As Californians living in Paris, Danielle and I naturally have both a longing and disdain for European Mexican food. Not only is California joined at the hip to it's southern sibling, but numerous travels through many parts of Mexico have made the cuisine one of our favorites. But almost every experience we've had in Mexican restaurants on the right side of the Atlantic has deepened, rather than helped to fill, the Mexican hole in my stomach-soul. But recently, several self-appointed ambassadors have stepped up to aid the dearth of Mexican cuisine here in Paris. Candelaria is the newest and brightest yet of these establishments.
Comprising a taqueria and cocktail bar, Candelaria is located in the bourgeoning north Marais at 52 Rue de Saintonge. As you walk toward the entrance, a pink glow hovers on the sidewalk, emanating from a large neon sign reading, simply, "TACOS". Once inside the taqueria, everything just feels right: white walls, primary color accents, familiar bottles of cerveza lined up on the shelf, bare bulb brightness, a communal, if small, farm table, and the smell of carnitas and rajas sizzling on the comal. The menu is simple and right on, tacos de carnitas (slow roasted pork) and rajas con queso (sauteed green peppers and onions with melted cheese), tostadas de pollo pibil (stewed chicken in chile tomato sauce on a toasted corn tortilla) and queso fresco (crumbly mexican fresh cheese), as well as chilaquiles (fresh made corn tortilla chips topped with chicken, black beans, and a bunch of other fixings) and, of course, totopos (chips) y guacamole. After wolfing down a couple of most things on the menu, my mouth confirmed what my nose suspected: this is the real deal. And as soon as I chatted a little with chef Luis Rendon, the reason became obvious. Luis hails from Mexico City, a place that forcefully injects an appreciation for tacos and taco culture into everyone who goes there. So, I can only imagine the bond that natives of the city feel to the magic-filled, folded corn tortillas. Luis, a former architecture student, moved to Barcelona to focus on Mediterranean food at the Hofmann university, and moved to Paris thereafter, cooking in several restaurants before joining his friends' new project, Candelaria. He seems genuinely excited to be cooking his homeland's cuisine, especially the salsas, and of those, especially the salsa de cacahuates (peanut salsa). As the only departure from traditional mexican cuisine, it evoked both Spanish romesco and some southeast Asian peanut sauces I've had. With waitress/hostess/prep chef, Maria Luisa, keeping the crowds calm and fed, the atmosphere has a genuine casera (warm, homey) feeling.
At the back of the taqueria, a barely-noticeable door leads to the cocktail bar, and the vibe instantly changes. Warm wood tones, intricately colorful murals, and numerous candles beckon you toward the bar itself, where Josh Fontaine and Carina Tsou (who, along with Adam Tsou, own Candelaria) serve an array of creative cocktails and an even wider array of rare tequilas, mezcals, rums, whiskeys, gins, etc. Josh and Carina met while working at Paris's Experimental Bar, where they mixed top end cocktail for several years. At Candelaria, there seem to be two main emphases guiding and distinguishing the cocktail and liquor menu. First, there is a heavy focus on the culinary aspects of the drinks. Having a kitchen allows them to make many of their own syrups, sangrita (a tomato-based, spicy tequila accompaniment), ginger beer, grenadine, etc. Second, partly due to Carina's Colombian roots, there is a decidedly Latin American thread running through the offerings. I love tequilas, and when I saw the bottles of El Tesoro de Don Felipe, I knew things had gotten serious. I have never seen El Tesoro outside of Mexico, let alone 7 Leguas, and Tapatio. Along with Centenario, Corralejo, and Hacienda sotol (a northern Mexican variation on tequila that is made from the sotol cactus, a gaunt member of the agave family), the tequila selection alone could keep me busy for weeks, putting me off-the-grid without leaving town. Then there are the mezcals. Even though I've tasted several smoky and very smoky, and even smokier mezcals in Mexico, I was unprepared for the smoothness and balance of the El Mezcal varieties I tasted at Candelaria. The cocktails we tried were the Santa Margarita, like the traditional margarita but with the addition of hibiscus and agave honey, and the Pisco Disco, featuring pisco (the staple liquor of Chile and Peru) and house made orgeat (bitter almond) syrup and few other dynamic but less obvious liquors and spices. While watching Carina and Josh mix, shake and concoct, I noted the amount and variety of ice being used, crushed, cubed, big-cubed. It occurred to me that ice is to bartenders what fire is to cooks.
The decoration of the bar and the taqueria rings of a homey, woody-yet-modern aesthetic I've usually only encountered in my native California, and maybe Brooklyn. This is because Adam, Josh, and Carina brought in a group of creative friends to design and decorate Candelaria. I suppose this is a perfect time for me to be transparent about my personal, benignly nepotistic involvement in the establishment: I am a designer and craftsman by trade, and I designed and built the bar and a few tables and benches for the space. However, this involvement has no effect on my judgement of the food, drink, etc. I think anyone off the street could confirm that the proprietors are amiable, experienced and knowledgable, and the fare is authentic and soulful. Back to the decor, fellow Californians David Rager and Cheri Messerli oversaw the general design of the interiors, with their unique, personal style and brought in artists and artisans like Confetti System, Amy Jo Diaz, Keren Richter and myself to add pieces to the space. As a craftsman, I was particularly impressed with the owners' desire and willingness to use reclaimed materials in the fabrication of the furniture. For example, the bar and several small tables are made from reclaimed wood from old panels originally bought for the floor of the taqueria. Probably from the 30's or 40s, the wood was aged, sun bleached, and full of sand and cement. When I sanded it down, a dark, tropical hardwood showed itself and the objective became clear: let the wood's history and character shine through. Many other objects have equally rich provenance, like the voluminous wool tapestry on the far wall of the bar, which is made from the wool of an ancient Native American sheep breed that was saved from extinction by a ranch in Montana that maintains a fully organic, and predator-friendly flock.
Having been open only for a few days, there is already a consistent crowd moving between the bar and taqueria of Candelaria. Less obvious in his presence than the two bar tending owners, Adam Tsou can be seen making the rounds, expediting in the taqueria, quietly vigilant over his new project. Originally in finance in NY, Adam came to Paris to study cooking. He cooked at several restaurants in Paris and the south of France, most notably the three star L'Astrance, in Paris's 16th arrondissement. With Adam as the man behind the curtain and Carina, Josh, and Luis in front of it, I think Candelaria will move easily through any current growing pains, and become a stalwart outpost for anyone who needs a fix of, or wants to discover, the flavors of a far off land so often misrepresented on this continent.
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