In Search of Authentic Mexican Restaurants, the Vienna Review Goes On a Tour of the City’s Oldest, Newest and Best Kept Secrets
There are few things about gastronomy in America that one misses in Vienna. In a nation where a handful of mega-corporations has devoured nearly every restaurant, café and eatery in the land, finding unique and authentic food has become an increasingly arduous task.
There is one concept, however, that seems to have escaped the jaws of commercial ennui: Mexican restaurants. Though in great abundance, at least in some parts of the U.S. and all of a kind, the average Mexcian eatery hires Spanish-speaking staff almost exclusively, serves home-made and authentic Mexican dishes, and makes its own salsa. Even better, the chips and salsa placed under your nose on arrival are free, and are refilled as often as you can finish them off. Service is fast, the food is affordable, and you can be assured that the enchiladas will never fail to make your mouth water with their cheesy, gooey goodness.
But search as I may, signs for Mexican food in Vienna, until recently, have lead to apathy and dissatisfaction. Most serve the same store-bought salsa, the same stale tortilla chips and fajitas devoid of any spice reminiscent of Latin America. But instead of whining, I decided to go on a quest to find one fewer reason to ever return to the United States.
Rather than start with the known and the boring – the Estancia Santa Cruz in the Prater being a prime example of Mexican places you should avoid – I headed for the unknown.
PANCHO & HACIENDA EMPHEMER
First victim was Pancho, on a side street off Taborstrasse behind an ever-present construction site. But don’t let the obscure location fool you; Once you cross the threshhold, you arrive in a restaurant worthy of prime real estate in the 1st District. The interior glows with a modern, metallic tint, and the lighting is low. A long bar runs the length of the front, with dark wood tables strategically placed in all available corners, straying into the back behind the bar.
That particular Friday night, I had cleverly made reservations – and even so, we ended up waiting at the bar for a good half an hour after our scheduled time. When the staff finally noticed our frustration, a table was extracted from an unknown corner and my comrade and I were seated between two large corporate functions, loudly celebrating whatever it was they had to celebrate.
The situation would have been substantially more irritating had the bar tender not been so extraordinarily competent; I was four margheritas deep at that point, and they had been four extremely good margheritas. Though a relatively simple drink to make, creating this cocktail with the precise combination of sour and sweet is an art few have mastered. But the staff at Pancho had it down to a science.
So I settled in with my comrade, ordered another round and brushed off the waitresses apolgies for the long wait. A look through the menu revealed the standard stuff offered by Mexican enterprises in Europe: nachos, burritos, fajitas, enchiladas. We decided on tortilla chips as an appetizer which, as a rule in Austria, are served with four sauces – salsa, guacamole, bean dip and sour cream. It seems a bit redundant for a self-proclaimed salsa lover, but why not.
After another relatively long wait, the chips arrived and I was dissapointed at being confronted with more straight-from-the-jar salsa, and guacamole that was too heavy. The tortilla chips weren’t stale, but still a far cry from the homemade version served warm from the fryer. And lets face it, we don’t eat Mexican food when we are watching our waistlines, so if I ask for food that clogs my arteries, that’s exactly what I expect.
The chips were finished quickly, though, and while I’m usually not a fan of the bean dip, the mush offered at Pancho’s was warm and light, with a thin layer of cheese melted over the top, and I found myself looking for something to wipe up the rest of it once the chips were gone.
So as the waitress removed the ravished chip platter, we ordered round six of margaritas. We made futile attempts at holding a conversation, but our little makeshift table was dwarfed by the business functions next to us who were growing louder and drunker as the evening passed. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one enjoying the margheritas and the bar tender looked as if he was getting a good workout behind the bar.
At that point the entire place was absolutely packed, with hopefuls waiting at the bar and a few couples who had given up and ordered their dinner there. The staff seemed strained but efficient, so despite the Friday night chaos, everything appeared to be under control. I’m not sure if the margheritas were making me lose track of time, but our main courses seemed to arrive pretty quickly, following the inhalation of the bean mush, and I looked dreamily at my chicken enchilada as my comrade was served a beef burrito.
Far from dissapointing, the enchilada was made with fresh lettuce, peppers, chicken and a slight amount of chilli sauce, lightly spiced, and I was soon reminded that certain things need not resemble childhood memories in order to be enjoyed. Though I missed the never-ending cheese strings stretching from my fork, it was by far the healthiest enchilada I had ever tasted, and satisfying in a way that only freshly concocted dishes can be. The burrito, according to my comrade, was "scrumptious." The margaritas apparently were working on our range of vocabulary.
We finished our dinners, and had one (maybe two) more rounds of margaritas and then things got blurry, so we paid the rather exorbitant bill and made our escape. I have since returned to Pancho’s on a Tuesday night and without a reservation, I ended up eating at the bar. At least I got my margheritas faster.
So the moral of this story is: if you like trendy, modern places and good margheritas, but don’t mind a bit of noise and lots of people, this is your place. It is far from authentic Mexican, but the kitchen is obviously competent. But by all means, make a reservation.
The next victim was one I wish I had discovered long ago. But due to an even more obscure location, Hacienda Ephemer is a place you will completely overlook if you’re not looking for it. I must have passed it a hundred times until it was recommended as guaranteeing a selection of 300 tequilas just minutes from my home on Gausplatz.
Only a modestly lit awning alludes to the existence of this gem, which serves both as an art gallery and a quaint, family-friendly restaurant. It retains an atmosphere that could accommodate a pretentious art crowd as well as a group of friends looking for a relaxed place to eat. The interior is composed of bright walls and dark wood tables and matching dark leather chairs and small sofas. Bamboo stalks stood in tall glass vases on the tables, and though bamboo is not exactly an indigenous crop of Mexico, the kitchen would prove to have a much better grasp of what was authentic.
My comrade and I chose to do a rerun of our Pancho experience: tortilla chips as a starter, then my beloved chicken enchiladas and his treasured beef burrito. The tortilla chips were again served with the standard four sauces, but these dips were delectable. The salsa was fresh, and flawlessly spiced, the bean dip was light and cheesy, and the guacamole was peculiarly light-colored and fluffy. Best of all the chips were warm and obviously taken from the fryer only moments before. Eager to avoid another margarita over-dose, I opted this time for a Corona, always a great accompaniment to spicy food and refreshing in its limy coldness.
As I watched our main courses arrive, I thought I was having flashbacks. The enchiladas were served in a ceramic baking dish with spiced brown rice with a blot of sour cream on top. Still piping hot, the dish was made with the proper combination of chicken, peppers, tomato sauce, chilli, and – most important – cheese, which was melted consistently throughout the folded tortilla wrap and would have stretched miles from my fork. It was exactly as I remembered them, but even more satisfying due to its freshness.
Though a loyal fan of run-of-the-mill Mexican joints in the States, the sheer number of them has led to mass production of basic ingredients. From the unique taste of these classic Mexican dishes, it was clear that such industrialization has yet to take root in Austria.
While paying the bill, I expressed my appreciation to the owner, who was accompanied by her daughter, Aurora. With her dark complexion and black hair, the little girl gave an impression of who the father might be and ultimately why this petite, undiscovered local had such a good grasp of Mexican cuisine.
KULIN & ESA
Walking up the long hill along Siebensterngasse, my friends and I came upon the Tex-Mex restaurant Kulin, which we had heard about from friends and were eager to try for ourselves.
As we entered, there were no empty tables in sight, and we waited for a maitre d’ to seat us. The room was dark and smoky, with a Che Guevara poster on the wall and a long bar whose every stool was full. The ceiling was hung with cone shaped spun metal lamps that felt somehow Mexican in design and shape – perhaps like paper lanterns and the traditional tin. Latin artists including Pablo Francesco piped in over the speakers, making it feel like a pub.
The overall design of the restaurant did not spell out ethnic Mexican, with the exception of warm wood, orange and golden yellow décor that was more like designer chic. Still, it was a very stylish look, with the tables and chairs perfectly square shaped, and stainless steel shaped in a wave like form, covering parts of the ceiling pipes.
Bar and restaurant both were full, as the wait staff constantly buzzed past us, and when we finally grabbed someone’s attention, we were led to an upstairs extension.
If downstairs was a party, upstairs seemed to be a lounge area, with the numerous couches, all deserted, for people to relax. Finally a waiter brought the menus. We chose to avoid Tex-Mex, aiming more towards a full-frontal Mexican evening, deciding to share some traditional starters including Nachos con 4 salsa, corn crisps covered in melted cheese with four salsas- guacamole, bean puree, tomato salsa, and sour cream. Though the four salsas added a Mexican touch to the meal, the supposed melted cheese was clamy and unstuck and the corn on the cob was already cold after a couple of bites.
Ordering our main course, the service failed us again. The waiter was unfamiliar with the dishes and was unable to tell us which contained meat. He was, in fact, completely clueless and stood there, scratching his head, finally saying he would ask someone else.
In the end we ordered enchiladas de pollos, a Mexican dish including the variety of ingredients of chicken, pepper, and corn and mole poblano, a chicken steak with peppers and corn on the side, as well as a chilly chocolate sauce. Lacking any guidance on the meat, my friend chose Tacos de Verduras, which we knew meant "greens."
My enchiladas de pollos was presented in the form of a casserole. Though I was surprised to see it in this form - as I expect an enchilada to be fluffy and round, instead of this flat appearance - the chicken mixed with melted cheese and peppers proved a satisfying and tasty dish.
The tacos de verdures – essentially a vegetarian taco (a crispy fried tortilla folded over and filled with a number of ingredients) with tomatoes, peppers, corn, spicy green beans, and salad leafs – was disappointing: It was soggy and served in a sloppy manner, with more than half the ingredients spilled outside the taco. The chicken steak mole poblano was an interesting dish, with a chocolate-chilli sauce that my friend enjoyed. Still, overall, the food was little better than mediocre.
We ended the evening, with a shared chimi bannan choko, a fried banana with cool chocolate sauce to keep your tongue from burning – that was the only real highlight of the evening.
So in the end, Kulin is an attractive place, but for a meal, the service is too slow and uncaring for a second visit. I could imagine coming back with some friends for a few drinks and some nachos in the upstairs lounge.
Not for the conocedores, who want their food done the true Mexican way.
The new Mexican restaurant on Neustiftgasse, ESA, prides itself in its preparation of Original Comida Mexicana (original Mexican food), which is now the rage in Vienna, so we were a little surprised at the many empty tables at 22:30 on a Wednesday night.
Still, Alex and Burgandy and I were delighted to find the kitchen still open and ready to satisfy our appetites. In fact, the restaurant, which opened in January, serves hot food from 18:00 until 23:00, and is open for the drinking crowd till 2:00 in the morning.
We looked around at the empty expanse of white linen and red chairs, but were not deterred, as it was late. If anything we enjoyed being by ourselves, with the only noise coming from the crowd at the bar, where the laughter and conversation of the owner mingling with his customers and made the restaurant section less lonesome.
The lighting was bright, with orb-like lamps suspended from the ceiling; and it was not until I looked out the large windows at the darkened street that I remembered the lateness of the hour. The Spanish music playing in the background blended into an appealing mood.
Greeted by the owner, Eduardo Pacheco, who was the only one serving, we looked over our menus searching for the most traditional Mexican dishes, those that would be a test of the chef.
To start, we shared some traditional entradas (starters) including nachos, a traditional Mexican snack consisting of four dips - fresh tomato salsa, guacamole, pureed beans, and sour cream -, a tomato soup with tortillas - a thin unleavened flat bread, made from finely grounded corn - flavored with freshly cut onions, bacon, and cheese, and a rich creamy tomato soup with a touch of tequila.
Pacheco was a pleasant man, who later joined us at the table.
"Were the starters alright? Sometimes the chef hurries when it gets close to 11," said Pacheco with a worried look on his face.
To accompany our starters, we each tried a different Mexican beer. Receiving a bottled beer with a lemon wedge placed in the opening – the Mexican way – Alex told me to push the lemon down into the beer, put my thumb on the top of the bottle, and quickly turn the bottle upside down. This allowed the lemon to move to the bottom of the beer bottle and back, thus spreading the lemony flavor throughout the whole drink - something that made it even more refreshing for the spicy main courses coming our way.
For our main dish, we decided to continue along the traditional route, choosing the enmoladas, fajita with shrimps, and a burrito. The enmoladas, my personal choice, has all the ingredients of the enchilada including the same chicken and vegetables like corn and peppers, in a tortilla wrap. But, instead of red chilly sauce covering the wrap, you are treated to a chilly chocolate topping, that turns out to add pure delight to the meal.
The fajita with shrimps, were good, though the tortillas were not presented on a sizzling hot plate (to the disappointment of Alex) but complemented by the warm filling.
The burrito, taco de harina, which translates into mark of flour, flat instead of its usual fluffy appearance, is a dish that can accommodate any vegetarian. The tortilla wrap around a filling of beans, lettuce, salsa, guacamole, and sour cream, was a hit with Burgandy, who left a clean plate.
Satisfied by the mixture of flavors, we were in need of something sweet but sadly the kitchen was closed. But Pacheco rose to the occasion and offered to cook it himself. So we were all treated to a portion of fried bananas, with some ice cream and some sugary pastry, the only Mexican addition. Not a typical Mexican dessert, but nonetheless a good one.
This is truly a traditional Mexican restaurant, with no Tex–Mex to be found. In fact, Tex-Mex – the fast food version of Mexican cuisine – defies everything this restaurant aims for. Though Tex-Mex may be cooked with the same spices of traditional Mexican cuisine, the care in the preparation and the manner in which the dishes are presented, is no comparison – with enichilada’s flat instead of fluffy, and tacos soggy.
ESA was a delight from first to last, with on-the-house tequilla shots to sum up a grand Mexican evening. Eduardo Pacheco will have to hire some more service, though, if he doesn’t want to be overrun by the guests that will soon be beating a path to his door.
(01) 212 58 69
20., Jägerstrasse 28/1
(01) 925 0542
7., Siebensterngasse 14
Opening hours: Mo-Sun 16:00-2:00
(01) 944 33 06
7., Neustiftgasse 38
Opening hours: Mo-Sa 18:00-2:00
(01) 957 84 37