Besa mi Taco: A Mexican Restaurant with Roots in the 1970s
If you walk along “Heiwa Dori,” the little street that follows the Chuo Line tracks from Nishi-Ogikubo Station back towards Shinjuku, you will find “El Quixico,” a quaint Mexican restaurant, on the second floor of an aging building. One step into the restaurant, and it feels a bit like a cross between a Mexican restaurant in a small town somewhere in North America and a ramshackle Tokyo izakaya. The owner, Mr. Yoshioka, said proudly that one of his first staff who worked for the restaurant designed the place, painting the walls with scenes from Mexico, with written explanations in Spanish and English. One wall is decorated with faded photos from the owner’s single trip to Mexico. Elsewhere, souvenirs from long-term customers crowd the counter spaces or hang from ceiling: a quaint skeleton marionette, sombreros, castanets, and numerous other Mexican memorabilia.
The menu features typical Tex-Mex favorites like chicken fajitas, nachos, burritos, tacos, and guacamole, but the owner says he tries to make new things too. Popular alcoholic beverages include “frozen margaritas” and Mexican beers. Mexican food is not that well-known in Japan and there is not much competition, so this little eatery has long been famous among expatriates, particularly Americans, living along the Chuo Line and longing for a taste of familiar Mexican restaurant cooking. The restaurant serves both corn and flour tortillas, and they are about equally popular. “People with a deeper interest in Mexico tend to go for the corn tortillas,” Yoshioka said, “while those with little experience usually go for flour.”
The roots of the restaurant run back into the post-war Showa era. Yoshioka picked up Mexican cooking at a Mexican restaurant in Kyoto where he worked for ten years during the 1980s. The owner had developed an attachment to Mexico back in the 1970s, Yoshioka explained: “The old head of that restaurant in Kyoto became really interested in Mexico in his youth. He travelled for a long while in Mexico and in South America, and he developed a thing for Mexico. At that time, he was into Mexican music. The Mexican music group Trio Los Panchos was very famous in Japan, and he liked them. He went to see them several times, and he went to Mexico and travelled there a long time. When he came back he started the Mexican restaurant.”
That boss from Yoshioka’s early career was a Kyoto native, and he went to Kobe to learn Mexican cooking in a restaurant there in the 1970s, later returning to his hometown to open his own place. He also imported a machine for making tortillas from the USA and started a business selling tortillas as well. In 1990 he sent Yoshioka to Tokyo to open up a restaurant there. That was how he ended up in Nishiogi. And when, after two years, the Kyoto boss decided to divest from the business in Tokyo, he sold it to Yoshioka, who has been running it ever since. The menu has only changed a bit, he said.
Like his Kyoto boss, Yoshioka’s first exposure to Mexican culture also came from the internationally famous Latin music group Trio Los Panchos, made up of two members from Mexico and one from Puerto Rico. Famous for songs such as “Besame mucho,” the group and its leader Alfredo Gill visited Japan over ten times in the 1960s and 70s, and in addition to popularizing Mexican songs, also performed and recorded Japanese folk songs. “When I was young we knew about the Los Panchos, and they came to Japan in the 1960s. They were really popular in Japan and the young kids really listened to it. That’s how I got into it, that’s how I developed a fondness [for Mexico].”
Later on, after he started the restaurant in Tokyo, Yoshioka visited Mexico for a week-long trip. The faded photos from that visit grace the walls of the restaurant. Most are pictures from Oaxaca.
His reasons for choosing Nishiogi as a location were quite simple. “The reason why there are so many privately-owned places here is because there are many small shops. Also, the rents were cheap when compared with, for example, Kichijoji. So, it was pretty easy to open a place here. That's why.”
Living nearby for over a quarter of a century, he has developed an attachment to the area. “Well, I think in the end there was some kind of a connection between Nishiogi and myself. I'm originally from around Shibuya, but I had visited Nishiogi several times almost forty years ago. It is not that I am particularly picky about something, but there is just something special about this place. Some people really become attracted to it. It is nothing really powerful, but has its own special features.”
Relationships with other shop owners are cordial, but not very close. From his perspective Nishiogi is not a place with strong community traditions or activities. “Well, I don't think there is much going on with that [relationships between stores]. If you go to Koenji, they have the Awaodori festival every year, and same with Asagaya. They have their own festivities. But Nishiogikubo has so many small shopping arcade areas that they are all kind of independent, I guess.”
Yoshioka has been running the restaurant for more than 20 years, so we asked him if he is close with any of his customers. He said, “I don't have anyone particularly close to me who is a customer, but I know there are a few repeaters of my place.”
The business has slowed a bit in recent years, and except for a university student who comes to help out on the weekends, he now runs the restaurant alone. Tastes seem to have changed, he said. “Recently, if I have to say, the Japanese have become more inward looking. They have an interest in Japanese-style things. In the restaurant business, it used to be that people were really into something new, trying out this and that. Now the young people have become more conservative.”
Although the type of inexpensive Japanese izakaya that appeals to young people, El Quixico is a restaurant that everyone in the neighborhood knows. Well before the advent of the “bistro battle ground” around Nishigoi station, El Quixico was one of the few destination restaurants in the area, an eatery to which customers, especially Tokyo expatriates, would endure long train rides to sample the Mexican fare. It was the forerunner in the Nishiogi restaurant boom we see today (James Farrer, Arisa Matsumura, June 15, 2017).