When La Poblana showed up on the roster at Hlemmur Mathöll in 2017, the tiny restaurant was filling the gaping void of Mexican cuisine in Iceland. It came on the backs of Taqueria in Ármúli,a brief but delicious love affair; an attempt at Cali tacos at Taco fyrir mig, the once-a-week event at The Coocoo’s Nest; and the continued popularity of Tex-Mex by way of Icelandic fixture Culiacan.
But far removed from global interpretations of Mexican cuisine outside of his home country, Carlos Guarneros, encouraged by the support of his then partner, opened La Poblana to honour the culinary memories of his mother and grandmother. “It is a project to make Mexican food the way I grew up with it,” says Carlos. “My mom is from Puebla, and this is for her,” he smiles shyly, explaining that ‘Poblana’ is someone from Puebla.
But after only a year of operations, a divorce and subsequent sale, La Poblana downed their shutters at the food hall. “It was kind of OK for me,” Carlos admits. “I felt I wasn’t ready to run a place. I wasn’t happy, to be honest,” he confesses. “To close Poblana for the first time was necessary.”
We are sitting in the high ceilinged taqueria, with large windows perfect for people watching and walls awash with a striking mural from one of the Aztec codices by the artist ‘Otho’. The two gods are Mictlantecuhtli (god of the underworld) and Quetzalcóatl (the god of war). Together, they symbolize life and death. . The mural has the gods holding ears of corn in place of the traditional canes—a reminder of the importance of the simple grain. It’s all fitting for Carlos’ taqueria.
Talk About tacos
The current menu is concise, with just four tacos on offer. It’s a throwback to Mexican taquerias where pride is taken in doing a few things and doing them well.
“I chose the tacos that reminded me of something,” Carlos shares. “For example, the carnitas were my late night tacos with friends, after a long night of drinking and you want something greasy. The campechano is the taco that reminds me of Mexico City; it’s the taco you eat before you take the bus, before work, on the way back home. The chicken tinga is what my mother makes often. So I chose the ones that I can put a little bit of myself into.”
Carlos’ earnesty translates into his food. The carnitas are fatty chunks of slow braised pork, cooked with oranges and aromatic spices. There is plenty of lime to squeeze, the acidity vital to cutting through the richness of the meat. The campechano, a personal favourite of mine, is a grilled beef leg, with homemade chorizo and melted cheese, singing with the warm depth of guajillos, anchos and smoked paprika. If the taqueria isn’t packed, one can see Carlos busy at the grill, stirring in the melty cheese, chop-chop-chopping with his wide spatula and flipping one tortilla after another.
The pollo de tinga is a sublime contrast to the darkness of the red meats and is perfumed with the heady aromas of oregano. His mother’s recipe, this is a lighter version compared to the tomatoey, smoke kissed versions one may have encountered.
An honest tortilla
A tortilla is more than a piece of bread, more than its components of flour, fat and water. A freshly made tortilla, be it made with corn or flour, is a simple joy to behold. Warm corn tortilla with its milky mustiness is as important as the meats and vegetables it holds. At the taqueria, Carlos dishes both yellow and blue corn tortillas. They even arrive with a smear of the chorizo fat as is wont in Mexico. This little detail, amiss in the pop-up, food truck, claim-to-be-Mexican-but-aren’t menus and restaurant offerings is one to applaud.
Tacos belie the labour and complexities involved in its 1-2-3 bite of dance of textures, temperatures, the contrast and balance of heat, acidity and freshness, lent by the crunch of white onions, the citrusy spring of fresh coriander all brought together by carefully chosen salsas. The overall balance comes down to the size of tortilla and just the right amount of filling, enough to fold them over in one hand and be eaten in no more than a few bites, juices running down satisfyingly.
Carlos serves the carnitas with a housemade salsa macha that is nutty, vibrant and packs a pleasant punch. The pineapple habanero is a fruity number and the salsa verde sans the tomatillos is a Mexican classic rendered in Iceland. “It is very challenging to find the right ingredients,” laments Carlos.
This isn’t cheap food. It’s slow food, with time as an integral ingredient. If there ever was an oxymoron for fast food, it’d be the taco.
Clichés & stereotypes
For a culture that gave the world everything from chocolate and chillies to chewing gum, Mexican food outside of its home is a strange concoction far removed from its origins. Its popularity here has translated to the birthday party and fermingarveisla fixture of ‘Mexíkósk súpa’, not to be confused with sopa de tortilla, or the equally baffling Mexican cheese, again, not to be mistaken for cotija or queso fresco. Supermarket aisles are dedicated to canned refried beans (shockingly amiss from restaurant menus), sliced jalapenos and various salsas of the mild, hot and spicy variants, with tactfully placed blazing flames indicating heat and the danger they bring, alongside tortillas and unfortunately labelled jars of ‘street food sauces’.
“Contrary to what people think, we are not eating raw chillies all the time,” Carlos says bemused. “I can’t quite explain it…” Carlos pauses, searching for words, “it’s just, ouch, you know? I wonder why?” he says. Even as traditions are important, Carlos insists nothing remains static. “I still believe that everything changes. And maybe this is part of the transformation. But we have to be careful where we are borrowing traditions from.”
La Poblana has already proven too small and Carlos is running a hurried expansion at Kofinn. “I’d like to have a dynamic menu. I’m thinking of summer tacos with fish, braised lamb in the winter. Use all the parts of the animal—like the tongue, head [and] offal, which is traditional in Mexico,” he says excitedly.
“I am also working on pop-up menus without any tacos. Maybe moles? And not the chocolate one that people know but the rich variety [with] nuts, greens, seasonal ingredients. Pair them with top shelf Mezcal, Tequila and maybe even Mexican wines, ” he says.
For all his excitement Carlos is mystified, “I’m kind of surprised how much people like the food,” Carlos says. “For me, it is normal. I am following the recipes from my mom — this is natural. I’m not doing anything extraordinary,” he says. The
Well Carlos, if this is your take on the ordinary, we’d like more of it.
Visit La Poblana at Laugavegur. For more info, check out their Facebook page here.
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