From Iceland — It’s a Taco Takeover: Reykjavík’s Mexican Renaissance Is A Delicious Affair

It’s a Taco Takeover: Reykjavík’s Mexican Renaissance Is A Delicious Affair

Published April 11, 2024

It’s a Taco Takeover: Reykjavík’s Mexican Renaissance Is A Delicious Affair
Ragnar Egilsson
Photo by
Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

The Icelandic-Mexican Association (AMEIS) staged an event at Gallery Hafnartorg on April 7 in which they bestowed Reykjavík’s two Mexican-owned restaurants with the title of the best “Authentic Mexican Restaurant in Iceland.” Because what could be more Icelandic than the firm belief that you always belong on stage regardless of the size of population and what could be more Mexican than punching well above your weight.

We felt it was only right to use the opportunity to check in with the dynamic Mexican community and expound the delights of Mexican cuisine.

Humble beginnings

The community of Spanish-speakers in Iceland has grown steadily over the past two decades, with 201 individuals of Mexican heritage known to be living here, according to Jorge Mena, the president of AMEIS. The association was formed with the goal of supporting Mexican expats and, in the words of Jorge, “offer them a sense of home away from home and facilitate cultural exchange between Mexicans and Icelanders.”

Until quite recently, what was marketed as Mexican food in Iceland wouldn‘t be out of place in the U.K. Midlands or U.S. Midwest in the 80s.

Which is excellent news for the homesick and culturally-curious alike, as Iceland has a less-than-glorious history of authentic representation of Mexican cuisine. Until quite recently, what was marketed as Mexican food in Iceland wouldn‘t be out of place in the U.K. Midlands or U.S. Midwest in the 80s. Aside from the usual suspects like ground beef burritos, you also have your ever-popular Icelandic staples like “Mexican cheese” (a dense white cheese covered in a mild chilli powder) and “Mexican soup” (a chicken-tomato soup with cream cheese, double cream and sour cream, all topped with crumbled up nachos).

Similarly, local Mexican-themed restaurants have been almost entirely owned and operated by Icelanders, catering to what they believe to be the limits of the local palate. Which usually leaned heavily on the sugary margaritas while eschewing fresh ingredients.

Iceland’s excellent adventure

This began to change with the opening of the taqueria La Poblana in the Hlemmur Mathöll in 2017, which was later acquired by Juan Carlos Guarneros. The restaurant has since moved house twice and can currently be found on the 2nd floor of Laugavegur 12. I sat down with Juan over delicious birria tacos, a traditional street food from the state of Jalisco in western Mexico. Birria tacos are a weekend special at La Poblana. These wondrous creations consist of shredded slow-cooked beef and cheese wrapped in a taco and accompanied by a highly-addictive dipping broth. They may just be the best start to (or recovery from) a round of beers you are likely to find in Reykjavík.

Juan is a soft-spoken young man, who is still adapting to his growing profile in the local scene and takes the responsibility of representing the cuisine of his homeland seriously. According to Juan, it has been getting easier to authentically represent the cuisine, as the availability and range of ingredients has increased.

Poblana is not that specific when it comes to regionality, instead taking the approach of representing the melting pot of Mexico City. As Juan explains, “it is a city where every subgroup of Mexico is represented, whether it‘s the south or the north, like with the birria tacos“ which landed on the menu as an experiment after initially intending to feature lamb barbacoa, his family‘s speciality.

Sparking the fuego

The criteria used by AMEIS in selecting an authentic representation of Mexican cuisine, is not just that a restaurant should just respect the foundational elements of the dishes being served, by using authentic spices and cooking methods, but by “showing a genuine love for Mexico, its culture and its culinary traditions in the ambiance, service, and overall experience of the restaurant,” according to AMEIS. It‘s hard to think of a better example of the warm and welcoming spirit of the culture than Chuy Zarate, the owner of Fuego.

Iceland‘s second Mexican-owned taqueria opened when La Poblana moved out of the Hlemmur. Chuy was a former member of the Poblana team, who took on the mantle, originally in collaboration with the owners of Kröst. The operation expanded to Hafnartorg Gallery in 2022 and, a year later ,Chuy bought the place in collaboration with his brother-in-law.

Chuy hails from Guanajuato and is focused on central-Mexican delicacies like tacos al pastor, which remains their most popular offering, along with their prawn tacos. The taco al pastor consists of grilled pineapple and meat shredded from spit-grilled hunks of pork. Appropriately, this taco variety is itself inspired by Lebanese immigration to the region and bears a faint resemblance to the doner kebab. The owners make light of the regionality though, saying “the recipes are more focused on the history of the culture than regionality. This is Mexican food as seen through [Chuy’s] family in central Mexico. These are recipes that have been passed down the maternal side of the family for generations.“

It‘s hard to overstate the importance of celebrating the contributions of immigrants and children of immigrants in the Icelandic restaurant scene. As in other countries, they not only make up a large portion of the team at any restaurant, but constantly invigorate the culinary scene by raising the bar in terms of quality and variety. The Mexican-Icelandic community is a particularly good example of this, as eager ambassadors for a food culture that far too often has gone undervalued.

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