Meet the Guy Who Brought Legit Mexican Food to Sweden
The owners of El Taco Truck—the first of its kind in Stockholm—have changed Mexican food in Sweden forever.
Tacology, in which taco sage José R. Ralat explores the development of tacos and taco culture from Mexico to the world. He'll tackle taco memes and myths. He'll take us to nascent taco operations across Europe and Asia. He'll get fancy pants and old school. In this installment, Ralat introduces us to the men who brought legit tacos to Scandinavia.
New Nordic cuisine might be all the rage for worldly highfalutin gourmands, but it's got nothing on tacos when it comes to pure flavor. Norway and Sweden account for 40 percent of Europe's taco consumption, and many of these tacos are downed during Fredagsmys, the relaxed (and sacred) Friday night family meal, where tacos, primed for individual customization, have become the norm. And just like the hallowed taco night celebrated in homes throughout America, the centerpiece is not a fragrant corn tortilla, but a U-shaped hard shell peddled by the likes of Old El Paso and Ortega.
The same shells and their accoutrements crowd supermarket shelves and are dished out at Mexican food establishments across the country. But change has been swift and positive in restaurants across Scandinavia (and America). One of Scandinavia's biggest pioneers of the tortilla include Rosio Sanchez, a former pastry chef at Rene Redzepi's Noma, considered by many to be among the world's best restaurants.
Sanchez, a Mexican American originally from Chicago, opened the Hija de Sanchez taco stand in Copenhagen in 2015 to great acclaim, and she has a rotating lineup of world-renowned guest chefs, including Redzepi; Esben Holmboe Bang from three-Michelin-starred Maaemo in Oslo; Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria in Costa Mesa, California; and Jorge Vallejo of the vaunted Quintonil in Mexico City.
The men who started Stockholm's taco craze are Nikola Adamovic and Niklas Bolle, who opened El Taco Truck in 2012. At the time it was indeed the taco truck, the first and only in the Swedish capital. Now tacos are everywhere throughout the city. The pair was inspired by their time living in the United States and their own backgrounds in running small business, including Adamovic's old-school ink shop Electric Tattoo. In the four years since, El Taco Truck first opened, Adamovic and Bolle have amassed a fleet of three mobile food rigs, opened their own brick-and-mortar taqueria, and have started slinging straight-up and signature tacos, as well as Mexican-inspired fare from a popular restaurant's kitchen. They have a trompo for preparing honest-to-goodness tacos al pastor, and have released their own cookbook. In an effort to learn more about Stockholm's taco fix and El Taco Truck's journey, I reached out to Adamovic via email. This is how our conversation went down.
MUNCHIES: Tacos are a cultural touchstone in Sweden, especially with the taco-themed Friday night family meal, Fredagsmys. When did you first fall in love with the taco? Nikola Adamovic: I didn't grow up eating tacos. My Fridays would be spent eating with my family at my father's Italian restaurant, not eating Swedish tacos. But in my mid-20s I (had) been living in Los Angeles and spent a lot of time at my mother's house in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had my share of proper tacos back then. A perfect taco is something pure and simple, not too complicated. Something that you just grab on the go but turns out to be so much more.
The Swedish tacos I first experienced were like a parody of a taco—like the game when you whisper a word in someone's ear and the whisper goes on to a bunch of people, and when it comes back to you it is something completely different. However, nowadays when I stumble upon a table of Friday tacos I quite enjoy it. There is something about the Swedish version that feels unarmed in a way.
What inspired you to roll out a taco truck? In 2012, after experimenting with different grill and smoking techniques at parties with great responses, Niklas and I took the courage to build a truck. We were inspired by the growing scene in cities like Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, where there were fusions and new concepts with higher ambitions. We contacted the city, police, and all other governmental agencies to inquire about the regulations for opening a truck. No one had any answers because there were no regulations. At least it wasn't illegal. So we decided to just go for it, and see what would happen!
You now have three trucks: Miss Piggy, Chulita, and Big Mama. How quickly did you expand? A couple of years later, Niklas and I were asked if we wanted to put the truck in a mall during the winter. The truck, Miss Piggy, was too big, however, so we built Chulita, a little VW bus from the 1980s. The largest truck, Big Mama, has two hatches, and we built it to accommodate larger groups and festivals.
El Taco Truck's menu looks like it could be at home in the United States or Mexico. How did you go about creating it? The menu evolved from classical Mexican recipes that we adjusted slightly to fit the lack of authentic produce that were back then. Now, you can find pretty much everything. However, some stuff, like fresh tomatillos, are ridiculously pricey. Fresh nopales would be on our wish list, though, and queso fresco too. We import Jarritos!
At our brick-and-mortar location, we serve the same stuff as at Humlan Taqueria & Bar, our summer restaurant. It's basically stew fillings of different kinds, our chicken chipotle, carnitas Escobar. Our carnitas are cooked with Coca-Cola. We also have our vegan Bueno Beans with jalapeño and cumin.
At Humlan, we have a larger menu than at our trucks, where we serve between three and six fillings, and only tacos! We use only wheat flour tortillas in the truck due to the lack of resources for making our own or finding a maker that satisfies our quality requirements. Be we do make our own corn tortillas to order at Humlan.
Let's talk about Humlan. You already have three rigs and a taqueria. When did Humlan start up? We began the collaboration with Humlan in the summer of 2015 with the people from the entertainment and hospitality group Stureplansgruppen. It's an open-air venue that's only open spring and summer. It has a bar and a tiny kiosk where we serve food. The theme in 2015 was pescadería and we served things like tuna tostada, soft-shell crab tacos, and octopus-chorizo skewers. This summer, our holy grail was our trompo for tacos al pastor.
Wow. How do you prepare the trompo, and how popular are the tacos al pastor? We marinate the meat over night and throw it on the trompo raw. It cooks quite quickly since we have a good heat that gets it nicely burnt with a crust, but with a tender core. The al pastor has really been a success, but our vegan version with the same spice blend with portabella mushrooms has almost been even more popular! People also looove the chicken! And there's the tuna tostada. It's probably a sensation of its own, really hard to beat!
Is it easier to source ingredients now compared to when you rolled out the first truck? Back then you could find pickled jalapeños. Today, every decent-size market has things like dried chipotle, fresh jalapeños, and a wide range of tortillas, chips, and salsas.
How has the taco scene changed since you started out? People didn't know much about tacos and the ingredients just a few years back. They would be disappointed and surprised that we didn't serve the "Swedish" style. After awhile it got little annoying after having spent six hours smoking pulled pork and they walk away disappointed and not even wanting to try it.
In the beginning we really had to school people. Now we are getting schooled! A lot of people know what a proper taco is and gladly share their favorite recipes. And with the popularity of the taco, people naturally want more. It's starting to branch out not only with mainstream Mexican cuisine but also with regional Mexican cooking and neighboring countries' cuisine like Peruvian ceviche and other global food such as Jamaican.
How do you see yourself differing from other taco places in Stockholm and Sweden? It's great to see that the Mexican food really has taken off. There are some high-end restaurants and some simpler ones. We love it all. You can never have too much Mexican food. But we try to do our thing and not complicate it too much. Pure, honest flavors are our thing.
Now what? Where does the El Taco Truck team go from here? We are opening another small taqueria with the exact same concept and menu—a simple fast-food joint!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity