Get Your Taco Survival Kit In Japan: A Discussion with Chef Marco
The Self-Isolation Cure We Have All Been Hoping For!
We know our Savvy readers just love knowing about the best restaurants and food options in Tokyo. But right now, it can be a challenge to be a #stayhome foodie… What about some #stayhome tacos?
Today, we’re really excited to introduce Los Tacos Azules and Chef Marco to our dear readers, this amazing Mexican fine dining chef is celebrating a unique take on Latin food in Japan. The cherry on top? You can even experiment with his cuisine—and enjoy it—from your own dining room table!
First of all, thank you for your time, Chef Marco! Can you please introduce yourself and give us a little background about Los Tacos Azules and your history here in Japan?
I was here in 2005 as an exchange student, studying international relations. One of the things that awed me the most during my stay was the quality of the food. Pretty much everything I tried was delicious, carefully prepared, even if you went to a cheap place you’d almost never get something bad. The standard was high, it seemed to me like it was a cultural thing.
When I went back home I missed food so much, not just Japanese, French, Italian, Korean, Indian food… We had some restaurants in my hometown in Mexico but they felt miles away quality-wise. If I wanted to eat those delicious things I fell in love with during my stay in Japan, I had to learn to cook them myself. Soon, my dreams of becoming a diplomat dissipated and I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to cooking.
I started getting curious about applying the things I learned, especially Japanese cuisine’s attention to detail and focus on the quality of the ingredients, to the cooking of my country. I grew up eating delicious homemade cooking in Mexico, but I felt that the stuff they sold at restaurants in my hometown sucked. It wasn’t nearly as good as the things I tried in Japan.
If I wanted to eat those delicious things I fell in love with during my stay in Japan, I had to learn to cook them myself
It became my mission to come up with a restaurant concept that was as good as anything I had tried in Japan. That’s how the idea of Los Tacos Azules began to brew.
Eventually, an opportunity arose in Mexico, a friend opened a bar at a great location, they only opened at night so he asked me how about if I did something there during the day. I used my savings to buy a taco cart and opened Los Tacos Azules with zero running costs. That was back in 2011.
Los Tacos Azules core concept was to offer customers tacos with freshly made tortillas made with blue corn masa (heirloom). The start was very difficult. Fortunately, I didn’t really have much at stake, and—contrary to here in Japan—fixed costs weren’t that high. People liked my food and through word of mouth, our popularity grew. Within a few months we had lines of people queuing every weekend, it was crazy!
What made you stay and open a business here in Japan?
Eventually, the place was too small for Los Tacos Azules. I switched to a different location. The popularity grew. I hired more people, we were 10 at that time and continued for one more year. It was then that the landlord decided to attribute to himself the success of our brand and double the rent. I told him to piss off and closed temporarily to look for a different location.
It was during that break that I got a chance to come back to Japan. I hadn’t been back for more than 6 years. Originally I was only going to stay here for one month, but that stay was extended for 6 months. During that time, I traveled all over the country, ate at a lot of restaurants (spent almost all of my savings too haha) and got a chance to do some cooking events at some friend’s restaurants. There was this time when we had over 200 people lining up to eat blue corn tacos here in Japan.
There was this time when we had over 200 people lining up to eat blue corn tacos here in Japan
I cooked the same recipes as I did in Mexico and something funny happened. I realized that the food I made in Japan actually tasted better than the stuff I used to make in Mexico. You heard me right. Mexican food that is made here in Japan actually tasted better than in Mexico. How come? The quality ingredients of course.
It was then that I met Rika, a Japanese woman who worked for a trading company.
A lot happened… and long story short I decided to come to Tokyo with her, to open Los Tacos Azules.
I had the pleasure to eat in your Setagaya restaurant several times since you opened. It is amazing! I can confirm that your food is delicious! Can you please let us know about your experience as a chef in Tokyo? What do you feel is special about your restaurant, and how it was opening a new restaurant in such a competitive foodie city?
Hearing comments like that is the fuel that keeps me moving forward. Opening the restaurant here has been a dream came true for me, it’s what I always wanted to do.
I’m not very good with hierarchies or working at corporations, if I was going to live here I always knew I needed to be able to do something of my own. I was very lucky to have found my partner who believed in me and decided to open this restaurant together (we used both of our savings!)
As you say, Tokyo is an incredibly competitive food city. I’m sure it’s one of the toughest markets in the world. There may not be many places for quality Mexican food, but there are limitless options for good French, Italian, Korean, Japanese, and pretty much anything else. Foodies here have just so many options to choose from.
We are offering tacos and other dishes with a twist, using the best seasonal, Japanese ingredients blended with traditional Mexican concepts. The star of our show is our handmade tortillas, created with heritage blue corn masa. The flavor will really amaze you. We also create innovative taco fillings and tamales.
If you had to choose only one, what would be your favorite Japanese food? On the contrary, what food do you miss from your hometown?
That’s a very difficult question. I’m going to cheat and name a genre: kaiseki (traditional seasonal, course menus). From my hometown, I miss my mom’s Cabrito en Salsa, that’s kid—baby goat meat—stewed in an oregano flavored tomato sauce. It’s so addictive I could eat a whole pot. I learned the recipe and perhaps could make it here but getting the ingredients is kind of difficult.
Times are pretty tough due to Covid-19, more and more restaurants here in Japan are now offering takeout and delivery, which is great! Actually, your take on this new trend is quite innovative, I think. Can you please tell Savvy Tokyo readers more about your Taco Survival Kit?
What we are doing is very niche. Most of our customers are not from the neighborhood, they come from different parts of Tokyo and some of them from other prefectures. If we had done take-outs like most restaurants were doing, I knew we wouldn’t last, so I had to come up with something else.
I thought about using Japan’s incredible logistics (now we are using Yamato Cool Takkyubin) to ship to people interested in our concept all over Japan. I thought, “Hey there’s gotta be at least 50 people in the whole country to keep us afloat.” The shipping cost was not going to be cheap, so I had to make something appealing enough so people would be interested despite the price.
More than a meal, it’s a wholesome activity
I thought about the situation we’re all going through. Being stranded at home sucks, sure you can do takeout, but that’s only going to buy you 30 minutes or so of interest and enjoyment. I wanted to give people an experience, something interactive, to relieve stress. So I came up with the idea of a DIY Taco kit that people could entertain themselves with.
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The kit includes four different taco fillings, plenty of tortillas, salsas, tamales, my mom’s Frijoles Charros—the ultimate Mexican comfort food in my opinion—, cajeta (goat milk caramel you can pour on whatever dessert you like) and even a mix for making your own drinks.
Some people can eat it in one seating, others can split it into a few meals. Some people have been doing very interesting arrangements as well! Somebody sent me a picture on Instagram of a donburi made with our toppings. Another guy made soumen dipped with salsa. More than a meal, it’s a wholesome activity.
With the help of my team, we changed our website to be able to take online orders. We change the menu a bit each week and take orders every Sunday to be delivered during the rest of the week. Quantities are limited, and you can visit the online shop to order. We hope today’s delivery customers will also become tomorrow’s restaurant guests.
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Do you have anything new coming up that our readers can look forward to?
To our surprise the Taco Kit took off very well. We are getting orders from all over Japan, from Kyushu to Hokkaido. So eventually I think we will continue doing some sort of delivery.
This corona situation is changing the market landscape in so many ways, it will definitely impact us as well. At night we used to do a Taco Omakase, but who knows if that’s gonna work after all this. Lately I’ve been considering changing our style and making it more casual. I’ll post about that on Instagram soon.
Is there anything you would like to tell our readers?
Now, more than ever. It is very important to get savvy and forget about the cost-performance mentality. Restaurants run on tiny margins if somebody offers you something that feels too good to be true it probably is. Restaurateurs can lower prices by cutting corners… Maybe using cheaper ingredients, paying less to their employees, working more hours, or plainly by sacrificing profit.
Now that we have this crisis, many people who did that and lived day by day are going bankrupt or already did. An economy where cost performance is the most valued attribute of a restaurant is an economy dominated by chains that sell generic mass-produced food. As a foodie, I wouldn’t want to live in such a boring world. If you can support your favorite small businesses this is a great time to do that!