Today Monaco celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the day that the Blessed Mother Mary (not Jesus) was conceived and preserved from original sin all of her life.
Another Mary celebration will take place later this week. December 12 has been the national holiday in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe since 1859. The date marks the story of the Virgin Mary who appeared to an indigenous Mexican, a peasant named Juan Diego, and twice asked him to build her a house on a hill. When he reported the story to the disbelieving local bishop, he was asked for proof of these apparitions.
Early on the morning of December 12, 1531, the dark-skinned lady appeared once more to ask Juan Diego to gather flowers at the top of the hill. This time he did as asked and discovered Castilian roses, typically not in season. The lady helped him arrange the flowers in his cloak, which he then presented as evidence. When the bishop opened the cloak, the roses fell out leaving a life-size image of the Virgin Mary on the inside. This icon became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
According to John Moran Gonzalez, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin told NBC, Our Lady of Guadalupe has become less of a religious symbol and more of a general cultural symbol: “Our Lady is seen as the champion of the underdog, of the Indian, of all those who lack power in society.”
For chef Pepe Olivares, this makes December 12 fête doubly significant, as it is also the day he opened his Mexican restaurant in Monaco in 2016.
“It was a coincidence but I believe it was a sign,” says Pepe, who will celebrate four years since the opening of Sexy Tacos this Saturday.
At age 29, Pepe left Puebla, his hometown southeast of Mexico City and known for its culinary history, to follow his passion for French cooking and discover new horizons.
He first went to Toronto, Canada – “a beautiful country but it is too cold – but left to thaw out in the warmer climate of Cancun, Mexico, where he stayed for a year.
In 2010, his plans to “learn everything about French culture and cuisine” got back on track when he moved to Cannes to study the language for a year. He also spent the next six years working in various kitchens, starting with Michelin star chef Marc Meneau in Burgundy and finishing at Nobu at the Fairmont Monte Carlo with Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.
“I worked at the Fairmont for five years and Nobu was like nothing else in Monaco. Watching how the Japanese culture operates, with its innovation and intelligence … there is no waste in the kitchen, anything left over is used for another recipe.”
His years at the Fairmont helped him adapt his “savoir faire à ma façon” to appeal to Europeans. “I learned something from every place I have worked, even from my job at Starbucks, during my studies in Cannes. I was impressed by service and the way you had to treat customers. Howard Schultz personalised coffee for everyone, and I knew I wanted to personalise my own restaurant.”
Encouraged by his French wife, Paty Cortijo, Pepe opened Sexy Tacos at 2 boulevard du Tenaoon on December 12, 2016.
“Every time I travelled, I tried to find Mexican food because I really missed it. But all I found was chili con carne and fajitas, which are not Mexican. So this was an opportunity to share not just my food, real Mexican dishes but also cocktails and music to create a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. In our culture, when you have guests in your home, you do everything to make sure they are looked after and having a good time.”
Pepe has a different concept of what French people like. “In France, people are not used to eating with their fingers, and they use utensils even for pizza and hamburgers. In Mexico, we never use utensils for eating tacos and to be able to eat a taco well is sexy. There is a certain aesthetic, to eat without breaking the shell or have juice dripping down your chin. So we called the place Sexy Tacos.”
For six months, Pepe worked at Nobu and ran his restaurant for lunch service and also on his days off. “It was exhausting but it allowed me to see how the business would work. It is not the best location, but it let me know that people wanted this type of food.” The time came to focus solely on his restaurant.
Paty managed the restaurant (she still does the accounts) while Pepe cooked recipes passed down from his mother and grandmother, serving every dish à la minute. “Tacos are meant to be eaten straight away.” After three months, as word spread about the country’s only authentic Mexican food, they had to hire an extra person. Now he has three employees, having to let one person go due to Covid.
“Confinement was a disaster for us, as some of our products come from Mexico and it was complicated. We had to close for two and a half months and financially we were lost. Fortunately, the government offered some assistance but if we were in France, we would have had to close,” says Pepe who speaks Spanish, French and English (and is learning Italian).
He thought about shutting down and only offering delivery but as the pandemic continues, Pepe is concentrating on his restaurant and take away service. “We used to serve 40 people over two services and although now we have less, we have lots of people ordering takeaway. Everyone is happy.”
The menu features wheat tortillas and meat and vegetarian options, including veggie nachos hechos en casa (€15), chicken tostados (€17.50) and Taco de Cochinita Pibil – marinated pork, guacamole, corn tortilla, salad, habanero onion (€18.50). Or just go for it: Mole Poblano, a corn tortilla with chicken, lightly spiced chocolate sauce (€22).
Pepe admits he “really happy” to be in Monaco. “The French are not close to my culture, but I have been able to meet diverse people, which I like, so it feels like home.”
He also wanted to bring up his daughters in a safe and clean place. “It’s the same weather here as Mexico but we have the sea and mountains and … Europe! It’s hard to be away from my family and I miss them, especially as they couldn’t visit this summer to meet my new baby. But this is my place.”
À BOIRE? Sexy Tacos serves mostly Mexican wine (there are two French labels for sticklers) and, of course, tequila and mezcal. “Mexicans are drinking artisanal mezcal at the moment, served with grasshopper salt – that’s grilled grasshopper with salt, dried chile and lemon – and a slice of orange.” Whereas tequila can only be made with blue agave and produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco (and in some municipalities in Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas), the smoky mezcal is made from some 30 varieties of agave.
Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11:30 am to 2 pm & 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm. Delivery available through Mr Room Service.
2 Boulevard du Tenao
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