Americanos in Berlin jonesing for Mexican food can now wander down the canal for an upscale taste of downhome cooking at La Lucha.
With its ample patio and a color scheme of flamingo pink and turquoise blue, La Lucha is more evocative of Miami Beach than Mexican kitsch. It’s cool and chic; definitely not the corner taquería with mama in la cocina patting down tortillas. But upscale Mexican cuisine isn’t an oxymoron.
La Lucha’s offerings veer from traditional cooking to fusion fare with tropical flavors giving Berlin a much-needed insight into the tastes of Mexico, especially lime, chipotle, toasted corn, and mezcal.
But here’s the critical question. How is the guacamole?
We all know that Berlin’s idea of guacamole is a sad, thin, watery, grey-green shadow of itself. Well, my avocado-starved soul did a small leap of joy when the guacamole appeared on La Lucha’s pink picnic table. Thick, chunky, zesty with lime, and perfect heaped on top of the buttery corn crispiness of La Lucha’s homemade tortilla chips.
It was a sunny day and the patio was filled when we arrived, so we sat at the bar and ordered cocktails while waiting for our table to be cleared. The simple but effective secret of their bar is to add mezcal to everything. Mezcal gave a smoky depth that offset the fresh citrus flavor of the Smoked Pisco Sour. In the Amor Amargo, the addition of mezcal and chili liquor resulted in a darker negroni with gothic hints of smoke and fire.
We were led outside to a corner in the patio and greeted by a cute waiter, who introduced himself as León. “He’s got sexy eyelashes,” observed my friend Honey. I thought only Asian people noticed eyelashes but it seems Italians have the same fetish. León suggested the ceviche, pulpo tostada, and tacos de carnitas. We also ordered the tamal rojo and tacos de pescado. Because tamales in Berlin??? My German boyfriend was mystified and had to ask if you could eat the corn husk.
The ceviche consisted of small pieces of dorade marinated in a creamy avocado lime sauce with the tiniest tomatoes I’ve ever seen. The whole thing was like a taste of the Mexican Riviera.
Perhaps the only misfire was the pulpo tostados. The smoky chipotle sauce, tangy bits of kumquats, and brininess of the octopus resulted in three strong notes that made for a rather jangling chord. And with all that dense sauce, the deep fried tortilla shell just got soggy.
But La Lucha’s tacos were a nice detour back to Mexican traditions, served three to a plate, wrapped in small soft tortillas. Tacos Carnitas were slow-cooked in pork fat with little distraction from the big burst of buttery meaty flavor besides a dollop of tomatillo sauce and a paper-thin whorl of onion. The fish tacos were deep fried, dabbed with a dash of jalapeño mayo, and topped with a festive handful of fresh cabbage and cilantro. Both were tacos back to their roots as simple, honest, street food.
We didn’t try the vegan taco option, which seemed to also be the fusion choice with refried beans, baby corn and candied cashews. This was just one of several imaginative options for vegans, including a vegetable escabeche and a burrito with agave-glazed sweet potato and broccoli.
In another bow to gringo dining, La Lucha also turns the spice level way way down.
About the only Mexican flavor you won’t find at La Lucha is habanero. But those who need an extra kick will find homemade garlic chili sauce on every table. Though it was more like an Asian chili oil than a Mexican hot sauce, it baptizes your taco with a nice tingle and a hint of garlic.
By the time we ate all of our antijotos, we were pretty stuffed, so we skipped the burritos and molcajete. But we couldn’t pass up dessert.
The churros were crisp perfection with a dark chile chocolate sauce that we were licking off the plate. Of all things, this was actually one of the spiciest things on the menu. Not that it was that spicy. The bittersweet chocolate was offset with a subtle heat that stayed in your mouth and made you want more.
But the queen of desserts was the flan de queso with a passion fruit and mezcal sauce.
My god, the texture of that flan! It was somewhere in between cheesecake and panna cotta, somehow managing to be just the right amount of satisfying denseness without being heavy or cloying. First you are hit by a boozy smoky kick of mezcal and then soothed by the sweet tang of passion fruit. This was definitely addiction on a plate.
The restaurant also offers flights of tequila and mezcal. In fact, there are over a hundred mezcals on their menu, so many that they are actually printing a Bible. The owner, Max, a Dutch transplant who went to university in Guadalajara, sat down and brought us two of the more unique mezcals. Meteóro from Oaxaca, the heartland of mezcal-making, is pure smoke and mineral. A more unusual mezcal, Clan 55, made from foraged espadín agave, was described like a mezcal moonshine. A powerful alcohol punch paves the way for complex herbal notes and a spicy finish.
The patio closed at 10 so as not to bother the posh neighbors on Paul-Lincke-Ufer and we were ushered inside the lively dining room to continue our meal. By the time we polished off the last last glass of mezcal it was nearly midnight, but the place was still half-full with people too comfortable to leave. With an ample menu of antojitos to share, over a hundred mezcals to try, and pitchers of sangrias, La Lucha is a great place to hang with a bunch of amigos and then roll home together singing Cielito Lindo.