Beijing’s First Taco Crawl + Beijing Taco & Tequila Flashback

‘Beijing’s First Taco Crawl’ featured eight restaurants serving an equal number of tasty snacks and boozy beverages back in January. See below for my recaps and rankings of that six hour-plus octathlon of deliciousness. And yeah, I realize this writeup is late as usual: I got most of it done, procrastinated and it ended up in the draft pile along with a slew of other near-finished posts. But better late than never!

By the way, that taco crawl also made me recall my first Beijing forays into Mexican food and drink some 15-plus years ago, courtesy of Frank Siegel, then of John Bull Pub and prior to that Frank’s Place, which some credit as the city’s first non-hotel bar. Before we jump into Beijing Taco Era 2022, here are a few old blog ‘flashback’ snippets:

  • May 2006: “John Bull Pub has been holding taco parties on Fridays. This is not Tex-Mex assembled in the kitchen using store-bought shells and refried beans, but a whole cart out front with an “el trompo” (a giant elevated stack of pork and onions) and a couple of guys grilling corn tortillas. Tacos are 10 to 15 kuai, quesadillas 10 kuai (more Spartan than the Tex-Mex variety) and frozen margaritas 20 kuai. Avocado and chili dipping sauces are provided.”
  • November 2005: “My tequila shooting life is largely limited to senors Jose Cuervo and Pepe Lopez, accompanied by their amigos lemon and salt. So, it was an eye-opener when Frank Siegel of John Bull Pub hosted a tasting with more than a dozen brands. I sipped my way through 17 of them… Amazingly, even a novice like me could detect differences in acidity and sweetness and that some tasted of oak, some left a nice slow burn on the palate and some made you want to hack up a hairball…. With a dozen visiting reps from Mexican distilleries on hand, the event was fun, educational and surprisingly sobering. The drinks and buffet of tacos, burritos, rice, nachos and salsa were RMB120—a tremendous value.”

Beijing Taco Crawl 2022

Fast forward to 2022: the Beijing Taco Crawl was organized by Ray Heng of Mexican restaurant Pebbles in Wudaoying Hutong, whose ultimate goal is an annual taco festival. The tour kicked off at Taco Bar near Andingmen and ended at El Barrio in Sanlitun, with some 30 participants mostly bussing and sometimes strolling between stops while wearing Taco Crawl scarfs designed by Heng.

(I’ve given a grade for each dish and drink, plus an overall grade that might go up or down slightly based on the atmosphere / experiences at a given place.)


1 The Taco Bar

The Taco Bar returned to its hutong roots by opening between brewpub Wild Kite and natural wine bar Orange Hour about a year ago. (Don’t worry, the Sanlitun South branch is still open.)

We kicked off with a Ghetto Michelada, featuring a popped Pabst Blue Ribbon with lime juice and spices on the can top, a Taco Bar standard. Plus, a tequila shot—pure agave—that took me back to the original Taco Bar days. (B+)

The spicy barbacoa taco, using beef slow-cooked with spices, had a rich aroma. The meat was juicy and paired nicely with the Vidalia onion, although the two hot sauces, Hot Green and Burn My B-Hole, were far from spicy IMHO. (B+)

Overall: B+

(I had a curious exchange here with a guy who defended drinking a very cheap brand of wine—all good!—but seemed rather snooty that I enjoyed my Pabst. Let’s agree to disagree! Anyway, it’s all water, which is how some people describe Pabst, under the bridge.)


2 Pebbles

We then headed to Pebbles, a good ten-minute walk away, to catch up with Heng. He’s had this spot for over a decade, though the food has radically transformed from its early Tex-Mex days to more authentic Mexican fare along with an impressive agave spirits range.

(See his Q&8 with Heng—did you know Pebbles was almost a South Africa restaurant instead!?—plus reviews of his menus here, here, here and here.)

We had a choice of Reposado tequila or Mezcal. I went for the latter and found it fairly complex: smoky with a kind of black licorice edge and green forest freshness. (B+)

The lamb birria taco came alongside consommé with chickpeas. The taco had pleasing aromas of cilantro, lamb and corn tortillas. I often find corn tortillas too dry but these were softer and firmer than most. The consomme was rich and savory, nicely hitting the spot on this chilly day. (A)

Overall: A-

(I met someone here who joined our baijiu, beer and snack party during World Baijiu Day 2020. I would really like to do a repeat so we could fine-tune the pairings of different baijiu styles with the craft beers and eats.)


3 Q Mex Tacqueria

Sibling to Q Mex Bar & Grill, which I believe now has four branches in Beijing. We had a choice of frozen guava or coconut margaritas: I chose the latter, which was a bit anemic at first though more fruit aroma emerged as the ice melted. (B- / B)

The beef cheek taco was juicy and rich, but a bit too soft for my taste, with minimal flavor from a wheat tortilla I found it a bit ‘gluey.’ (B / B+)

Overall: B.

(I ended up talking to some people from South Africa, which reminded me of former Pinotage restaurant in Sanlitun Soho. That was such a good place. And there is still another Pinotage out toward Shunyi way.)


4 Amiga

This small Japanese-Mexican fusion restaurant had a speakeasy feel as it was hidden at the back of a long narrow hallway on a street just off Maizidian / around the corner from VinVino / Onishi Saketen. Fun vibe.

The classic Margarita was lean and dry, and scored points for presentation, coming in a capped plastic strawberry cup people could take with them. You could taste the booze in this one, a bonus for me. (A-)

The Wagyu sukiyaki taco had a wrap-meat combo with elements both savory and slightly sweet. Good but it didn’t strike me as the most balanced. (B / B+)

Overall: B+

(This is a fun area of town. I know the trio of Vinvino, Onishi Saketen and ### well, and Tokyo Lounge is upstairs, but feels like a place to explore.)


5 Moji

Moji has three outlets in Beijing: this one is on the B1 level of a mall and some of us got lost seeking it. That, and spending a lot of time taking photos, makes this a terse note.

Our drink was ‘chocolate caliente’ aka hot chocolate. ‘All the drinks are brown / and they taste okay / Hot drinks in a mall / on a winter’s day (on a winter’s day).’* (B)

For tacos, we got classic carnitas. The tortilla was quite oily. I was told that was the style, so there you go tortilla-saturated-with-oil lovers. (B / B+)

Overall: B

* Apologies to The Mamas & The Papas.


6 Avocado Tree

I don’t really think of Avocado Tree for tacos, more as a stop for wraps and salads, so this was a surprise.

The coconut margarita was about on the same level as the Q Mex guava option. (B- / B)

The hard shell tortillas stuffed with juicy meats gave me a slight Taco Bell flashback. Good standard fare. The highlight was the pizza nachos, with tortilla chips replaced by crispy sliced pizza crust from Avocado Tree’s sibling restaurant The Pizza Show a few meters away in Parkview Green. (B+)

Overall: B.

(I hope they add pizza nachos to the menu at Parkview Green. And that delicious avocado ice cream, too.)


7 Las Musas

The Classic margarita was citrus-y, salty and boozy. Intense and delicious, this beverage popped anyone feeling tour exhaustion right back to attention. A solid contender for Drink of the Night. (A- / A)

As for the tacos: pineapple on top? Yes. With some tangy spicy sauce. And firm chunky smoky meat. The corn tortilla got a thumb up for aroma and texture. The only downside is we were packed at the front of the restaurant and eating without spilling was not so easy. (B+ / A-)

Overall: A-


8 El Barrio

Our last stop featured chicharron tacos plus Mezcal Japapeno Margaritas.

I like margaritas. I like picked jalapenos. But this combo just didn’t work for me here. (B- / B)

As for the tacos, maybe it was some Beijing Taco Crawl taste bud fatigue setting in, but I found the fillings a bit overdone and the tortilla a bit doughy. It gets a solid “okay.” (B)

Overall: B.


Favorites

At the end of the long boozy day, here are my “top threes”:

  • Food: Pebbles, Las Musas, Taco Bar
  • Drinks: Las Musas, Pebbles, Taco Bar / Avocado Tree
  • Best for a day of eating and drinking: Taco Bar, Pebbles, Amiga
  • Things craved most the next day: Pebbles taco & consomme; Las Musas Margarita; Avocado Tree Pizza Nachos

Thanks to Ray Heng for organizing this tour. The diversity of venues, drinks and dishes, and his attention to details in everything from the route to event info to the souvenir scarf, was admirable. Here’s hoping another crawl is in the works!

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