Chef Joacim Ramirez from Puebla serves up authentic empanadas with crisp edges and tacos juicy with freshly made, fiery sauces
When Chef Joacim Ramirez ran out of chillies, he called his mother. She promptly went to the market, with her son on video call to pick out guajillo chillies and a list of other ingredients he needed for dinner, including a fiery block of Achiote paste and bags of fragrant masa flour. Then came the tough part of the assignment: She had to figure out how to send it from her home in Puebla, Mexico, to Chennai.
At newly opened Tinga, the city’s first taqueria, Chef Joacim chuckles about his endless hunt for authentic Mexican ingredients. Determined to keep prices affordable, in the tradition of old school Mexican taquerias, he and his partners are balancing a tightrope between economics and ambition.
Annie Gali was captivated by Mexico, after holidaying there. Gero Francis runs the Aqua Lim resort in Aqualum, a Mexican town on the Caribbean coastline of the Yucatán Peninsula, known for its beaches and dramatic ruins of an ancient Mayan port city. “We loved the experience of sitting in these tiny places and eating tacos, with sauce dripping down to elbows,” chuckles Annie, nimbly squeezing past the counter with practised ease to serve customers in the cheery, compact space. She adds, “Hence our tag line — messy if done right!”
Explaining that they were determined not to compromise on flavours, Giro says they spent four months working on the recipes with Chef Joacim, figuring out what local ingredients could be used, making a note of what needed to be imported, and cutting open a lot of avocados. Chef Joacim shakes his head: “Indian avocados — they are just not the same as the ones in Mexico.” Nevertheless, they soldiered on. “We paid for extra baggage, and Chef Joacim brought the first lot of ingredients with him from Puebla,” says Giro, adding “And then his mom sent him the second lot.”
Now that supply chains are up and running again, after the challenges of the pandemic, they are importing a regular supply of masa for their tortillas, as well as chillies and spices. Along with Chef Saravanan, who was formerly with The Park hotel, the team first set up a central kitchen in Porur, making Tinga’s signature fresh sauces from scratch, planning to focus on takeaway across the city. Then, a few days ago, they launched their outlet on TTK Road, and though it is small — to a sorry-I-put-my-elbow-in-your-empanada degree — it has been packed with enthusiastic customers ever since.
It is quickly evident why: Chef Joacim launches the meal with fried plantain balls in a rich tomato sauce, which are a satisfying balance of sweet and savoury notes. Then come steamy cassava balls stuffed with cheese, and hibiscus-stuffed empanadas. (The sun dried petals add a delicate floral note.) The juicy minced chicken empanadas that follow have enticingly crisp edges, and are served with dollops of chipotle mayonnaise and a chiffonade of pickled onions.
Discussing what drew him to India, Chef Joacim, who was working with Gero at Aqua Lim, says he was intrigued by the idea of starting Chennai’s first taqueria. “Mexican food has so much flavour, and I want Indians to taste it the way it is made at home,” he states, sliding chicken tinga tacos across the table. Originating in his home town of Puebla, the saucy tinga, rich with smoky chipotle, oregano, thyme and other spices, is bright with flavour and cradled by light, fluffy tacos.
The team brings out an army of sauces that include black mayonnaise dark with roasted peppers, a zingy green jalapeno dressing and the addictive salsa macha, with garlic and guajillo chillies.
There is careful attention to detail: Takeaway boxes come with detailed instructions on how to eat each item as well as a QR code that takes you to the Chef’s playlist so you can groove to a nachos-appropriate background score. It is a lot of packaging though, and they should find ways to cut frills and plastic to be more eco friendly.
Eat at Tinga if you can: nothing beats tacos straight out of the kitchen. Especially after so many months of lockdown and takeaway. Sure it’s a bit of a squeeze, but on the bright side, you can end your meal with churros hot from the pan: Sweet, airy and sticky with warm chocolate.
Tinga is at Old No. 253, New, 316, TT Krishnamachari Road, Alwarpet. Call 9962203203