It started with Clubhouse. The social audio app attracted millions across the globe, including me. I joined to work on my stutter for radio guest spots. It helped. More importantly, it connected me with people across the globe who came to be great friends. One of those new folks was Michael Heiden from Berlin. Heiden, it turned out, was in the process of opening Taqueria El Oso in the Markthalle Pfefferberg food hall.

The taqueria would be a partnership between himself and business partners Pablo Vasquez, a Mexican German, and Jesús García, a Mexican immigrant. Both had experience creating Mexican food in Berlin. Vasquez owned a food truck, Sabor a mí, with his father, and García owns Cintli Berlin Tortilleria. The group invited me to Berlin a couple of months ago for Taqueria El Oso’s Trompo Fest, and it was then that I learned how much these three have impacted the city’s taco scene.

I was a featured speaker at Trompo Fest, alongside Alejandro Escalante, author of La Tacopedia and co-owner of La Casa de los Tacos in Mexico City. We gave a presentation, and El Oso’s cooks prepared trompo tacos with visiting chefs Martin Hernandez of El Mural de los Poblanos in Puebla, Mexico, and Regino Rojas of Revolver Taco Lounge in Dallas.

During the event, a group of us were standing at the bar enjoying glasses of Spaten beer when Rojas tapped me on the shoulder. “Look,” he said. I pivoted to see the line for the taqueria backed up to the building’s door. The rest of our group turned around, shocked. Heiden walked by. I pointed to the line and asked, “What is that?” “Oh. People wait hours for tacos,” he casually replied. Such demand is a taquero’s dream, but it was unexpected at first for Heiden, despite his flip response. “I’ve been blown away by how big it has become,” co-owner Vasquez told me. “It’s something you can’t plan,” Heiden added.

The patient diners were queuing for Rojas’s octotrompo. Rojas instructed Francisco Hernandez of La Ola, El Oso’s seafood-counter sister, how to marinate and stack the splayed octopus on the trompo’s spit, called an espada. I watched as they took turns spearing orangey-red headless cephalopods, eager to learn Berliners’ reactions to the Dallas original.

Beyond La Ola, Taqueria El Oso’s kitchen was packed with five trompos. Heiden and his staff had built a pastor negro slathered in a Yucatecan recado negro marinade comprising several burned items, including tortillas and chiles. That particular style of trompo was invented in 2012 in Yucatán by chef Roberto Solís and made popular by Netflix’s Taco Chronicles. When I received my taco, I added a splash of fruity and earthy salsa pasilla to amplify the pastor negro’s smokiness. 

The other trompos included one of lamb, assembled by Hernandez, who layered the meat with onions, poblano chiles, and parsley for tacos árabes (served on flour) and tacos orientales (served on corn). The lamb wasn’t gamy, and it had a refreshing flavor, especially with the added fruity aspect of the chiles and caramelized onions. Two additional trompos consisted of sirloin and the standard-but-by-no-means-common pork with achiote-based adobo. The latter was so large that three men struggled to set the cone of meat onto the trompo rig.

The octotrompo was supposed to last two days, but it was gone in a matter of hours. Rojas drew his knife down the tentacles and guided the sliced curls to the adjacent flattop with a metal spatula. Rojas then spun the spatula to use as a chopper. The rat-a-tat-tat of the taquero’s work ended with tossing the meat into a tortilla. A flurry of dressing followed, and out went the taco. Showmanship is part of the taco experience, and Rojas always delivers.

During another part of my trip, I got to watch the team at La Ola prep for and serve its first customers. The group, which included Hernandez, a German woman, and a Colombian woman, danced during the process. It was a joy to watch and to see the happiness the tacos brought to the staff and customers. As I ate the airy fried-fish tacos with cabbage and lime, I was reminded of the old saying that the most important ingredient in any dish is love. It’s all about love—and respect for Mexican food—at La Ola and El Oso.

Everything at El Oso is served with nixtamalized corn tortillas from Cintli, the tortilleria of El Oso co-owner García. Thick, strong, and pliable, the corn discs easily held stacks of pork slivers, slabs of pineapple, chopped cilantro and onions, and ladlefuls of salsa. Aside from tacos al pastor, the restaurant serves silky and fatty suadero, house-made chorizo, and crunchy tripas, a special that can sell out in two hours. “These are awesome,” Rojas said, echoing my thoughts. If Taqueria El Oso were in Texas, it would arguably be among the best taco joints in the state.

The interior of Chaparro Cocina Mexicana in Berlin. Photograph by José R. Ralat
Salsas at Chaparro Cocina Mexicana in Berlin. Photograph by José R. Ralat
Left: The interior of Chaparro Cocina Mexicana in Berlin. Photograph by José R. Ralat
Top: Salsas at Chaparro Cocina Mexicana in Berlin. Photograph by José R. Ralat

Not all of the tacos I sampled in Berlin merited such a superlative statement. Maria Bonita, cofounded in 2009 by El Pasoan Trey Wright, was jammed with people hoping stools would open up before their orders were ready. Unfortunately, the taqueria didn’t have any items that reflected El Paso. There were no flautas ahogadas, colitas de pavo (fried turkey tails), or tacos de discada. And green chile was not only lacking, it was desperately needed. Taquito Mio was just okay, but its flor de calabaza taco, with delicate yellow squash blossoms, was a valiant effort. The tacos were also serviceable at Chaparro Cocina Mexicana—but the salsas, especially the salsa macha, were outstanding. It’s clear to me that taqueros and cooks in Berlin care, and they want to improve. Perhaps if I’d had more time in the city, I would have seen more of this sincere love and respect at other taquerias. Alas, I wasn’t there long enough to visit every taco joint.

But I know this: tacos in Berlin and Europe, in general, have come a long way from Café Pacifico, the first Mexican restaurant on the continent, according to Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. It was opened by former Californian Thomas Estes (who later changed the spelling of his name to Tomas) in Amsterdam in 1976. He didn’t have much to work with. He claims to have made his own corn tortillas, but the menu skewed more toward Old El Paso and Pace Picante with European substitutes than the stellar regional Mexican food you can find today. The most Mexican things about the place were probably the decorations Estes bought in Mexico.

Forty-seven years later, Europe’s tacos have improved. Kol in London is using nixtamalized corn and British ingredients to create a unique mix of cuisines. Candelaria in Paris has been a favorite of residents and tourists since 2011. Scandinavia is a hotbed of taco activity, with Hija de Sanchez, from Mexican American Chicago native and former Noma chef Rosio Sanchez, in Copenhagen and La Neta in Stockholm. Norwegians celebrate Taco Fridays, family-centric meals at which parents allow their children to choose fillings and toppings to give them a sense of independence.

Tacos, to put it simply, are incredibly popular in Europe. I saw the phenomenon for myself, and I look forward to seeing the scene grow and improve. García, Heiden, and Vasquez know the responsibility they hold as arbiters of Mexican cuisine in Germany. Mexican customers often say the partners are giving them a taste of home. “One person was in tears. It gave me goose bumps,” Heiden says. “When that happened, I thought to myself, ‘I can’t mess this up.’ ”