Radio hits blast in the background as I step inside Vatos Urban Tacos, and Ariana Grande‘s impressive four-octave vocals reflect off its grungy brick walls and exposed metal pipes. It’s the kind of place you visit with friends for a casual lunch, or perhaps a celebratory dinner: loud crowds, casual, and a lot of fun over complimentary baskets of salty tortilla chips. It’s also exactly what Co-Founder and Executive Chef Sid Kim dreamed about when he brought the brand over from Seoul to Singapore’s South Beach Avenue in 2016.
The Koreans clearly love their fusion fare, whether it’s mashed up with refined Japanese flavours, Indian spices, or Italian staples – kimchi pizza, anyone? Among them, Korean-Mexican, or Ko-Mex food appears to be particularly receptive. And I can guess why: it’s comfortable, easy to eat, and tantalising. Besides, galbi (marinated short ribs) and a bit of ssamjang (bean paste and red pepper mix) in a taco shell is basically the same classic beef and black bean combination you’d find in Mexican homes. Well, a tad more pungent anyway.
After a gargantuan lunch here last month, I’m willing to acknowledge that the spot deserves a revisit, if only to taste Sid’s new lineup of dishes. Don’t get me wrong, their kimchi carnita fries and spicy chicken quesadillas are as good as when I first visited. But there are only so many calories to spare, and these guys don’t kid around.
Take the Chicken Mole Enchiladas ($16) for one, twisting up Mexico’s national sauce with a dollop of Korean gochujang. The fermented chilli paste adds a fair bit of funk to what is traditionally a mild gravy, and even helps bring out a bit of the chocolate’s earthiness. Sid pours this over four soft enchiladas filled with shredded chicken and sharp cotija cheese.
There is a Kimchi Galbi Grilled Cheese ($16) that would incidentally make an excellent Korean ramyeon flavour: 24-hour-marinated Angus short ribs sandwiched between rustic sourdough slices with American and mozzarella cheese inside, and cheddar and Monterey Jack on the crust. As for the kimchi, it’s been sautéed in carnitas pork jus for a hit of savouriness. Sinful, but so tasty.
I ambitiously order a Ribeye Steak Fajita Platter ($32), which on hindsight, is enough to feed two. The marinated and grilled ribeye is served on top of a sizzling mound of onions and pepper that’s been charred. There are the various dips and condiments that you stack on a warm flour tortilla: fresh guac, pico de gallo, a herby cilantro lime crema, black beans, fluffy Mexican rice, and Sid’s special hot sauce – which really widens the eyes. The fun lies in rolling up these pockets of yum yourself.
There’s really only one dessert on the menu. The Nutella Nachos ($10) is a basket of joy: crispy tortilla triangles dusted in cinnamon, powdered sugar, and Nutella cream sauce that’s not as potent as the real thing, but still good. Topping it up is a heaping scoop of vanilla ice cream and powdered $10++Crispy tortilla triangles dusted with cinnamon, sugar and Nutella cream sauce. Topped off with a heaping scoop of vanilla ice cream and more powdered sugar.
Could the offerings at Vatos be healthier? Yes, but that’s not what you come here for. What’s more, it’s the kind of richness you want to enjoy with beer, and they don’t disappoint. It can come in a glass, or in the monstrous form of a beer margarita: the most popular variant here is the Sexy Sanchez ($28): a strawberry margarita stuck with an upside down bottle of Albens cider. Obscene, but really not all that bad.
Vatos Urban Tacos is located at 36 Beach Rd, South Beach, Singapore 189766, p. +65 6385 6010. Open Sun-Thu 12pm – 11pm, Fri-Sat 12pm – 12am.