Restaurant review: Vatos Urban Tacos

The arrival of VATOS URBAN TACOS officially brings KoMex (Korean-Mexican) grub to Singapore. It’s about time

Korean-Mexican tacos for the win
Korean-Mexican tacos for the win
24 Dec 2015

Korean-Mexican tacos for the win

It makes perfect sense, really. Take a tortilla, pile it with robustly marinated Korean barbecued meats, zingy veggies and spicy Korean chilli sauce. Bam, KoMex party in the mouth. Korean flavours and Mexican nosh go together like Psy and horses. Korean immigrants in LA (also home to many Mexican immigrants) created this subgenre of cuisine. It was first popularised by Kogi, the fusion taco food truck that took LA by storm in 2008. Enter Vatos a coupla years later, a slick outfit by three Korean-American pals from Los Angeles and Texas. Shrewdly, they chose to set up shop in Korea instead of the oversaturated US.

A sixth branch — and first for Singapore — opened here over a week ago. Because the chain was brought here in collaboration with nightlife group Massive Collective, and housed beside the group’s new dance club and lounge at Southbeach Quarter, we expected mediocre food that people too drunk to care would wolf down anyway....  

The look and vibe
The look and vibe
24 Dec 2015

The look and vibe

But as we enter the restaurant and peer into its semi-open kitchen, we see it means business. There’s a manual tortilla press where dough for the tacos are flattened into discs. We don’t know any other taqueria here that hand makes its tortillas in-house. It is also here where three Korean chefs from the Vatos HQ in Seoul rule. At least during its opening phase. Mercifully, the place is only half-full at 10pm on the Friday we drop by, its official opening day. Unsurprisingly, the crowd comprises scantily-clad babes and expat dudes having a pre-party bite.

The “urban” theme is taken seriously here. So there are the usual concrete floors and brick walls, but all done in a tasteful manner, with pipes doing double duty as a chandelier and bag holders. Hip-hop tunes throb overhead. It’s so cool we feel compelled to fist-bump someone.  

The tacos
The tacos
24 Dec 2015

The tacos

While there are many other distractions on the menu, like tasty but gut-busting burritos, focus on the tacos. We speak from having binged here twice within a week. The nine KoMex “urban tacos” are enveloped in hybrid cornmeal-wheat-flour tortillas made in-house. These are soft, silky and slightly chewy like a good Peking duck pancake. The corn flavour is pleasantly mild. Because according to Korean-American co-owner Shinhan Sid Kim, who’s now based in Singapore, “most Asians don’t like pure corn Mexican tortillas”. He’s right — we’ll take soft and smooth over rough and mealy tortillas any day, authenticity be damned.

The Galbi Short Rib Taco (above left: $12 for two; $17 for three) is a hit. Cubes of beef are rubbed in sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, then grilled till caramelised and crisp at the edges. The sweet-savoury meat is counterpointed by an avalanche of sharp “Asian slaw”, raw onions, and perky ssamjang (spicy-sweet Korean hot sauce) aioli. Meanwhile, shreds of luscious pork shoulder braised then grilled the true blue Mexican way inundate the awesome Barbacoa Pork Taco (above right: from $10 for two). It’s smothered with eye-watering hot sauce made from chilli padi (a local substitute for Korean chillies) and edges out the signature Korean Pork Belly Taco (from $10 for two) — only because the mega umami slices of pork in the latter are so fatty we have trouble swallowing them.  

The other stuff
The other stuff
24 Dec 2015

The other stuff

Although we fear for our cholesterol levels, we brazenly order the famed Kimchi Carnitas Fries (above, $16). True, the potatoes are nondescript shoestring ones. But since they’re drenched with the unctuous juices of braised pork carnitas, piquant sautéed kimchi, melted cheese, sour cream, and hot sauce, they morph into oozy, meaty sticks of magic.

Drink this: We see ginormous margaritas with an inverted bottle of beer precariously suspended above each glass at almost every table. They look like a recipe for a hangover, but we get a Dae Han Mango ($28) anyway, at the prodding of our friendly server. It’s bloody delish. It starts off as a thick mango slush, and progresses to become a refreshing, bittersweet drink as the bottle of beer gradually trickles in with every slurp. It works via gravity and air pressure. Yeah, science.

VERDICT: Fiery, garlicky, savoury, sweet. KoMex tacos are so in-your-face flavourful and appealing to the Asian palate, they’re hard not to love. Reasonably priced for a hip place like this, too. Hopefully, the food remains as good once the party posse starts thronging this joint.

SOUTH BEACH QUARTER, 36 BEACH RD, S189677. TEL: 6385-6010. OPEN DAILY EXCEPT SUN. MON-THUR NOON-11PM; FRI - SAT NOON-MIDNIGHT. LAST ORDERS 1 HR BEFORE CLOSING. FACEBOOK.
 

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