By now the secret’s out. You’ve probably already heard about them from your Mexican friend or come across their fantastic TripAdvisor reviews. So just to make it official: Real Mexican food has finally arrived in Geneva! And it’s good. Not just Geneva-good. Really good. I’m lucky enough to have already visited El Catrín twice to eat tacos, and I also recently got the chance down with the owners, Tareq and Gabriela, to talk tacos, and now I can’t stop telling people about this special place and the lovely story behind it.
Tareq, who is of Libyan descent but raised in Geneva, was quick to realize after a trip to California that Geneva’s Mexican food scene just couldn’t compare. Making the kind of move many of us only dream about, he pivoted from his career path and decided he wanted to open a taquería. A friend put him in touch with Rodolfo Castellanos, a famous chef (and recent winner of Top Chef Mexico) from Oaxaca, a state in Mexico known as the wellspring of Mexican gastronomy, and before long Tareq was in Oaxaca, too, learning all about the history and complexity of Mexican cuisine at the Academia of Rodolfo’s restaurant, Origen. It was there he fell in love, not just once, but twice: with Mexican food itself, but also with Rodolfo’s sister, Gabriela, who was overseeing the Academia at the time.
Their story has a sprinkle of Hollywood movie magic to it: their courtship continues after he returns to Switzerland, they visit each other, and before long, Tareq proposes. But while waiting for the necessary paperwork and arrangements for Gabriela to move to Switzerland, Tareq begins making tacos over the summer of 2015 as Taco Toots (still the name of El Catrín’s catering branch). Gabriela finally arrives and sets a few things straight. Enter taco perfection. They joined Apero Terroir du Monde for a few iterations of Apero Taco (go if you haven’t already!), and eventually, through a combination of persistence and luck, they found their current space and opened El Catrín in April 2016.
Gabriela comes from a family of chefs (her mother is a cocinera tradicional and is credited with inspiring her son to aspire to chefdom), but she’s a phenomenal chef in her own right. She, like her brother, attended the Instituto Culinario de México (ICUM) in Puebla, regarded as one of the finest culinary schools in Mexico, and won a scholarship from Fundación Turquois to learn French and gain professional experience with the Lycée Technique et Hotelier de Monaco in Montecarlo. She also went on to won another scholarship making French pastries in Bordeaux.
When chatting with Gabriela and Tareq, their passion for food, and Mexican food in particular, is transparent, endearing, and infectious; Tareq’s eyes light up when talking about touching a tomatillo for the first time. It is clear that El Catrín is much more than just a business venture to them; rather, it’s an opportunity to share a cuisine they hold dear to their hearts with the people of Geneva, and importantly, a chance to dispel the myths that surround Mexican food and replace them with the respect and reverence the cuisine deserves.
There is necessarily a pedagogical element to their venture. Local Genevois might have to forget everything they thought they knew about Mexican food; there are no burritos or hard-shell tacos or that awful El Paso stuff to be found here. But introducing proper Mexican food to Geneva has not been without its challenges. From the proper way to eat a tostada (forget the knife and fork, folks) to the general European wariness of chile peppers (you can always add salsas al gusto), there have been some learning moments on the path of proselytization. But even if some menu items might be beyond the realm of the familiar for some, other flavors might be more recognizable to Geneva’s international community: West African customers might find their agua de jamaica, a drink made of hibiscus flowers, not too dissimilar from jus de bissap, for example.
News of El Catrín’s arrival spread quickly through Geneva’s Mexican grapevine, and naturally, El Catrín has become somewhat of a hub for not just Mexicans, but Californians, Texans, and local foodies as well. But as someone who has had to endure many a bad faux-Mexican meal abroad, it’s amazing how well they hit the mark by simply getting the basics right. Thick corn tortillas. Black beans. Guacamole with flavor. Homemade salsas. Fresh, crispy tortilla chips. A menu that doesn’t dumb down Mexican food.
That’s not to say they don’t dabble and experiment as well. The trio guacamole is a popular item, but I was skeptical of the guacamole exotique (with mango) at first. All doubt was erased once I had a taste, though. The tamarind-tinged mezcalina is a fun take on the traditional margarita, bringing to mind the pulparindo candy of every Mexican’s childhood. And the crêpes cajeta lies perfectly at the intersection of Mexico and Europe, the goat’s milk caramel evoking memories of summer trips to Mexico.
Since they use corn tortillas, it’s gluten-free-friendly, and they can easily accommodate vegetarians, too: of the seven different tacos to choose from, three of them are vegetarian. But don’t fall into the trap of underestimating veggie fare: my unexpected favorite was probably the poblano taco, which was an explosion of flavor from the first bite. And the chicken in the tinga tacos was so perfectly cooked that it felt almost creamy in its consistency, disintegrating within seconds of entering my mouth.
But El Catrín is not just a taquería. I had the chance to try their heavenly flautas, which were stuffed with perfectly seasoned chicken and swimming in a pool of guacamole taquero and house salsa made with pasilla peppers. They plan to introduce some variety to the menu by offering seasonal dishes; they’ve already done a mole night, made ceviche in the summer, and even had a carne asada. As if we needed more reasons to stop by regularly! Or at the very least to follow their Instagram and Facebook.
El Catrín’s intimate size and growing popularity make reservations (and two dinner rounds) necessary. The prices are about what you would expect for Switzerland, but given the authenticity, quality, and extremely high levels of deliciousness (and the fact that no other Mexican place in Geneva even comes close), I don’t feel the way I usually do whenever I eat out here, that is to say, as if I’ve been hoodwinked. There is the cost of hard-to-find ingredients to consider, and ultimately, Tareq and Gabriela make a sincere effort to provide us with the best food experience possible. Luckily for us, they have their sights set on offering us even more in the coming months: a monthly Sunday brunch, lunchtime hours, and possibly, somewhere down the line, a larger, gastronomic Mexican restaurant with more refined cooking.
Until then, we’ll be visiting El Catrín, every chance we get, and encourage you to do the same. To those of you who have inherited or somehow acquired a special love for Mexican food over the years: Welcome home. To neophytes: Welcome to the rest of your life.
7-9 Rue Richemont, 1205 Geneva, Switzerland
+41 (0)76 770 15 54
Tues.-Sat., 6pm-11pm (closed Sundays and Mondays)