Among the many unique eateries in Berlin, few guarantee an experience quite like Vatos Tacos. Having perfected the art of nomadic alfresco/non-alfresco dining, its reputation is as much reliant on the atmosphere as the menu. Göksu Kunak went to meet one half of the taco dream team just before the truck relocates to a new spot, stay posted on Facebook for more.
One enters to find a cosy, well-lit space with good music played on cassettes or vinyls, delicious tacos and quesadillas with names such as “Macho Taco” or “Virgin Killer”; coffee and schnapps to wake you up with just a sip. Dining strangers mingle with ease and without hesitation, many set around one big table. The surroundings of this small truck have also been known to break into a full-on dance floor, with regular performances from excellent musicians invited by music producers and owners Billy Davis and Sascha Steinfurth. My interview took place at Aqua Carré, Lobeckstrasse 30-35 with Billy whilst Sascha dealt with music and food.
Where did the idea for the taco truck in Berlin come from?
I grew up in America so this truck food culture is a part of the everyday life. It was a weekly diet. Early on most of the food trucks were taco trucks with Mexican cuisine, so that’s always been a part of my life. I’d never thought about doing it there, but after moving to Berlin, I noticed there was nothing in terms of Chicano food, you couldn’t even find anything corn-based. That was 2001. I have Mexicans in my own family so I just started calling them and asking how to cook those recipes, then I started cooking at home and kind of developed my own recipes. Then in 2010 I had two brothers visiting for the first time so they were like “Oh it’s a great city, but where is the taco truck?” The wheels started spinning in my head: Why don’t we make one? I got together with Sascha and couple of other friends and we talked about it, started putting it in more realistic terms. We put our money and efforts together and in 2010 we started with a recipe. We had a stand at that time because we were working on the truck, it was really important to us to have an old one. We found this truck and installed the kitchen, then that was ready by April 2011.
Is being mobile important for your concept?
It is. Of course we’ve learned a lot in doing this. There are not so many mobile food sorts of things in Berlin or Germany. The laws are much different here. It was totally sort of a Kafkaesk process to get all the permits. Actually getting the Gewerbeschein is easy and cheaper compared to USA. But then when we wanted to put our business into practice we started to get a lot of grey answers saying there was no possibility. Our first intention was to drive around the city and serve people, but we immediately came up against some obstacles with that, but if you find a private ground then there’s no problem. Also the other obstacle—as you will know living in Berlin—is the winter, so we needed an indoor space. Building an address as a business model is also important, but now we feel like we can go to both directions.
How has being located at Aqua Carré affected Vatos Tacos?
My day job is upstairs, I’m a music producer and so I have a studio up there. It’s really practical for me but also the infrastructure here is quite good, the facilities for us to run etc. The address is very difficult you know, it’s kind of a dark corner of Kreuzberg,it’s not so developed but then again that’s kind of a challenge in a good way. We bring people to a place that they’ve never been before.
So that effects the neighbourhood too…
Yeah it can affect the neighbourhood. There are also people coming from the neighbourhood which I personally enjoy because it’s not just one scene, it’s mixed. Also with the Berlin way of doing things it’s kind of nice and unique to be able go into a really dark area to open a store and then come to the point of thinking: “wow I didn’t expect that!”. That’s really nice and it’s something you probably couldn’t do in USA as it’s definitely more regulating—the double-edged sword… It’s not about making a taco that belongs to a certain region or dadada. Tacos are becoming like hamburgers; a food that has been internationalized, so finding a way to make that unique is significant for us.
What’s the secret behind your delicious quesadillas and tacos? Your drinks are also special: the schnapps or the coffee from Naples, how and why did you choose those specific products?
For the food we use really simple recipes and everything has to be fresh and made that day. Even if you go to the States to one of these taco trucks, you don’t always get that, but you get a different kind of specialness. For the drinks we went through a process of finding things that worked and that we liked—we’re both very on top of that. Sometimes people make suggestions and we try, but it’s our decision in the end. We want something very specific and lead the customer to that point, whether you accept it or not. We’re definitely open to suggestions and we do take them really seriously but filter it to a point.
Sascha and you both make music, how does that affect your work and do you find a good balance?
It’s balanced at the moment. I’m still quite busy with my other job, but strangely I see a lot of parallels. In the music world you can take different genres, styles and make decisions based on that or make a whole new product from something that you put together. It’s a little bit like this. You create a certain thing that people are attracted to. That’s also how we facilitate playing music here, and you know we’re pretty strict about that, so you really create a world that people are welcome to come to. We’ve kind of put it together and presented it as a product.
Do you have a specific sound in mind when you program concerts here?
I think other people can probably attribute that to what these guys like, what they would like to listen to. I’d rather leave it like that, I know what I like. We’re definitely very open to different styles in music, fashion, whatever, but we still have to filter it through our world. Sometimes, in that process, you can surprise yourself where you go “Hey, there’s a person playing banjo but there’s something special about it”. That’s what we want. This creates a contrast with what people think you are and we like that.
Can you tell us a bit about the collection of cassettes you play?
We have stuff from our personal collection but we also started a Tape for Taco Day. Someone can bring in a tape and present it to us. If we like it then you get a free taco from the truck, and if we don’t we go “Hey, you gotta go back and try again. It just didn’t hit us.” But it’s also to make it playful and fun.
You’ve also toured festivals and various events in the city, how do you decide which ones to take part in?
There are few factors, we’ve had good experiences and really bad experiences and that had to do mainly with the economic set up. When we go to a festival we can bring our product: our food, our drinks, our music, what we represent. Most of the time we did great and everyone was happy, but a lot of times they want you to come to a festival and control what you serve. Sometimes it didn’t make sense at all to do festivals, rather it made more sense to run our business the way we want to without limitations. We didn’t build this thing just to do a job, we want to do a job that we’re engaged and can have fun.