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Taco takeover: Our favourite Mexican bites in Berlin

After so many false alarms, there’s finally edible Mexican food in Berlin! These taqueros have helped break the decades-long curse with fresh corn tortillas, delectable fillings and blazing salsa.

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Ultima Tacos: so juicy they’re practically slurped instead of eaten. Photo: Ultima Tacos

After so many false alarms, we can finally say it: there’s edible Mexican food in Berlin! These taqueros have helped break the decades-long curse with fresh corn tortillas, delectable fillings and blazing salsa.

Some like it wet…

If there was a single unifying problem with Berlin Mexican food prior to now, it was that of moisture. So many tacos consisted of stringy fillings on arid tortillas, with barely a whisper of salsa to provide respite. And then along came birria.

In Mexico, the word “birria” is primarily associated with goat meat and the state of Jalisco, but elsewhere it’s come to mean Tijuana-style birria de res, fatty long-braised beef piled into corn tortillas and served with a cup of consommé (the chilli-infused braising liquid, brick-red and very photogenic) for dipping. In early 2021, that version was brought to Berlin by EL PUESTO, the roving taqueria born from the ashes of fancier modern-Mexican spot La Lucha. Chef Benjamin Duran’s unconventional use of dashi and miso in the braise lent the broth a deep umami backbone that made it compulsively chuggable even after one’s tacos were dunked and gone. Evacuated from Paul-Linke-Ufer at the end of July, the crew is angling for a more permanent Kreuzberg location while keeping busy with tostada pop-ups; keep your fingers crossed for the return of their signature dish.

Other birria makers skip the consommé, and sometimes even the meat. At the ULTIMA TACOS pop-up, the dish takes the form of a piquant red stew of either beef and lamb or mushrooms and soy meat, christened with a generous plop of tangy avocado salsa and just barely contained by a trio of tortillas. No broth necessary – these babies, the creation of Julian Boyce of Maria Bonita/Santa Maria fame, are so juicy they’re practically slurped instead of eaten. Bonus points if you order them as quesabirrias, that trendy taco-quesadilla hybrid in which the filling is combined with melty cheese that crisps around the edges as it’s griddled.

Speaking of quesabirria, that’s the star attraction at VICTORIA TACOS, which began life as an art gallery pop-up before landing on Maybachufer in the middle of summer 2021. This time, it’s jackfruit, that pulpy tropical meat substitute, that’s simmered in a mix of chillis and spices before being stuffed into a tortilla with gouda. It’s decent, although you’ll need an extra side of salsa verde to make it truly sing, and a few more tacos – filled with marinated mushrooms, beans and beetroot, or pork carnitas – to sate your hunger. Supplement your order with a bottled Paloma cocktail (grapefruit juice, tequila and lime with ginger-chilli-pomegranate syrup) or, in a very Neukölln touch, an inflatable raft to drag to the canal. You get the feeling that if the young, multinational crew didn’t have a restaurant to run, they’d be floating along down there too.

…and some like it corny

Say goodbye to the cardboardy pre-frozen discs of yore. The fine art of nixtamalisation, that alkaline treatment process that separates earthy, fragrant masa (tortilla dough) from plain old cornmeal, has made it to Germany. Most taquerias worth mentioning now use artisanal tortillas from local producers like Hamburg’s Komali, Leipzig’s Mais & Co. and Berlin’s own Cintli – except for the few that have jumped on the masa bandwagon themselves. At TORTILLERIA MEXA in Friedrichshain, for example, organic white and blue corn discs are rolled out and griddled before your eyes before being transformed into tacos, crispy tostadas or quesadillas. We’re partial to the vegetarian ones with refried beans and nopales, or cactus strips. Browse the deli’s selection of Mexican groceries to continue the party at home.

Meanwhile, Neukölln’s OH LA QUECA started out as a pop-up called Madre Tortilla and continues to produce fine examples of the form. Thick and flavourful, they’re fried into chips and smothered in salsa for chilaquiles, topped with eggs for huevos rancheros, wrapped around potato or chicken for flautas, served alongside shredded chicken swimming in a rich mole sauce… There are tacos, of course, but quesadillas will give you the most bang for your buck. Don’t miss the “Jamaica Garten” with hibiscus flowers, beetroot, green and refried beans, with or without melty cheese.

The taco kings

Did anyone have a better 2021 than TAQUERIA EL OSO? The single most hyped Mexican food stand in Berlin has its roots in Taco Tuesday at The Bird BBQ, a weekly event where pitmaster Michael Heiden – with help from cookbook author Yvette ‘Taco Tales’ Perez – began accompanying his smoked brisket and pulled pork with tortillas and home-made salsa. When his restaurant shuttered in October 2020, he partnered with Pablo Vázquez Häring (of mobile taqueria Sabor A Mí) and Jesús Garcia Hernandez (of Schöneweide tortilleria Cintli). Together, they turned their attention to al pastor: a döner-like taco speciality, actually the result of a wave of Lebanese immigration to Mexico in the 1930s, in which layers of achiote-marinated pork are sliced off a pineapple-topped rotating spit.

Their first few pop-ups attracted such gigantic crowds that you’d be forgiven for assuming, like a viral Mexican TV report did, that these were the first-ever tacos in Berlin. In reality, they weren’t even the first tacos al pastor, but El Oso’s particular synthesis of smoky, salty meat, sweet pineapple, and serious salsa – with six options ranging from mild to incendiary – is indeed something special. They’ve now upgraded from a döner spit to a giant Mexican trompo and set up shop in back of Heiden’s new food court Markthalle Pfefferberg, where they also serve specials like suadero (brisket) and meaty or vegan chorizo sausage, all with a healthy helping of coriander, diced onion and lime wedges. Unless you come right in between the lunch and dinner rushes, you’ll have to wait a while. But for tacos that wouldn’t feel out of place in LA or even Mexico City, it’ll be worth it.

El Puesto on Instagram | Ultima Tacos Prinzenstraße 85d, Kreuzberg, Mon-Sun 12-23 | Victoria Tacos Pannierstr. 32 Wed-Fri 17-21:30, Sat-Sun 14-21:30 | Tortilleria Mexa Boxhagener Str. 50, Friedrichshain Tue-Sat 12-22, Sun 15-20 | Oh La Queca Reuterstr. 36, Neukölln Sun-Thu 17-21:30, Fri- Sat 17-22 | Taqueria El Oso Schönhauser Allee 176C, Prenzlauer Berg, Tue-Sun 12-22

Need more hot sauce? Check out Berlin’s best Mexican grocery stores