If you’ve passed by this quaint heritage building, a detachment of the brand spanking new South Beach, without being aware of the succulent food and drink cooking and brewing away within its enclosure, you’ve seriously been missing out. Quite simply put, VATOS Urban Tacos is the hottest new go-to place for the ultimate Tex-Mex experience in the heart of the city. With its Korean-Mexican (Ko-Mex) influences, the restaurant is making itself known as a strong contender in both the Mexican and Tex-Mex food scene and the entire 360-degree modern dining experience. This is the first VATOS to open outside of Korea, where it already has four outlets and a huge fan following. VATOS is the brain (and belly) child of three Korean-Americans who were looking to offer diners a new dining experience in Korea. Influenced by Mexican street-style tacos in Los Angeles and Texas where they grew up, the boys opened their first outlet in a small alley in Seoul, Korea back in November 2011. The next four years were good to VATOS as it has garnered stellar reviews from local, home-grown food-enthusiasts to internationally known personalities like U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
However, one mustn’t make the faux pas of referring to the cuisine at VATOS as “fusion”. Sid Kim, co-founder and now Singapore-based Head of VATOS says, “I don’t like the word fusion because, growing up in LA, I was always hanging out with Mexican kids and was surrounded by Mexican influences. Whenever I felt hungry after school, I would look into the fridge and see Korean dishes – you know how in Korean food, you eat rice with several dishes – I would just take some Korean ingredients and put them into a taco, add some onions and hot sauce and that was a regular after-school snack for me.”
But aren’t Korean and Mexican food poles apart?
“People tend to think that Korean and Mexican food are poles apart. However, that’s not really the case. Mexican and Korean food isn’t that different. Both Koreans and Mexicans grill or barbecue their meat, they add hot sauce, in the case of the Mexicans or Gochujang for the Koreans, onions, other vegetables and then wrap it. The only difference between the two is that the vessel used is different – for Mexicans it’s a taco and for Koreans it’s lettuce.”
This was a little bit of a revelation for us, as, like I’d imagine most people would, the initial idea of trying Kimchi Carnitas Fries sounded almost taboo. The dish is basically composed of seasoned French fries covered with braised pork carnitas, sautéed kimchi, melted cheese and topped with sour cream, Vatos hot sauce, cilantro and onion and while I love all of those ingredients separately, they don’t sound like the best thing put together. As VATOS is all about proving its naysayers wrong and because Sid is a true food connoisseur in every sense of the word, I was proved wrong and the parallel that Sid painted between Mexican and Korean food was spot on. The fries were, without exaggeration, one of the best french fry concoctions I have ever had and I can assure you, I am a potato-freak. But don’t just take my word for it. The dish was voted the “best dish in Korea” by 10 Magazine and one of the “six must-try foods in Seoul” by The Fodor’s Travel Guide.
While sampling the table-load of food that we were being, what seemed like every fifteen minutes, plied with, we noticed how each dish, whether it was the Mexican Baja Fish taco, VATOS homage to San Felipe, the Barbacoa Pork taco or the Prawn Mango Quesadillas, or the juicy burritos, each dish was packed full of flavours that formed the perfect blend of Mexican familiarity coupled with Korean zest – elements from each that were perfect complements for some of the best tacos we’d ever tried.
It all stems from your roots
“My mum used to do things like take breakfast sausages and mix it up with fried rice.” I just think that if the flavours work together, then why not?
When asked what he felt truly sets VATOS apart from other similar concept restaurants, Sid agreed that if one hasn’t grown up around certain culinary influences or experienced them in his or her own life, it is tough to experiment with cuisines, which is what many restaurants try to do in their bid to be hip and fresh. “It seems forced – like it’s the trendy thing to do but not because it tastes good.” Sid approaches food like an architect would a building design - paying attention to the most minute of details and constantly brainstorming about the next best flavours to mix. One of said brainstorms over the lunch tasting led to the epiphany that VATOS homemade salsa would be perfect with some fresh oysters! He oversees the entire operation with finesse and even steps into the kitchen to prepare certain dishes himself, despite his considerable number of staff. If that isn’t passion, I don’t know what is!
Not forgetting about the wide selection of drinks, which are huge, value for money and which pack a real punch, VATOS knows how to best wash down a meaty meal with a well-prepared cold beverage. The drinks also make for some Instagram-worthy shots, with their being so big and with their margeritas served with beer or cider bottles stuck into them.
Ultimately, what we love most about VATOS Urban Tacos isn’t just the fact that it is a restaurant that puts its money where its mouth is. The quality, quantity, ambience and service standards are all very much there but the biggest takeaway is that every dish has a story and that every morsel is made with love.
Our top 5 must-try dishes:
Kimchi Carnitas Fries, Honey Tequila Chicken Wings, Chimichurri Chicken, Barbacoa Pork Tacos & The Sid Burger
Our top 5 must-try drinks:
Mexican Martini (Alcoholic), I’m Rick James, Peach! (Alcoholic), Sexy Sanchez (Alcoholic), Something Blue (Non-Alcoholic) & Texas Tea (Alcoholic)
VATOS Urban Tacos is located at 36 Beach Rd, Singapore 189677.