Tacos by Mex Out ¡Muy delicioso! | Photo: Sylvia Tan YL
Whether you like it in a casa (Spanish for "home"), hacienda ("estate") or taqueria ("taco shop") setting; spicy, piquant or mild; Singapore has a new, and established, crop of Mexican restaurants, takeaway or grocery store to suit every budget and taste. Since featuring 15 Mexican eateries (and a delivery service) a year ago, more have opened. We’ve added six new joints to this list, in time for you to go Cinco de Mayo loco.
Often mistaken for Mexican Independence Day (16 September), Cinco de Mayo officially commemorates the anniversary of an early and seemingly unlikely victory by Mexican forces over invading French forces in the Battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862.
Mexican food is a riot of colours and spices, sauces and cerveza (beer), and, for us, sometimes Spanglish. When laid out, it is often red, white and green (colours of the Mexican flag) – most reflected in the tri-federation of salsa, tortillas and guacamole.
MEXICAN FOODS 101:
Burrito = a tortilla with various fillings, shaped into a tightly enclosed roll
Ceviche = raw fish dish, marinated in lime or lemon juices
Chimichanga = deep-fried burrito
Cilantro = coriander or Chinese parsley
Enchilada = tortilla wraps rolled around various fillings
Fajita = any kind of grilled meat wrapped in a soft taco or tortilla
Mole = a thick, savoury sauce made from many ingredients including chillies, chocolate and herbs
Taco = tortilla folded in half to hold various fillings, and eaten by hand
Tortilla = thin Mexican flatbread made from finely ground flour or corn
"Singaporeans might be some of the best-travelled people in the world. Do they enjoy Mexican food? You bet they do!" enthuses Francisco Belmonte, who has seen the scene evolve from 2001, when he first arrived.
Belmonte's played a big hand too, setting up the first fresh tortilla facility in 2002, supplying both businesses and homes through his shop, Belmonte Latin Foods (see below). It’s to his benefit, really: "In 2002, one could only dream about having a chile relleno (stuffed poblano pepper) or a nopales (cactus) salad. Now, you are spoilt for choice," grins the man who is happily married to a Singaporean who, by his admission, makes great tamales (steamed dough and meat parcels).
Even if you don’t know your tacos from your burritos, you can still sample each eatery’s specialties in our exclusive 21 Mexican dishes to try in Singapore gallery.
We’ve arranged the 21 eateries in chronological order so you can experience them from the oldest to the newest. Sit back, scroll, click, and buen provecho (eat well)!
|To view this story in photos, go to: 21 Mexican dishes to try in Singapore|
The former El Felipe’s Cantina was set up in 1985, but morphed into El Patio in 1999, when it changed owners. Not much has been disturbed, however, from the menu to the iconic Holland Village location, although a spiffy renovation in 2010 rebranded the place with clever modern imagery (like a cactus with spikes that spell out “el patio”). We like the enchiladas, another form of taco where the tortilla wraps are rolled around various fillings (from $14) such as beef with guajillo chile adobo (vinegar, garlic and chile marinade) or mushrooms and spinach, then topped for baking with sauce, cheese, onions and cilantro (coriander). A good-sized wine cellar and a tequila list of over 20 completes this casual jaunt into Mexico.
BOOK A TABLE | 34 Lorong Mambong | Tel: 64681520 | Opening hours: Mon 1-11pm, Tue-Fri 12noon-11pm, Sat & Sun 11am-11pm
For stuffed poblano chiles
Chef Andy Yap fell in love with Mexico from the very first trip, leading him to open Margarita’s at Faber Drive in 1987 to satisfy his craving for authentic Mexican regional cuisine. Today, the Dempsey outlet, with its stucco walls, handmade Mexican chairs and tables and hacienda-style décor makes even the Mexican ambassador feel at home. With that seal of approval, you’d understand why we think it’s almost the next best thing to being in Mexico. It helps that they serve what could truly be the smoothest margarita in Singapore. The chile en nogada ($28) is outstanding: a roasted poblano chile stuffed with veal and pork, smothered with creamy almond and walnut sauce, to which Yap adds his own twist of black beans. For dessert, leche frite (‘fried milk’, $12) is a painstakingly reduced milk pudding, not overly sweet, that simply glides its way down.
BOOK A TABLE | Address: #01-19, Block 11 Dempsey Road, and 3 other outlets | Tel: 64713228 | Opening hours: Tue-Sun 11am-3pm, 3-6pm (appetisers and desserts only), 6-10pm
Cha Cha Cha
For king prawns stuffed with cheese, wrapped with bacon
As iconic as El Patio’s is its immediate neighbour, Cha Cha Cha. Founded in 1990 by a former partner at El Felipe’s Cantina, director Helen Koh pitched in for the cooking in the early days, but this feisty lady is now content to oversee front of house issues, including renovations in early 2013. The bright, clean lines keep it family-friendly, as do Tom & Jerry cartoons, which have been a signature from the first day. The very popular “culaicán” ($26) is king prawns stuffed with cheese and wrapped with bacon, served with tangy tomato-based Mexican-style rice. It’s an easy introduction to Mexican cuisine for most, before you really get into the variety of tacos and burritos.
Cha Cha Cha | Address: 32 Lorong Mambong | Tel: 64621650 | Opening hours: Daily 11am-11pm
Part of the Brewerkz family, Café Iguana makes the case that Tex-Mex done right is delicious – and they’ve been doing it right since 2000. Marketing manager Margaret Marshall reminisces that while main ingredients were readily available, niche products such as tortilla presses, chiles and quality avocadoes took more planning; Iguana even innovated with dim sum steamers for tortilla warmers in the early stages. Check in by the Singapore river for icy cold, fruity margaritas and specially brewed Iguana lager to go with sizzling fajitas (from $25), with all the works – guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo (fresh diced tomato and onion), onions and peppers. A basket of warm nacho chips and marvellously fresh and zingy salsa (free with any drinks order) is a nice touch.
Book a table here | Address: 30 Merchant Road, #01-03 Riverside Point | Tel: 62361275 | Mon-Thu 4pm-1am, Fri 4pm-3am, Sat noon-3am, Sun noon-1am
Belmonte Latin Foods
For Mexican ingredients
We snuck Belmonte in, not just because they have ready-made pantry staples for delivery such as tortillas ($5.26 for 10), salsas ($4.21) and flans ($5.26), but also because Francisco Belmonte helped kickstart a tortilla revolution when he started the first facility to make fresh tortillas in 2002. This Mexican native is now the top importer of Mexican grocery shelf items and fresh produce, such as Hass avocados ($4 each) and tomatillos ($9.50, 500g). Belmonte notes that his biggest challenge is in high freight cost and erratic demand, but that Mexican foods are no longer alien to Asians.
Belmonte Latin Foods | Address: 2 outlets including #G5 Ridgewood Condo, 5 Ridgewood Close | Tel: 96529274 | Opening hours: Tue-Fri 5-8pm, Sat & Sun 11am-6pm