Anyone who follows food trends has seen that tacos are having a moment. The current wave of taco-mania is a worldwide phenomenon, but one that is felt particularly acutely in Calgary, a city that has spent the last five years or so making up for a historic lack of traditional taquerias. In an increasingly packed field, a new Mexican restaurant has to work hard to set itself apart, which is exactly what chef Giovanni Vazquez is doing with the creation of his new Taqueria El Chefe.
Located downtown in the Grain Exchange Building (in the spot that has been home to countless restaurants over the years but is probably best known as the former Pic Niq and Beat Niq Jazz and Social Club), El Chefe came into existence relatively quickly for Vazquez. The 24-year-old chef had been paying his dues in high-end kitchens across the city with dreams of one day opening his own place, but like most of the city’s restaurant staff, he found himself out of work once the pandemic hit. To make ends meet, he started making tacos and testing them out on friends and family. Wanting to keep everything above board, Vazquez looked for a commercial kitchen to sell his tacos out of and found a home doing pop-ups out of restaurateur Ronnie Mupambwa’s Candy Shop Cafe (which has since been rebranded as the Honey Bar and Lounge).
Customers loved Vazquez’s tacos and when the Grain Exchange space became available (Mupambwa just opened his PDT speakeasy in the basement), he found the backing to go for it. El Chefe isn’t the contemporary elegant Mexican dining room that Vazquez dreamed of opening, but the Los Angeles-meets-Mexico City taqueria is perhaps a more appropriately pandemic-era business. With enough grit to draw in hipster taco fanatics but grounded enough to attract the downtown lunch crowd, the room is decorated with a graffiti-style mural that mimics Vazquez’s impressive neck tattoos and a vintage chandelier to play up the space’s sense of shabby chic. His younger brother Alan, who works alongside Vazquez in the kitchen, painted the exterior logo depicting a sombrero-clad cartoon pepper and cactus, meant to represent the bond between the two brothers.
With the excellent and very popular Con Mi Taco operating part-time out of the Meat and Bread sandwich shop just around the corner, the taco bar has been set high, but Vazquez is up for the challenge. He particularly excels when it comes to tacos de birria ($16), a dish that has gained cult-like status in cities all over the world, thanks to massive social media fanfare. El Chefe’s slow-braised beef stew is cooked for eight or nine hours and Vazquez uses the fat rendered from cooking to give his tortillas some added sumptuousness and crispiness, with a bowl of rich cooking broth served on the side for dipping.
“Birria have somehow become super popular because of TikTok and Instagram, but most restaurants don’t make birria in the style people are really looking for,” he says. “I do think I have the best ones in the city because I do some things with it that no one else is really doing. A lot of restaurants don’t make them very greasy because they think people will be scared of it, but that’s what makes them so good.”
Vazquez also makes birria ramen, poutine, and sopes, but El Chefe really isn’t just about the birria (which is good, since they often sell out by early evening and can’t make more because of that eight-hour cooking time). The menu also features some of Vazquez’s favourite taco fillings like tacos al pastor ($15) and shrimp-filled tacos de camaron ($17) as well as plates of nachos ($16), shrimp ceviche ($14), enchiladas ($18) and other casual Mexican specialties. There’s also a compact bar tucked in the corner that whips up margaritas, micheladas, and other mostly tequila-based cocktails.
Taqueria El Chefe is located at 811 1st St. S.W. in the Grain Exchange Building and is open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Taqueria El Chefe isn’t the only pandemic-spurred downtown food start-up to open in recent weeks. Four food lovers (who work day jobs as a real estate agent, a lawyer, a marketer, and a peace officer) have banded together to launch Sunday Pie, a back alley, takeout-only pizza place that sells its wares on Sunday afternoons. Located in the back of the Wednesday Room on Stephen Avenue (118 8th Ave. S.W.), the covert pizzeria specializes in Detroit-style, which is a thick rectangular pie sturdy enough to hold hefty amounts of cheese and toppings. The pizzas come with classic topping combinations like pineapple and ham with spring onion, and cup-and-char pepperoni with mozzarella, and are available in two sizes.
Pizzas need to be pre-ordered in advance for pick-up on Sundays, with limited quantities available. To order a pizza for pick-up, visit sundaypie.ca .
Elizabeth Chorney-Booth can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @elizaboothy or Instagram at @elizabooth.