Marco Garcia is a man with a mission that is at once modest and radical. At Los Tacos Azules, his bright, cheerful little restaurant, his aim is simply to serve the staple food of his homeland, Mexico. But along the way, he is likely to blow a few minds, palates and preconceptions.
Garcia is no stranger to Japan. He first came here in his college days as an exchange student. Besides learning the language, he was so smitten by Japanese food culture — the seasonality, quality of ingredients, precision and aesthetics — that it changed his life path.
He traveled around Mexico learning the traditional processes for making corn tortillas, then set up a restaurant in the city of Monterrey. But it was always his dream to serve his food in Tokyo. Late last month he made that happen, with the official opening of Los Tacos Azules on a quiet side street near Sangenjaya, Setagaya Ward.
There is nowhere like it in Tokyo. To make his tortillas, Garcia only uses heirloom varieties of corn imported from Oaxaca in southern Mexico, including both yellow and the far more unusual blue (azules in Spanish) kernels. He also has a dedicated grinder, so he can prepare his masa (cornmeal dough) from scratch each day.
Pulling off a small lump of the masa, he fashions it into a ball, flattens it into a disk and flips it onto the plancha grill in front of him. Barely a minute later it is ready, gently toasted on each side and just slightly puffed in the middle.
This is the first thing Garcia does after you arrive, handing across the freshly cooked tortilla for you to nibble on as your first course. It is warm and firm outside, soft and moist on the inside. Naked and unseasoned, the blue corn has a mild sweetness, but also an appetizing, nutty underlying flavor that leaves you wanting many more.
If you’ve never eaten a traditional tortilla, then prepare your taste buds to be amazed. If you have, then rejoice that finally Tokyo has a taqueria (taco specialist) that really does it right. Not that Los Tacos Azules is in any way typical.
Unlike most other restaurants with Mexican affiliations, the look is simple and uncluttered. Electronic music plays on the sound system, not mariachi. And don’t expect to find margaritas, frozen or otherwise — just a selection of craft beer, sake and natural wine.
But the biggest difference is that at dinner there is only one set menu. Garcia’s “ultimate” nine-course taco omakase (chef’s selection; ¥7,000; by prior reservation only) varies week to week, reflecting and inspired by the progression of the seasons. In Mexico City this might seem pricey but, given the quality of ingredients, not here in Tokyo.
A typical appetizer might be guacamole topped with shirasu (tiny anchovies), which you scoop up with freshly baked corn chips. Next up, slices of sashimi-grade buri (yellowtail) are arranged on crisp tostadas, with black garlic aioli and Garcia’s patent “Mexican XO salsa.” He also makes an excellent deep-fried eggplant taco, paired with feta cheese and chicharron (fried pork) sauce.
To change things up, he likes to serve steaming hot tamales, the rolls of masa dough stuffed with minced clams, crabmeat or other seafood and wrapped inside a corn sheath. These are one of the highlights.
There will then be two more courses of tacos, one seafood, the other meat. Currently, the first is deep-fried wakasagi (smelt) on a thick sauce of tomatillos. And, for the meat course, look forward to the smoked beef tongue paired with slivers of autumnal matsutake pine mushrooms. What a meal.
“My image for my cuisine is the kind of food you’d be served if Japan were actually a part of Mexico,” Garcia likes to say. In his hands, tacos are not fast food any more than a sushi dinner is. Be prepared to stay for a long, leisurely evening.
Alternatively, on weekends, drop by for brunch — or “morning” tacos, as Garcia calls it — featuring a simpler menu of carnitas pork, barbacoa beef and other classics. It’s first come, first served, with no reservations taken.
Dinner (by reservation only) ¥7,000, brunch a la carte (tacos from ¥300); English menu; English spoken