Tacuba: Offering a fresh take on Mexican food

by Erik Luebs

Contributing Writer

Everything about Jose Sanchez’s new Osaka restaurant, Tacuba, emphasizes freshness. From the contemporary Mexican art on the walls to the open kitchen, and made-to-order prep area, there’s a clean minimalism to the design that focuses attention on the restaurant’s ingredients and preparation.

While the style is common to the “fresh fast-food” restaurants that have become popular in the West over the last decade, it’s an approach that is still relatively new to Japan. What’s more, compared to other overseas cuisines, Mexican food is uncommon, so Tacuba is tackling a relatively unexplored frontier, especially for Osaka.

Serving tacos, burritos, quesadillas and more, Tacuba is the creative venture of chef Sanchez and his Japanese business partner Yukio Konishi. Born in Mexico City, raised in San Francisco, and later relocating to Switzerland for culinary training, Sanchez has spent the last 30 years working as a chef at fine dining establishments across the globe, including Hotel de Mikuni in Tokyo, Morimoto in New York City and as a professor at the Culinary Institute of America.

More recently, he managed the kitchens at 5-star hotels in New York (The Peninsula) and Tokyo (Conrad Tokyo), and authored a book on molecular gastronomy. After moving to Osaka to manage the kitchens for a luxury hotel group, Sanchez reconnected with Konishi, and they began to develop a new business venture.

Moving from fine dining into fast-food presented an opportunity to bring Sanchez’s gastronomic knowledge into a world that focuses more on price point and quantity over taste and creativity.

Sanchez set several parameters for developing the menu. The food needed to be healthy, affordable and palatable to the Japanese public, while still being innovative and original. Experimenting with seasonings for the meats, Sanchez devised creative approaches for flavoring the chicken, pork carnitas and beef that were both tasty and reproducible by his local kitchen staff.

Sanchez sources a spice called achiote from the Yucatan region of Mexico to flavor the grilled chicken. He then adds orange to create a subtle balance between savory, tart and spicy flavors. Other meats undergo similarly rigorous prep, with the carnitas spiced with a dry rub for two days before being slow-cooked in lard, and the grilled beef flavored with pineapple and beer.

In instances where importing goods has proved impossible, Sanchez utilizes his expertise to synthesize desired flavors using local ingredients. Take the black beans for example. Instead of using the difficult-to-import epazote herb as is typical in Mexico, Sanchez substitutes it with seaweed to achieve a similar flavor.

When it comes to Mexican food, there is an obsession concerning its authenticity. In cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, every foodie insists on one particular taqueria shop as being “real” Mexican food, and debates over the best burrito joints occupy the pages of countless Yelp review and Facebook comment sections.

As a Mexican-born, American-raised chef now residing in Japan, Sanchez couldn’t care less. He incorporates ingredients from across his home country, adding and subtracting flavors and incorporating new tastes as he sees fit. The result is food that is palatable to the subtle tastes of Japanese diners but retains the crucial elements of “real” Mexican food.

Tacuba opened late last year in Umeda, Osaka. With its convenient location adjacent to the Hankyu Men’s department store across the street from Osaka Station, Sanchez is confident in the restaurant’s future. If the success continues, he anticipates expanding the restaurant, with additional locations throughout Kansai. In the meantime, Sanchez seems to be passionately enjoying the latest chapter in his culinary journey.