Luis Rendón is my new favorite person in Paris. And the guy who makes the tortillas is my second favorite (I suppose if I got his name, he might be the first.) But it’s Luis behind the great Mexican fare at Candelaria, a narrow slip of a place in the upper Marais that serves authentic Mexican food.
Lately there’s a new openness, a willingness to try something new in Paris, and to take other cuisines seriously. When I moved here nearly a decade ago, the Japanese restaurants on the rue Saint Anne were nearly empty and never, ever in a million years (or even ten years, for that matter) would I have imagined that there would be several excellent Mexican restaurants to choose from in several neighborhood.
But here we are right now, and it’s encouraging to see them not filled with folks from elsewhere hoping for a taste of home, but young people happily slurping udon or soba, and yes, even picking up burritos and jamming them in their craw. (Although I still don’t have to worry much about having to share my hot sauce with other diners in the vicinity. Except for my friend Fréderic, who can easily outdo me in burrito and taco consumption. Good lord, can that man eat.)
And no one is happier to see it than me. And, of course, the diners at Candelaria.
Mexican cuisine was given UNESCO heritage status at the same time that French dining was – as well as falconry, Croatian gingerbread craft, and the Kirkpinar Oil-Wrestling Festival, which sounds kind of, um…interesting…and perhaps will come to Paris next. One can only hope.
But for now, the only oil I’m interested in is that used to fry the house made tortillas, which are made each morning by mixing the masa harina by hand with a blend of herbs, then either using them after they’re deep-fried as a base for tostadas or for chips to dip in guacamole and salsa. Or else served soft, to wrap up sautéed spicy meats or melting cheese with strips of green chiles layered inside for warm taco fillings.
Candelaria has been welcomed by the cocktail crowd, too, because behind the plain white wooden door in the back of the taqueria is a full-on cocktail bar; lively, crowded, and has become quite the hot spot. On my only visit back there, aside from easily being the oldest person in attendance, I forgot my woes over an excellent Guêpe verte (green hornet), an iced drink made of tequila infused with a jolt of bracing fresh lime juice, chiles, cooling cucumber, spices, and agave, although Josh the bartender/owner told me there are a few new drinks with chiles in them, which I need to go back and try.
I am starting to become more interested in cocktails, but I have to watch myself because if I drink too many, I’ll lose track of how many tacos I’m eating. (Although they don’t serve food in the cocktail bar, except on Sunday night.) So I’m trying decide if I should make it my regular hangout on Sundays, or if I’m better off staying away those evenings.
Because a number of us are happy to see places like Candelaria opening up here, and not just Americans and Mexicans, the place has gotten pretty busy.
One of the issues restaurants face in Paris is that many are small and can only seat a certain amount of people. Because they only have a finite amount of spots for diners, naturally if a lot of people show up, seats will be scarce.
Thankfully they’re started doing take-out and they’ve extended their hours. But it’s not traditional in France to give people their check until they ask for it—it’s considered rude, like saying “Scram!” And diners tend to hang out, chatting, even when others are waiting.
So your best chances of getting a seat are at off-hours, like mid-afternoon or outside traditional meal times. And if you see me waiting, I’d appreciate it if you’d ask for l’addition when you’re done eating.
The menu changes from day-to-day, and from lunch to dinner, according to whatever they feel like making. They also have vegetarian options, too. And Mexican beer.
And brownies. Ah yes, the brownies.
The spiced Black Bean Brownies may not be traditionally Mexican, but since I’m an American eating in a Mexican restaurant in Paris where a chef is Peruvian and the brownie-maker is British, just take a bite and I’m sure you’ll agree that these brownies are a very compelling argument for globalization.
The chocolate brownies are adapted from Heidi’s recipe for Black Bean Brownies, and boy, are they good! The first time I tried one, I’d had dinner with friends and felt like something sweet. Spotting the tray of dark-dark brownies on the counter, with moist, shiny centers, I just had to order one, and I was so glad I did.
Alison comes early in the day to mix them up. Because the kitchen is tiny, she had to share space with Luis and the tortilla-maker. So she’s melting chocolate, cracking eggs, and whipping everything up as best as she can in the space provided, and she invited me in one morning to hang out and watch her make them.
What’s funny is that I was asking her about how much spices she puts in the brownies. She showed me her recipes, which uses star anise and some chile powder and when I questioned how much, she said “Oh, about half a teaspoon, or whatever, you know..” which struck me as funny because I was translating some of my recipes into French and realized that I could cut out about half the instructions for French cooks.
For caramel, I just had to say, “Caramelize the sugar” instead of “Put the sugar in a pot. Heat it over low heat, stirring gently, etc…” and people would know what I meant. The French measure spices and leaveners using regular “coffee” and soup spoons, not specific measuring spoons, and it always makes me smirk a bit when I read tests from the states about how one scale is .0005 degrees more accurate than another, or how various measuring cups can be off by 1/4 teaspoon that others, and everyone wringing their hands about what bakers should do and how life will go on as we know it?
¡Ay caramba! Of course, measuring is important, but baking is actually not as precise as people think it is, and it’s nice to be more relaxed about things and enjoy the process rather than get all worked up about the tiniest of details. And when in doubt—just add more chocolate.
I was offered a brownie and foolishly, I didn’t take it. But I had plans to come back that day for lunch which was in about an hour, and wanted to make sure I had plenty of stomach space reserved for those tacos.
When I came back (a little early), Luis was getting everything ready for lunch and piling cheese and chiles directly on the griddle, and smearing crisp tortillas with black bean puree and queso fresco (hey, where’d he get that in Paris?) – and I waited patiently at the counter for my spicy sausage (picadillo) tostadas and tacos, along with a real, honest-to-goodness Mexican grapefruit soda.
The two gal-pals from California that I befriended at the counter, one of them said, “Oooh…my lips are tingling!” which is the desired effect of Mexican seasonings, for many of us. And while other places have “toned it down” with respect for local tastes, everyone here seems to be happy with the heat.
I was hoping that Photoshop had a “Remove Turkey Neck” setting, but then I remembered that when eating tacos, you’re not really supposed to be concerned about what you looked like and I dove right in, too. But maybe we can call it “Taco Neck”, which I’m sure I’ve gotten from eating so many tacos.
52, rue de Saintonge (3rd)
Tél: 01 42 74 41 28
Related Links and Posts
Candelaria (Croque Camille)
Candelaria Taqueria and Tequila Bar (Davidrager.com)