The options are plentiful: tacos, burritos, empanadas, chillaquiles. Mexican food can make everyone feel at home, no matter where they are in the world. The spices, flavours and presentation can bring much-needed colour to our lives during this third-wave lockdown, so grab your Corona (the beer, not the virus), order some tacos or a quesadilla, and give much-needed support to one of these local businesses.
El Este Tacqueria, 102 Albro Lake Road
Tucked away just off Albro Lake Road in Dartmouth, hidden between an auto body shop and a pizzeria, is a pop of colour in the form of El Este Tacqueria.
“When I saw this area I said, ‘You know what? This is going to work,’” says owner Remelino “Mel” Madlangbayan. “Because all the people from Sackville going there, from Dartmouth Crossing, from Halifax.”
Mel isn’t Mexican, he’s actually Filipino, but his passion for Mexican food and experience in the food industry led him to the dream of his own taco shop. “I was a production chef,” he says. “And then I’m planning this for almost half a year before I opened this one, always dreaming about this place.”
After a few years working for a catering company in Burnside, a strike finally pushed Mel in a new direction. “I said I’m going to make my own business,” he told The Coast on an afternoon in his shop just before the third wave lockdown started. “Because I’m getting tired working for somebody else.”
It was in the midst of the first wave of COVID that Mel began building his business, obtaining the proper food permits and licenses, and finding suppliers. “It was very difficult, because HRM suspended their office, so it’s going to take three months,” he says.
By fall 2020, El Este opened its doors, serving a variety of tacos, burritos, nachos and even taco salads. Mel says the most popular are the barbacoa beef taco and the pollo verde burrito. Everything is made in front of you to order, and ready almost immediately. “I focus on what it’s really easy to do, like this,” he says. “And then sell the food to the people like almost two minutes, three minutes, done.”
The shop is open from 11am to 8pm daily, but Mel spends hours before and after his shift preparing food from scratch. “Nighttime, before I go I have to marinate all the meat. And then six o’clock in the morning I have to braise it for almost five hours, three hours, depends on the meat.”
Because of the rich taste in the meat (or mushrooms for vegetarians), the rest of the taco is kept simple—salsa, cilantro, pickled onion and sometimes shredded lettuce.
Mel imports his tortillas and chillies—like anchos and guajillos—from Mexico, and says the flavours have more depth than just pure spice. “Actually, these are not spicy, just for the smoky flavour,” he says of the arbol peppers. “And this is a little bit sweet. If I really like the spicy I go to the grocery and buy habaneros.”
When Mel opened the restaurant, his only goal was to pay his bills. But now he’s got dreams of eventually, once COVID subsides, adding tables and building a customer washroom.
“I really like to have the small restaurant that I can fit like five people, 10 people, see them eating while I’m cooking. That’s my dream,” he says. “I think every cook in this food industry dreams like that, their own restaurant, a little bit like a cafe and then as long as they can see people talking, eating there, it really feels good.”
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