La Lucha Pop-Up Review: Should Other Mexican Places be Afraid?
By Andrew Cottrill . June 9, 2016
What gets me about 99% of Mexican food places in Berlin: the four-page menu consisting of about 20 different options is actually just three or four options repeated constantly. Do I choose the tortilla with braised beef, refried beans, cheese, guacamole and sour cream or the braised beef served in a tortilla with refried beans, guacamole and topped with cheese and sour cream? Strangely, they’re all priced differently too. Maybe it’s a joke and I just never got the memo…
So when I heard about a new “Modern Mexican” restaurant opening in Berlin this summer that aimed to buck this trend and bring original, exciting Mexican food to the Hauptstadt, I put my cynicism to one side and went along to their preview night to try their menu out.
La Lucha is the latest enterprise from Max Paarlberg, the active young face on the Berlin food scene who last year brought us Bourbon Dogs. Having already interviewed Max about Bourbon Dogs, I knew that he’s someone who’s very interested in the concept behind a restaurant, its food and its drink.
Max creates food experiences based on select products and ingredients and food traditions, bringing something new to the Berlin food scene whilst also championing cuisines, products and producers, as well as many of the talented craftspeople this city boasts. When I heard he was turning his attention to Mexican food, I was excited to see what stamp he’d put on the cuisine, and was ready to be educated on new, authentically Mexican eating traditions, tastes and products in the same way I had been with boubon and hot dog culture by him the previous year.
Outside of this talk about the modern Mexican concept, La Lucha retains the creature comforts of the standard Mexican places – you get well seasoned tortilla chips served with a chili sauce and salsa (Pico de gallo) to start, they’re playing Mexican music (which my South American friend told me was actually Columbian – he really was my secret weapon for this review) and the food is still very much tortilla-heavy. But still, you can feel that they’re doing something different. For example, in the salsa, they might swap the coriander you’re expecting for something different, perhaps oregano. And they served a confit of duck taco, for God’s sake.
As we had Max’s ear for the night (although he’s always happy to give advice…), he suggested we tried their Negroni Blanco cocktail as we decided which of La Lucha’s tacos to try first. It was a warm, clear night and the Negroni Blanco was light, with the aroma of a orange peel twist and enough of a tequila bite to encourage my appetite and keep my alcoholic tendencies at bay.
Throughout the next two hours, we made our way through the menu of tacos they were offering that night. I started with the one I’d been most excited about (like a kid opening their biggest present first): the confit of duck one.
Confit of duck with mango and peanut habanero salsa. What a great idea. It goes without saying that I thought this one was pretty good. The duck was delicious and the mango was perfectly ripe (a rarity here…). Two luxury items in one hand-held bite. The two complimented each other well – that sweet/super-savory combination. Against these two big flavours, the salsa played second fiddle and became a combination of the juice from the mango and the duck. Which, all things considered, was still tasty. Although, when I heard ‘confit of duck’, I was expecting something with that crispier-than-thou crunch of fried duck skin… and that extra texture really could’ve added something. Alas, the fact the duck was slow-cooked made its texture more akin to pulled-pork. Still, only a mild criticism on a great dish.
Next up came the Pescado Frito (fried and battered fish with jalapeño mayo and pickled cucumbers). Fish and (corn) chips! The white fish was fresh and expertly cooked (a hard feat considering the small size of each individually battered piece). I’d not had fish like that for ages. A little wedge of lemon, a squeeze for each taco and it was a treat. I’d expected flavour explosions from the jalapeño mayo but that was sorely missed.
As an ardent carnivore, I’m always massively impressed when the vegetarian/vegan option is tastier than the meat. And their grill-blackened baby corn, refried beans and candied peanut taco was a stand-out winner. I’ve not seen a group of people fight over a vegetable like that since Trump started running for election. Gone in 60 seconds. What made the tacos so great? The corn’s blackened edges tasted bitter, the peanuts were sweet, the corn was crunchy, the beans were soft. Every aspect of the taco worked and complimented each other. The whole truly was greater.
Lastly we tried the Papas con Crema (grilled potatoes, sour cream and pickled red cabbage). The potatoes had a roast potato quality to them (like English roast dinners) – with enough of those delicious, rich brown crispy bits to make them worthy of being the main ingredient. With sour cream on top and a crunch from the cabbage, the flavours were pretty classic and comforting. A bit of spice would’ve greatly elevated it. Mind you, the potato tacos would be the perfect choice for that friend who doesn’t like spicy food (see: Germans).
The pork cochinita pibil tacos quickly sold out. Yeah, I’m still pissed off that I didn’t get to try those ones.
Overall, the big flavours were in the main components of each taco… the fish, the potato etc… and the flavour of the sauce accompaniments often got lost. It sometimes made me yearn for the classic three chili sauces you get at pretty much every Mexican place (you know… the green, red and that orange one which tastes like searing regret).
When the most substantial part of a dish (the really, really good corn tortilla) has a big, dominant flavour of its own, you need other big, bolschy flavours inside taco if you want them to compete. And, aside from the star ingredients in each taco, the accompanying flavours often fell to the side (or dribbled down your hands). I’d challenge La Lucha to par down the complexity of their menu and maybe work on three new sauces which fit their ‘Modern Mexican’ theme.
I do, however, need to give a paragraph to some of the great cocktails we drank that night. Now, my memory gets hazy at this point so I’ll try my best to whet your alcohol appetites with some of my favourites: The Tamarindo – a tamarind and ancho chili infused mezcal margarita. This was a great one with a nice amount of bite. The menu said it’s spicy, but don’t be put off by that… unless you have to slather yourself in Nivea cream after trying the ‘scharf’ sauce at that kebab shop you eat ‘ohne zweibeln’. Next up, and definitely our favourite of the night, was the Topanito Cobbler – with fino sherry, tequila blanco and grapefruit. It had real pieces of grapefruit in it.
I mentioned that I always expect Max to educate me. What did I learn this time?
I learned you can get a mezcal that was distilled along with a chicken breast… Max serves it in a small pot with salt and a slice of orange. I learned that the Mexicans drink beer mixed with ‘Clamato juice’, a mixture of tomato juice and a clam stock (which in theory should be disgusting). And I learned that the prices of mezcal often reflect the logistical cost of getting them from the small villiages in which they’re produced and might not actually be a reflection of taste or quality – so it’s better to drink a shot of each from La Lucha’s menu, from cheap to expensive, before deciding which one you’re going to order.
La lucha means “The Fight” in Spanish. In terms of La Lucha’s food, I see that there is always a fight going on. Sweet against savoury. Bitter against sweet. Hot against cool. Soft against crunch. When the fight in their food works, it really is a knockout. I hope they continue this across their whole full-service menu.
I think once La Lucha opens its permanent restaurant this summer (when exactly is still unknown…) it’ll quickly become a favourite for a pre-party snack and cocktail. The food’s great for sharing and the alcohol and cocktail list puts it somewhere near the top of the food chain for mezcal and tequila drinks in Berlin. Has it changed my mind about international Mexican food? Let’s see what their full service menu looks like when they open this summer before I answer that question. It did, however, increase my love for all things mezcal.
Sexy photos by @antoniocastello!
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