Over the past half-decade, many an adopted Berliner has come forth and proclaimed themselves the One True Savior of Mexican Food in a city sorely lacking in it. But whether due to cooking ineptitude or an inadequate ingredient supply chain, few have succeeded, and the best recent efforts have turned out more “Mexican-ish” than Mexikanisch: the Peruvian-inflected blue corn tacos at Lucha Libre in Moabit, or the Californian gastropub cuisine of Santa Cantina in Friedrichshain.
Enter the latest contender, Max Paarlberg’s La Lucha. A UK-raised Dutchman who’s previously dabbled in luxury hotels, Peruvian cuisine (a partnership in high-end cevicheria Chicha) and gourmet sausage (the short-lived Bourbon Dogs in Kreuzberg), Paarlberg would seem an unlikely choice to take up the tortilla press, but hey, he did study abroad in Guadalajara. And La Lucha, his “modern Mexican” concept realised by British-Mexican chef couple Matt Pipe and Jennifer Herrera Olivares, has been a long time gestating. A few pop-ups back in the Bourbon Dogs days started the press buzz, which only intensified last winter when Paarlberg and co. began renovating a former tapas bar on Paul-Linke-Ufer.
The result, all bright colours and tastefully hip prints with nary a sombrero in sight, fits snugly into that street’s ever-fancier Restaurant Row, as does its crowd of thirtysomething marketing professionals. La Lucha opened just a month ago and there’s still a faint sheen of flop sweat over the whole thing, detectable in the small army of waitstaff that greets you at the door, the complimentary shot-sized portion of pineapple-coriander agua fresca, or the tear-off corner on the paper menu granting you a free tequila with your next meal.
That same sense of exertion extends to La Lucha’s shareable small-plate interpretations of Mexican classics. Almost exactly one out of every three options is vegan. Many are just slightly too fussed over – like the slices of fluorescent green, chile-dusted pickled apple delicately arrayed on a tray of ice (€3.50), or the sea bream ceviche verde (€7.50 and tasty, although outclassed by Chicha’s), in which the lime- and avocado-marinated raw fish is interspersed at regular intervals by pearl-sized cherry tomatoes. Even something as simple as a burrito arrives sliced into four neat, sushi-like discs and, at least in the case of the veggie version with sweet potatoes, broccoli, beetroot and carrots (€8.50), would taste suspiciously like health food if it weren’t for the mysteriously addictive roasted garlic salsa it’s slathered in. (Other salsas come in mini-ramekins for a €1 surcharge.)
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the spectacular molcajete (€17.90) is literally a hot mess: a lavastone bowl brimming with expertly grilled steak, chicken, chorizo, potatoes and cactus smothered in melted cheese and guajillo chile sauce. Spooned sloppily into a provided homemade corn tortilla, it’s one of the best tacos we’ve had in Berlin to date. It’s too much for one person, but not enough for two, necessitating an additional order like the escabeche (€6.90), a pumpkin-seed-sprinkled melange of hibiscus-pickled cauliflower, beetroot and carrot that unexpectedly won us over.
You could hypothetically get out of here without spending a culo-load of pesos, but you’re going to want a cocktail, or several (€8-10). From the basic margarita to a smouldering mescal-ancho chile “Negroni” to a sip of our neighbour’s vetiver-perfumed “shamanic tincture” made with three kinds of mescal and served out of a teapot, every drink we tried was a knockout. There’s also a €6.50 Michelada made with – can it be? – real Clamato, and a massive range of agave spirits available for ordering straight-up.
Overall, La Lucha may not be that One True Taqueria that Mexican food believers are still hoping for. But the actual tacos, bite-sized envelopes of braised pork, potatoes or fried fish, could have you fooled for a second. And if the sun cooperates, there are worse places to spend a balmy summer evening than on Paarlberg’s canalside patio, margarita in hand.