes to our friend Alejandro, who also knows a thing or two about beer. We’ll forgive him for regarding Tecate as “a fancy beer,” as apparently it was for him growing up in Monterrey.
Round Three: Price
A key factor, especially since I’ve already (rather dictatorially) decided that Hacienda del Sol and Anahuacalli are out of the running for the best Mexican food in Paris due to their high price tags. Tacos are a euro a pop cheaper at El Nopal than at Rice and Beans (two versus three euros), which can really mean something when you are eating in bulk. Thus, round three goes to again to Alejandro, who knows how much you can actually charge for a taco, in Paris or anywhere else for that matter.
Round Four: Restaurant Space and Ambiance
El Nopal is delightfully decorated and immaculately clean, but the size of the average American walk-in closet. Rice and Beans wins points for being an actual sit-down restaurant chock-a-block with kitsch, but their hygiene standards left both B and me a bit unsettled. It wasn’t dirty, per se, but it wasn’t exactly clean either. Moreover, El Nopal is a block from the Canal, whereas Rice and Beans calls the (cough) atmospheric area of Reamur-Sebastopol home. Come summertime, Alejandro will be able to call one of the coolest picnic areas in town his dining room. For this reason, and the general friendliness of the owners, El Nopal also takes this final round.
There you have it, people. Two Parisian Mexican places entered the Hungerdome, and El Nopal emerged victorious. Seriously, people, El Nopal is a brand-new, family-run business trying to make its way in a tough restaurant scene that doesn’t look kindly on anything spicy. If you find yourself on the Canal and hungry, please give it a shot. I want this yummy taqueria to make it through this long winter until next summer, when I anticipate having to fight my way in to get a plate of tacos for a picnic dinner.