Up there with Chinese food as one of the most universally loved foods, Mexican cuisine occupies a special place in most people’s hearts. While a Brit like myself will happily munch down every soggy burrito handed to me (can Mexican food even be bad?) (don’t answer that), there are thankfully many people who care a lot about Mexican cuisine, and demand high standards of it. You only need to speak to someone who grew up eating it to provoke a passionate speech about why Beijing’s options do or don’t match up to the real deal.
In an attempt to put this case to rest, the Mexican Chamber of Commerce has launched a winner-takes-all competition, asking the eternal question: who is the true purveyor of Mexican food in Beijing, and in China?
The competition pits over 30 of China’s mexican restaurants against one another (including entries in Hong Kong and Taiwan) and the poll is divided into five Chinese regions. Of those, five are based in Beijing: El Barrio, Pebbles Courtyard, Q Mex Bar & Grill, Taco Bar, and Moji.
Monterrey’s Edson Garza, bar manager at Loca Loca Bar & Grill in Weigongcun, a relative newbie in the Beijing Mexican scene, is clear on who he thinks should win: “I think some of the best Mexican food is at Pebbles. The amount of work Ray [Heng] puts into his mom-and-pop shop is unsurpassed,” he says, adding that Heng does it “all on his own for the sheer love of the food and getting it as best as he could. That guy went to Mexico on his own just to learn the craft. And that’s why I take my hat off to him.”
The only other spot that comes close in his opinion is Zii in Tianjin, which is also in contention for best Mexican. Garza says Zii’s chorizo and longaniza (another type of Spanish sausage) are super on point like home. And he wins by default because he is the only one who’s breaking a sweat to make tamales.” Tamales that are apparently so good, he’s even willing to head over to Tianjin to taste them. “It’s hard to find a restaurant that will put you on a bullet train because it’s that good.”
The fact that there are even five restaurants running in this competition is a testament to how much Beijing’s Mexican dining scene has grown in the past decade. Ray Heng of Pebbles, who spent time training under Chicago’s heavyweight chef Ray Bayless, concurs, saying that the reason why Mexican food has become more and more popular in China is fourfold: increased travel by Chinese to locales where Mexican food is popular (the US in particular); comparative ease of access to traditional ingredients; the ascension of the tequila industry, which has put the alcoholic drink on par with whiskey, gin, and vodka; and most surprisingly, the success of Disney’s Coco.
On that last point, Heng says, “in recent years [young people] have walked through our doors and mentioned this film, taking pictures of all the colorful skull souvenirs I’ve brought back from Mexico.”
However, Heng is quick to qualify his point, saying, “gaining popularity does not mean it is what Mexican food is supposed to be; the cuisine itself still needs a lot more time to grow and evolve in China. I feel like it is a part of my job to educate people on what the real food should be with the food I serve.”
Want to have your say? Click here to see the full list of competitors and vote (view via your phone). Voting runs until Mar 19.
Images: Unplash, Moji, Kyle Mullin