Our city’s food scene prides itself on keeping up with the rest of country in terms of dining variety, trends and overall quality, but Mexican has, for whatever reason, been one category where we just haven’t been able to keep up.
The whole hipster-chic taco trend really seemed to start in Canada at Tres Carnales in Edmonton in 2011. Since then, most other major Canadian cities like Ottawa (El Camino), Toronto (Grand Electric, La Carnita) and Vancouver (Cuchillo) have found their contemporary Mexican spots to embrace. But not Calgary. Not until recently, that is.
You could argue that Aejo was the first establishment to fill that niche, but its heavy emphasis on tequila, mezcal and being a go-to spot for well-made cocktails and a lively nighttime crowd makes the food more of compliment to its cocktail culture rather than the main affair. Thus, Native Tongues is Calgary’s first official chef-driven taco-focused restaurant.
With taco options starting at $3.75 to sharing platters at $26 to $35, there’s no getting through a meal here without having some on your table. Any good Native Tongues server will proudly tell you that all of the corn tortillas are made fresh daily from start-to-finish, which means grinding the corn, forming the dough and pressing them all by hand. It’s (clearly) a labour-intensive practice, but since a tortilla is essentially a canvas for its fillings, then you may as well start with the best, right?
Speaking of fillings, the single-order tacos here stay quite authentic, with fillings like braised beef tongue, chorizo and refried beans. The larger size platters that would feed two hungry people offer some more dynamic components like house-made herb and green chile sausage, roasted lamb neck, sea bream and grilled octopus – all of which come with their own side platter of optional toppings like roasted poblanos, diced onions, avocado, cilantro and a peanut chile salsa.
Trying the peanut chile salsa for the first time will invoke feelings similar to that of the Frank’s Red Hot tagline … you know, this one. It only comes on the grilled octopus (pulpo) taco platter, but if you ask for a side of it regardless of what you’re ordering, I’m sure they’ll oblige.
The supporting cast to the tacos range from Mexican street corn done two ways (elotes and esquites), guacamole and a cactus and queso fresco salad to shrimp mulas, a dish that’s comparable to a quesadilla with a little more finesse, filled with side-stripe prawns and gouda and served with both salsa verde and salsa roja.
The interior was designed by Amanda Hamilton (Rodney’s, 80th and Ivy, Anejo) and is some of her best work to date. The mix of large communal tables, high tops and two-top tables offers a lot of variety in terms of seating in a room that seats about 60. No matter where you end up sitting, you will also feel like you’re in the middle of the action. Patterned tile wraps around about one third of the walls of the room while the remainder has been treated to give it that time-worn sort of feel that you would expect to see in a casual restaurant in Mexico. The west wall is particularly eye-catching (especially during the day) with its mix of mellow blues, beige and white. Glancing over from the bar, it almost looks like a blurry map of the world, but that might just be post-several mezcal cocktails talking.
For a restaurant concept that I thought we missed the boat on a few years back, I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised with what Native Tongues has shaped up to offer. From a concise cocktail menu and cool atmosphere to a menu with a good amount of thought behind it by chef and owner Cody Willis, it’s a welcome addition to the scene.