10 years of tacos: The man who introduced real Mexican food to Singapore
When Alejandro Blanco first opened Senor Taco and, later, El Mero Mero, many customers thought Mexican cuisine was quesadillas, Coronas, hard taco shells and chilli sauce. 10 years on, things have changed.
When Alejandro Blanco moved here 15 years ago from Monterrey, Mexico, to further his legal career, there weren’t many places you could go for late-night food, and there certainly weren’t any authentic Mexican tacos to be had, not even for ready money.
So instead, he satisfied his appetite for good food with black pepper crab, which instantly became his favourite dish – to the extent that he and his wife indulged in it once a week for six months, ordering one crab each. “We went all in,” he laughed.
But he saw the gap in the market for authentic Mexican grub and the potential it offered. So, five years later, when the cement company he worked for closed their Singapore office, he decided to leave the legal profession and open a taco kiosk called Senor Taco at Clarke Quay, excited to introduce Singapore to the food he grew up enjoying. In his quest for perfection, he even set up a tortilla factory so that he could serve freshly made tortillas instead of frozen ones.
Little did he know, however, that it wouldn’t be smooth sailing, due to cultural misunderstandings about Mexican food.
“The first day I opened Senor Taco in Clarke Quay – after importing the chillies from Mexico, opening a tortilla factory, being very proud of having Mexican tacos – one of my first customers was really unhappy,” Blanco recounted. “I asked him why. He said, ‘This is not authentic Mexican. Because you don’t have crunchy tacos.’ Like the crunchy taco shells you find in Taco Bell, which you will never find in Mexico.”
Other customers “wanted chilli sauce, which is ketchup with chilli, and I was like, ‘No, no, no. Forget it. I cannot do this!’”
But, “It’s not that Singaporeans got it wrong,” he continued. “I think that overall, there’s a lack of awareness of good Mexican food. I think the fault is also ours, as Mexicans, because for many years, nobody really wanted to be out of Mexico. The only exposure other countries received of Mexican food was what you saw in the US. It was very Hollywood. ‘Mexico: Cacti, sombreros.’ Food-wise, it was the same. It was Taco Bell.”
In spite of that, Senor Taco “was a success from day one,” said the 46-year-old; mainly because “there were not a lot of options at that time: No tacos, no Mexican food, no nightlife, the concept of drinks and music. My gut feeling told me people like to eat at night and tacos are a great thing to eat at night. I really felt strongly about this niche.”
Following Senor Taco’s expansion to several outlets, Blanco also opened El Mero Mero five years ago. The restaurant at Chijmes presents modern Mexican cuisine in a more elegant setting, with a head chef who hails from Oaxaca. The Mexican ambassador is a regular and takes the opportunity to entertain guests there.
And in recent months, Blanco has gone on to open a Mexican grocery store right next door, the first and only one in Singapore offering products from Mexico such as dried chillies, Mexican cheese, tequila and mezcal (look out for freshly baked pan de muerto and chocolate abuelita next month to celebrate the Day of the Dead holiday).
With these establishments, Blanco is one of only two Mexican restaurant owners here who are originally from Mexico (the other Mexican-owned eatery is Los Jefes at NEWest mall). Since Chijmes houses Senor Taco, El Mero Mero and the La Mexicana store, he calls it “a little part of Mexico” here in Singapore.
It’s emblematic of the way he’s embraced life here while flying the flag of authentic Mexican cuisine.
Now a Singapore citizen, Blanco’s two daughters, aged 12 and eight, were born here. He appreciates the safety, the ease of doing business and the social diversity. And he’s even perfected kopitiam-style soft boiled eggs for breakfast at home – alongside huevos rancheros, of course.
And in the last couple of years, his job as a restaurateur staying true to his roots has become a little easier as people grow more and more well travelled and the differences between Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine are more clearly drawn.
“I would say the majority now understands the difference. And I think Netflix has done a good job – with all the celebrity chefs, and Taco Chronicles, there’s much more exposure. I also feel that people now also embrace the difference, especially Singaporeans,” he said.
In the past, “Even though we made an effort to bring more dishes, they were really gravitating towards the quesadilla, the burrito and the Corona margarita. We brought some imported beers from Mexico but 80 per cent of our sales would still be Corona beers, because Corona has such a strong brand that it was automatic. But now, that has changed.”
At El Mero Mero, he showcases a range of dishes from different parts of Mexico, a culinary diverse country. Many of the ingredients are imported from Mexico and used in fresh salsas as well as traditional dishes with a modern twist in terms of techniques, plating and presentation.
He does still have to make concessions – by having nachos on the menu, for example. “In Mexico, you actually don’t find nachos,” he said. “For the first three years, we didn’t sell nachos. But of course, they have such a powerful branding and presence that it would be a mistake not to sell them. I’m pretty proud to say that our nachos are less commercialised. They are made from freshly made tortilla chips that we make at our factory. We only use real cheese, we bake our own beans, and we grill our meats. I would say it’s like a VIP version of nachos.”
Understanding the importance of listening to the customer is part of what has driven Blanco’s success. He has plans to expand Senor Taco beyond Singapore in the coming year, as well as possibly opening more outlets in the East and West, outside of the Central Business District.
And, as always, it’s his mission to bring Singapore and Mexico a little closer together in spite of their geographical distance. Perhaps nothing says this better than the take-home party kits that he’s rolled out at the La Mexicana store called Margarita Lah! “It’s a container that has 20 margaritas, freshly squeezed lime and 100 per cent premium agave. The only thing you need to add is ice. Pour, and have the perfect margarita.”