Can we talk tacos for a second? When I was growing up in Strathcona, the only taco I was familiar with was the tex-mex variant with ground beef, astringent yellow cheese, processed salsa and a sprinkling of the somewhat chalky old-el-paso flavoring so synonymous with Canadian youth. To be honest, I hated it. I thought that tacos were boring and whenever we’d have a taco night at my old after school care I’d either say I had a stomach-ache and didn’t want a snack or I’d cover my taco with so much hot sauce the entire thing would taste like Franks original. After graduating elementary, Mexican food and I avoided each other with a strange kind of grace. I knew all my friends loved tacos unconditionally but I also knew that if I didn’t go near tacos, they wouldn’t go near me. On a frozen December morning in grade 12, that all changed. My Spanish teacher at the time had brought us some homemade tacos for a demonstration on Latin American food. I balked. I was ready to feign a stomach-ache or say I had a headache or say I was intolerant to well, everything. I was so wrong. That little corn disk with shredded chicken and salsa was delicious. I had never tasted a corn tortilla before and I loved it straightaway. Same with the salsa and the mild, succulent chicken. I think I ate ten of them. In a way, it was the taco that launched a thousand ships.
For years, I scoured the city looking for tacos with the same explosion of flavor I had experienced that day. About a year ago I finally found it, a gem of a restaurant called Tres Carnales Taquería.
Hidden behind Scotia bank near several old reliables like It’s all Greek to me and Bistro Praha, you could easily miss it – if it wasn’t for the serpentine lineup of people clamoring to get in. By now the restaurant is well known in the city as the only real place to get authentic Mexican tacos, and when they say authentic, they really do mean it. The three friends who opened the place each spent years eating, learning and recreating recipes from different areas of Mexico. They’re so passionate about their ingredients , they even travel to famous restaurants in the states to learn from the best of the best, like chef and Mexican cuisine superstar Rick Bayless. I know this because I have them on Instagram and the trio never seem to stop traveling and learning, and it really shows. Their offerings are simple, delicious and unpretentious. Here, there is no yellow cheese or dry seasoning, just fresh pico de gallo, crema Mexicana and hot of the press corn tortillas. If you’re a fan or real Mexican cuisine, and even if you’re not and all you really want is an old El Paso family pack, I still recommend you try them out (if you haven’t already, of course). If you don’t fall in love with their food eventually, well, you might just be beyond help.
When you walk into Tres Carnales the first thing you’ll notice is the décor, which consists of lively colored walls, graffiti, Mexican knickknacks on the walls, beautiful hanging lights, black floor tiles and a long communal bar at one end of the restaurant, perfect for lonely diners. All of it combined makes for a truly lively and inviting space. Next, you’ll lay eyes on the open kitchen and the chalkboard menu right above it. There are usually eight styles of topping offered with varying meats and fresh vegetables, along with a vegan choice and a daily special. You then get to choose whether you want your choice as a taco, a quesadilla or as a sandwich called a “torta” on a fluffy roll. My mother, who is my usual taco partner in crime, loves their fried fish torta and orders it almost every time. You can get house-made tortilla chips called “totopes” with salsa or freshly made guacamole, the daily soup or “papas fritas”- glorious chunks of fried Russet potatoes as a side. Along with that, you order a drink such as their daily “agua fresca”, (a combination of fruits, nuts, flowers, or seeds blended with sugar and water), are given a number and then your seating is up to you. I’m not much of a beer or sangria person so my absolute favorite drink is their horchata, which is made of rice, topped with cinnamon and tastes like liquid rice pudding. Food arrives swiftly and if you need anything extra, a friendly server or one of the owners will always be around to ask how your meal is going and help.
The last time I was there, I ordered the daily special of cochinita pibil, a slow roasted pork dish marinated in citrus from the Yucatan, along with a guava agua fresca. My lovely friend and dining companion had the chicken tacos, which I didn’t manage to take a photo of and some totopes with guacamole, which with my help, disappeared in a matter of seconds. Needless to say, it was a decadent meal. The taco meat was tender and luscious with in-your-face seasoning which to me tasted mostly of chile and cumin, nothing bland and cardboard-like here. The tacos came with pickled onions and cilantro salsa, both very acidic condiments which complemented and cut the fattiness of the meat perfectly, giving the meal balance and depth. Every table has a condiment holder with several hot sauces if you feel you want some more spice and being the hedonist that I am, I doused my tacos liberally in the stuff. The guava fresca was icy and refreshing without being too sweet and complimented my meal perfectly.
In terms of timeliness, my friend’s totopes came within minutes of us sitting down and the rest of my meal about five minutes later. That’s the beauty of Tres Carnales, even though the food looks upscale, it’s just an honest rendition of Mexican street cuisine meant to be enjoyed quickly and with friends. Although you could technically stay for an hour languishing over a beer, that’s not what Tres Carnales is there for, which is why complaining about how loud it is inside or how rowdy the diners are is just ridiculous. It’s supposed to be that way! The service was fast and efficient and the price of my tacos came to about 10$, which is steep for Mexican standards but not terrible for Edmonton standards.
My only complaint is the fact that you can’t mix and match tacos. I’m one of those people who takes forever choosing what they want from a menu and making me choose just one is like torture. I also wish I could have horchata every day instead of only sometimes, but that’s just me and if they could make their Mexican rice a standard menu item I’d be livid. Those are all of course minor things and considering how delicious the food is and how quickly it’s served, it’s easy to look past them.
Muchas gracias to the Tres Carnales boys for turning this girl into a true taco connoisseur!