Vancouver does not boast an abundance of regional Mexican cuisine. But casual taco shops have become trendy. And as we discover this week, the quality among them ranges vastly. See the review for Los Cuervos Taqueria Y Cantina here.
The neon-pink flamingoes strung above the entrance explain everything you need to know about Gringo. This cheap and cheerful taco joint is not Mexican or Tex-Mex or even Baja-inspired. It's a raucous reenactment of the all-you-can-drink pirate-ship cruise you took in Cancun, but can barely remember, when you were 19.
Sure, they serve food here. But it's really just absorbent padding for the booze, another flashback down memory lane. In addition to $3.50 sleeves of draft, the bartender pours Long Island ice teas, "beera" coladas and something called the Thai Bucket – a plastic sand bucket filled with your three-ounce choice of spirit, a bottle of Red Bull and Coke.
Margaritas are mixed with "crap" tequila or "ok" tequila. (The "ok" is still pretty crappy.) Don't bother asking what type of tequila they're using. The bottles are covered in brown paper. Seriously, they won't disclose the brands. I guess people drinking out of buckets are not fussy.
Gringo is quite a change from Judas Goat, the Spanish tapas restaurant that opened in this alley-side hole-in-the-wall (and went rapidly downhill after chef Lee Humphries left). Former owner Sean Heather sold the space to Shoel Davidson, a former employee who has teamed up with Christina Cottell, a marketer who previously worked for Fatburger.
They have the good-times concept down pat, replete with a dance-happy 1980s playlist and tequila body shots for patrons celebrating their birthdays.
Karl Gregg from Big Lou's Butcher Shop runs the menu, most of which is prepared in a Richmond commissary and reheated to order.
The restaurant's Facebook site says Gringo "proudly reclaims" its "dated" flavour profiles from the 1990s, when Earls had penguin mascots and the Cactus Club still had cows. I was not around back then, but this seems a bit insulting. Did the Earls guacamole have a canned quality, as it does at Gringo? Did the Cactus Club cheese sauce really taste like Velveeta?
Gringo has five types of tacos and none I would recommend. "Is that the chicken?" my friend asked. "I think so," I replied. "But only because it's topped with salsa." The shredded chicken was indistinguishable from the pork, the ground beef tasted like it was seasoned with old El Paso, and the veggie chili was astonishingly bland.
If I were Mr. Gregg, I would be embarrassed to have my name associated with this food. But other chefs love it. Gringo is packed with industry workers late at night. A chef from a nearby restaurant said we ordered wrong. Skip the tacos, he suggested, and go for the Street Dog (topped with bacon, queso, avocado cream, salsa and pickled onions). It's apparently the perfect late-night snack for a starving cook. He also recommends an off-menu item called the Farm Hand (another all-beef dog with bacon, Southwest chicken and nacho cheese).
I'll have to take him at his word, because there is no chance I'm going back – at least not until my birthday and only for a body shot.