Bar food, but make it delicious
What’s the story?
Taco Libre, a new Mexican at the bottom of Capel Street, seemed to have lots going against it. It's the latest opening from Galway Bay Brewery (their 15th in total), who also own The Black Sheep across the road, Against The Grain on Wexford Street, and recently opened The Beer Temple on Parliament Street. Why would a brewery care about food? Surely these places are just a way to sell more beer? However, in getting the story for this new openings piece, we discovered several things that made us sit up and take a closer look.
1) Their head chef Bruna is Mexican (always a good start), but also has Brazilian and Japanese heritage which she described entwining into the menu.
2) They're sourcing much of their ingredients from Picado on Richmond Street, so were clearly looking for the best.
3) They told us that everything, from the tortilla chips to the tortillas for tacos, were homemade.
After the feature we threw a few options out to our ATF Insiders on where they wanted us to go for our next once over, and Taco Libre won by a considerable margin, so on a wet and murky February evening we tentatively set off for Dublin 1.
Where should we sit?
They've done a great job on the design in here - it's colourful, welcoming, and there are lots of seating options, from bar stools to booths, high tables to cosy little spots for two. There's a front and a back room, separated by a narrow corridor. The back is closer to the kitchen but further from the bar, so a bit better for privacy, while it fees like there's more action happening/more to look at out front.
What's the food like?
It's all small plates/sharing style, which suits us just fine, and if you're a table of 3 or 4 of you could easily get through the whole menu. It's split into bar bites, tacos, nachos, sides and sweet (currently just alcoholic milkshakes), and tacos are priced individually which is great because you can try more of them. There's no provenance information on the menu, but they told us that everything not sourced from Picado is sourced in Ireland, using local where possible, and beef, pork and chicken are Irish.
It would be against the law not to start with their homemade tortilla chips, which come with guacamole and two salsas of your choice. There's salsa roja, hot sauce, crema, pico de gallo, and smoked roasted morija, and they all get a big fat tick from us, as do the tortillas. Homemade are just better - so fresh, so crunchy, so salty, so hard to stop jamming them into your mouth.
Seen as 'moqueca' is emblazoned on the wall as you walk in, that was our next order. Bruna had said the prawn and cod cakes with dende oil (a fragrant, red Brazilian oil extracted from palm nuts) was inspired by her Brazilian heritage, and while we weren't expecting much from a regional spin on a fishcake, we were happy to be wrong. The delicately-flavoured breadcrumbed balls pack in a lot of flavour, with discernible pieces of fish and a crispy (but not oily shell), the chilli sauce on the side kicking it into an optional spicy space. We loved.
Next up, their cousins in the same panko shell - elote croquettes. Again, expected little. Again, over-delivered. The menu said "toasted sweetcorn, cheese, jalapeño and coriander", and we could taste every ingredient. These have a bit of heat in them from the jalapeño, and the accompanying crema was the perfect dipping companion.
'Papas fritas' come with homemade chilli jam, crema and queso fresco (made in house and the real deal), and was a very tasty plate of potatoes, with sweetness and spice from the jam, saltiness from the cheese, creaminess from the crema, and the addition of micro coriander bringing another clever and complimentary layer of flavour.
Then onto what we were really here for - the tacos. The tortillas are homemade (we presume from masa harina and that they're not nixtamalizing the corn themselves), and there's a choice of five. We tried four (side-stepping the chicken as it didn't say whether it was free range). Tortillas were nicely imperfect looking and the right thickness, and each of them had plenty of flavours going on.
The tempura prawn comes with crema, white radish pickle and nori seaweed vinaigrette (another nod to the chef's Japanese hertiage). Is it Mexican, it is Japanese - when it tastes this good we really don't care. The beef taco comes with toasted sweet corn, sweet pickled red cabbage, avocado puree, diced onion, salsa roja and coriander, and was also enjoyable, if over-filled and a bit messy to eat.
But our favourite was the pork, with marinated minty pineapple, crema and diced onions. Usually we'd be throwing the salsas onto tacos, but this needed nothing. It's a knockout, and the closest thing we've had to tacos al pastor for a long time.
We also tried the 'tacos dourado' - a crispy pan-fried taco with mashed potato and onions, salsa roja, lettuce, tomato, queso fresco and crema. Another tasty small plate with great textures, but it needed the salsas to liven up the flavours - that is however exactly what they're there for.
Currently dessert consists of two boozy milkshakes - a bourbon chocolate praline one, and a margarita one - "oh no" we hear you cry. We tried the margarita with lime whipped cream and salted lemon caramel sauce (more like lemon curd) and if we wanted 500 calories with our alcohol we'd definitely order again, but as you can imagine it's pretty heavy. A sip or two each would be plenty.
What about the drinks?
A brewery owned establishment could easily railroad the entire drinks menu into serving only their beers, but they're not that shortsighted here. Many other Irish breweries are named on the beer menu, with interesting choices from abroad too, making it a great spot for craft beer drinkers. It's mainly their own beers on tap, and we really liked both the Weights and Measures (a citra IPA) and the Bay Ale (a red ale). Wines are basic, and cocktails come from Irish Craft Cocktails around the corner.
And the service?
Very friendly and welcoming but casual. All of our food arrived at once so order in stages if that irritates you. No one checked in on whether we were enjoying it or needed anything else, but that's generally the vibe in most bars - we were probably lulled into feeling like we were in a fancier restaurant because the food was so good. You might also notice from the photos that several of the staff weren't masked, which felt sadly strange after the last two years. This will bother some of you, whereas others don't seem to care anymore now that we're edging closer to the old normal.
And the damage?
€70 for enough food to make three feel uncomfortably full, with two drinks. Can't argue with that kind of value for this quality of food.
We're struggling to stay focused on the fact that Taco Libre is a bar first and foremost, because so few bars have food this good, food that ends up becoming the main attraction over and above the drinks. When we were there an English couple had wandered in after watching the rugby, clearly not able to believe their luck in the level of soakage they'd stumbled upon, and ever since our visit we've been dreaming of a world where the bars you want to meet your mates in put the food on the same level as the decor/cocktails/toilets and we never have to round everyone up to go and get food somewhere decent. Taco Libre are the exception right now - a menu with a genuine Mexican feel, and a kitchen with a talent for flavour, in a bar that you could just as easily drop in for a pint. We'll be back, and next time we're bringing a gang and settling in. Book it before word gets out.
199 King Street North, Dublin 7 galwaybaybrewery.com/tacolibre