Rome is a small world, and many of us who come from foreign countries and make the city our home are connected not by the proverbial six degrees of separation but generally by one or two degrees at most.
Case in point: Gabriel of La Taqueria.
(Let’s forget for a moment that I’m preparing to write about Mexican-slash-Central American street food right here in pasta-slash-pizza-lovin’ Rome. [Wipes drool from keyboard.] Suspense is key.)
Once upon a time, back in March 2014, I got an unsolicited email from a lovely man who had met a friend of mine (he said she’s his restaurant’s biggest fan) who told him to get in touch with me to tell me that he had opened – and here I quote from his email – “a little taco shop” – in Rome. He invited me to stop in and try it out.
I have no excuses as to why I never took him up on his generous offer, other than good intentions. I hear the road to hell is paved with them, and let me tell you – the last two years for me have felt much like a searing-hot highway.
Anyhoo, here we are, folks, nearly May 2016, and although I can barely get a shower as a single working mom of three school-aged littles, let alone get out to see friends, yesterday there was an unusual sighting of a pig flying past my window and I made it to lunch with four of the coolest girls I know, who also happen to be my friends.
One of them (who shall go unnamed but runs this place and should you ever have people who need a place to stay in Rome you should recommend this place because it’s fabulous but they also have this place with apartments all over Europe end of run-on sentence and shameless friend plug) suggested we meet up at La Taqueria.
The name vaguely rang a bell (wasn’t this the lovely man who invited me to his “little taco shop” a couple years back?) and so, upon entering, said lovely man warmly greeted my friends, and I said: “I think you contacted me a couple years ago” and promptly did a Gmail search. Sure enough – it was Gabriel in the flesh!
Back then, his “little taco shop” was in Piazza Fiume, but folks — his success has gone far beyond expectations and so, now he inhabits an infectiously festive place near Piazza Bologna.
I mean it, people: you enter this place and, like Dorothy might have said— “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Rome anymore,” —had she lived in Rome and not Kansas, mind you.
Bright colors, Spanish everywhere, party bus wallpaper (party bus? what is this party bus of which you speak?), PLASTIC BANANAS HANGING FROM THE CEILING.
This is what I am talking about. Ain’t no Kansas ’round these parts.
So, after Gabriel was exceedingly charming in not making me feel like a complete tool for having neglected his generous invite for two entire years, I started asking a few questions to get the lowdown on just how one decides to open a taco shop in Rome.
Gabriel speaks great English. How is this possible? He tells me, “I went to an American school in my country.”
“My country” turned out to be Honduras, from where Gabriel emerged into Rome seven years ago as a diplomat.
[I’ll give you a moment to try to wrap your head around that. No, really—I can wait. In the meantime I will re-read this extraordinary feat of journalistic narrative by Oscar Martinez, and then, I’ll breathe a quick sigh of relief that this city no longer has the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the world.]
Ok, so. Now that you’ve got a better idea of what amazing stories Gabriel must have hidden away in his invisible life baggage, I’ll fast-forward you to when his tenure came to an end at the Honduran Embassy in Rome and one fine day he said to himself: “How is it possible that there’s no street-food taco stand here in Rome?”
How, indeed, Gabriel.
And thus was born another entrepreneurial success story wherein a clever observer and ambitious go-getter decides to scratch an itch, perhaps one that locals didn’t even know they had until La Taqueria first popped up in its “little taco shop” incarnation in Piazza Fiume.
Gabriel tells me that despite the extra room in his current space, lines on Saturday go out the door and people are willing to wait even an hour and a half for the food.
And so, I give you: La Taqueria in all its glory.
Now, I can’t compete with the official website photos, which are gorgeous, so I won’t even try. Look:
Like I told you: BANANAS ON THE CEILING.
And, water-jug ceiling lamps, too.
Gabriel tells me that the bananas symbolize the importance of that fruit in the economy of Central America (not in the pejorative, 1904 O. Henry way, but in the “for better or worse this fruit is the foundation of an entire economy” way). And that the water jugs are also steeped in local symbology, both as containers for H2O as much as makeshift gas cans for the aforementioned party buses (I’ll try to get to that).
But, shall we? The food?
The menu is eclectic, mixing Mexican (“because in Rome you have to call it a Mexican restaurant”) with Guatemalan and Honduran specialties (“a sort of Mesoamerican fusion”).
I ordered the Catracho burrito—you had me at “fried plantain”—and when two of my vegetarian friends got excited but then not so much when they saw it had chicken sausage, Gabriel made it vegetarian for them. A+ for customer service.
By the way, if you are wondering what a Catracho is (as one often does) allow me to refer you to the fearless bloggess La Gringa.
The salsas are made in-house, almost all with locally sourced ingredients, except for the chipotle, because frankly when’s the last time you saw a Roman eat a smoked jalapeno? That’s what I thought.
Gabriel has big plans, people. Cutting through endless red tape to import Honduran beer. Hosting regionally themed brunches for a taste of super-local cuisine. And of course, continuing to shake up delicious margaritas and pour out tamarindo juice. Yes, you read me right: agua de tamarindo.
Gabriel said Hondurans are more of a beer-drinking people, and hence came our chat about Honduran beer and the difficulty in importing it, but, there are pinch hitters:
(Can we, however, pause for a moment on the fact that one of the major Honduran beers is called “Lifesaver”? Let’s, please.)
Below photo does not represent current beer selection at La Taqueria, but rather, the absolute ingenuity for beer-naming with which Hondurans are apparently possessed:
Oh, and as a casual aside: there are churros. Churros for dipping in dulce de leche.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that this place transports you. Try it and you’ll see. It’s delightful. I can’t wait to go back.
Muchas gracias Gabriel, for bringing some real sunshine and spice into this city.
(Oh, right: the party buses. Are these what people call chicken buses: a.k.a. “the beautiful afterlives of American schoolbuses”? Maybe not, but fascinating nonetheless.)