The taco is perhaps the perfect street food. It's deceptively simple, often no more than three ingredients, sometimes only two, on the most basic of conveyances, a flat tortilla. But somehow a good taco transcends its humble construction to become something greater.
And tacos are fun: finger food designed to go with tequila, margaritas and frosty beers. No other snack lends itself more freely to spontaneous group singing and making new friends from a bar stool. Thanks to the recent proliferation of taco restaurants in Hong Kong, there is now an alternative to Hong Kong's famously image-conscious nightlife. Not all live up to expectations, but they offer a varied introduction to the world of Mexican street food.
So drink lots of water, skip lunch and hit the taco trail. Saturday night may never be the same. Ole! I start my taco tour at one of Hong Kong's older taco establishments, Mr Taco Truck in Quarry Bay. If you don't want to go all the way there, or if it happens to be Saturday (when it is closed), there is now one in Lan Kwai Fong as well.
People love the decor, which looks like a big taco truck. And then there's the price, which, at HK$17 a taco, means you will have some cash left over for the rest of the evening.
Unfortunately, however, the experience is a little underwhelming. The space is disorganised and the service, while friendly, is haphazard. The salsa is a bitter tomato water, and the tacos are garnished simply with coriander and a handful of diced onions. Diners are given the typical choice of four meats: pollo (chicken), carne asada (steak), carnitas (roasted pork) and al pastor (which they describe as spicy pork but is traditionally pineapple-marinated pork shaved from a spit like a kebab). The chicken is fine, moist but not flavourful enough to stand out from the onions. The carnitas and al pastor are the best options. The carnitas is especially flavourful, but tough. A good selection of Mexican beers (Tecate, Bohemia, Sol and Carta Blanca) can be had for only HK$45 a bottle. As the tour progresses, you may appreciate these prices even more. Another stop on the taco trail, is justa few blocks from the Lan Kwai Fong outlet to the most talked about Mexican restaurant in Hong Kong at the moment, Brickhouse. This hip Mexico City-inspired restaurant and bar, down an alley, is the brainchild of Texas chef Austin Fry. Think of it as the Mexican Yardbird, with an in-crowd sharing small plates and drinking to glamorous excess. Sit down, order some Latin-inspired cocktails, a Bohemia beer, a few shots of Don Julio tequila and a taco platter to share. The platters vary each day, but fish, rib-eye, lengua (beef tongue), pork belly and chicken are typical.
What really sets the Brickhouse tacos apart are the tortillas, made fresh as you watch. The fish taco is a crowd pleaser, with crisp fresh flavours and a nice bite of citrus. The beef tongue is also popular, well cooked with good texture and not too chewy. Be sure to order a simple side dish of sliced avocado - it's delicious.
Brickhouse has a short menu of speciality house cocktails as well as a growing selection of premium tequilas, which you can order in flights for as many as 100 people, and some interesting beers, including Mexican choices and microbrews from California.
On some evenings, the cocktails can be too sweet or taste of drink mixes, but the Bloody Maria is to-the-point and always very good. You may start to notice a price issue - while tacos are traditionally some of the cheapest food options around, taco platters at Brickhouse run to HK$240, and cocktails HK$95. Not insanely overpriced, but by no means cheap.
Geographically, it may be logical to head from Brickhouse to Chicha, but your chances of getting in before 10.30pm on a weekend are slim, so keep moving and save room for a Chicha taco before bed.
One option may be to hop on the Star Ferry and build up an appetite while making your way to the token taco spot in Tsim Sha Tsui, Tequila Jack's. On Taco Tuesdays, TJ's serves HK$10 ground beef tacos that are basic but quite tasty, and whose price helps to soften the blow of the well-meaning but often inept service. Any other day and your choice is from a selection of overpriced and disappointing tacos, (pork tacos are HK$85 for two). But it must be said that the sangrias at Tequila Jack's are large, tasty and quite strong.
Back on the Island, I make my way to Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan, to check out Heirloom. This independent restaurant delivers tasty comfort food and cocktails in a hip but understated setting. It is not a Mexican restaurant per se, but one of the founders is Mexican, and they serve what may be Hong Kong's finest tacos.
Heirloom's tacos are the smallest on the tour and deceptively simple. The ingredients are first rate and the flavours well-balanced. The carnitas with pickled onions is probably the most authentic taco in Hong Kong. The Festival of Flavours Balinese Fish Taco is a revelation and transcends its basic ingredients of white fish and coriander-kaffir lime dressing. The American, a hearty pork rib and coleslaw taco, is rich and satisfying. A platter of four will cost you HK$140. Heirloom boasts a full bar and an interesting cocktail collection. You can't go wrong with The Daisy, even at a scandalously overpriced HK$125 (a margarita with fresh fruit, triple sec and tequila).
Keep stumbling westward and you'll end up at Taco Chaca in the heart of up-and-coming Sai Ying Pun. This is a place that understands the true taco experience.
The tacos are not as high-end as Brickhouse's or as well thought out as Heirloom's, but they are tasty, reasonably priced and go down easily with a cold Corona.
Taco Chaca is good, gritty fun: the staff are happy to sit down and share a beer, colourful characters from the neighbourhood come and go and it feels like the kind of place that if you passed out they would carry you to a taxi. Taco Chaca offers up the usual suspects: pollo, carnitas, Baja fish and carne asada for between HK$40 and H$52. But they also push the taco envelope and have fun with it. There is a handwritten sign taped to the wall with the daily tacos specials: everything from satay chicken tacos with peanut sauce, to Korean-style bulgogi tacos and even an ABCLT taco (avocado, bacon, chicken, lettuce, tomatoes). The specials are only HK$30 to HK$40 each.
Now back to Chicha for the last, and some of the best, tacos of the evening. Even if it is late when you arrive, the restaurant will probably be fully booked. Luckily, at this late hour the staff should let you sit on the street outside, where they will bring you tacos and drinks. Chicha is the only non-Mexican stop on the taco trail. So forget the beer and tequila and opt for something Peruvian - it's excellent pisco sours (HK$75). Don't be misled by how easily they go down: they pack a punch.
Chicha's tacos are a different beast entirely. Firstly, they have crispy, hard tortilla shells. Secondly, they are much more complex, with lots of layered contrasting flavours. Also, the quality of the ingredients really shines through; the black cod in the fish taco is exceptional and fills the mouth with a rich fatty flavour that easily holds its own against the fresh mango salsa. You have a choice of pork, chicken, fish and prawn. One taco costs HK$50, or pay HK$180 for four. Even though these are the last tacos of the night, they are also the most substantial; Chicha's tacos are dinner tacos, rich, savoury and filling.
Wow, is it that late already? Maybe it's a good idea to make my way home as soon as possible, lest the tequila or beer get the better of me. From the looks of things, the Latin food trend in Hong Kong is just getting started.