It was a bit of desperation, I’ll be honest, what led me to the new South Beach and into Vatos Urban Tacos. Having been ill for days, and being out in the sun at a time when most other restaurants around the area had closed, meant I was willing to try anything. Korean-Mexican fusion, you say? Good. My passion for Mexican will balance out my indifference towards Korean food, like pouring hot water on ice, and we’ll get at least a nicely lukewarm temperature which is best for a troubled throat.
It didn’t go that way, though. It went a lot worse than that. The place had two entrances and no signs to show which is the ‘main’, so I just went into one and am met by a server. Excuse me, I say. I wave slightly and look him in the eye. And he gives me a look, half smugness and half surprise, and sidesteps me on the way to a storeroom without so much as a word. At this point you may, quite correctly, ask why I decided to go to the ‘right’ counter and ask to be seated anyway. But hey, Dear Babette is for reviewing restaurants, and that includes the terrible ones as well.
Nowadays it seems you are halfway to success in Singapore’s food scene if you aren’t actually, you know, Singaporean, so consider Vatos as having a head start. The original was opened in Seoul by two Korean-Americans, with a pretty noble aim of bringing two street food traditions – California and Korea – together. So they’ve got form, and they’ve got a very reasonable mission. But good intentions mixed with negligent service does not a good impression make.
Odd ergonomics doesn’t help either. I may just be really stupid, but I cannot find a way to adjust the height of the leather chairs at the bar, and the fixed height means that the bar counter is at my chest level. To rest my elbows like the uncultured oaf I am, I have to splay my arms out like a giraffe. The guy behind the bar returns my despairing look with that same half-surprised glance. After a little struggling, I give up and ask for a table instead.
Still, things look up a little after all that discomfiture. The first serving of chips is complimentary, the tortillas uncut so you can break it yourself, with two salsas. The green salsa, being made from tomatillos, tastes just as it looks – a refreshing, grassy hue. Red salsa on the other hand is smoky with a delayed kick. The salsas are good enough for me to dish out for another serving of the chips.
The pork belly taco is completely dominated – even more than it should be, I’d say – by the meat within. But that’s okay when the meat tastes as good as this. Marinated Korean style, gochujang cut by plenty of sugar that has then caramelised into a thick goo, and with the skin left on to make a hard jellied layer, the belly is an intense, brooding piece of meat. Alongside this even the onions, both raw and pickled, fade into background noise, as does the rather muffled taco skin.
With this good Korean rendition, I had expectations for the carnitas taco, which deals with pork another way entirely – less spice and smoke, more braising broth and lime. Carnitas is my go-to filling for burritos and tacos in most places; I love how the threads of muscle mesh, loosely holding together, the interstices filled with juice and fat. A good helping of the stuff should be drippy, a bit messy. What it should not be is cotton wadding, but that’s what I get here, cotton wadding squirted with the ‘Vatos hot sauce’ that – I’m being kind here – may well be Cholula hot sauce.
Well, at least it fits with the street food theme, for all the grim satisfaction it provides. Since the meat has indeed been braised and then teased into strands, they must have put some work into wringing the juice out of it – a thought which made me want to wring a justification out of the kitchen staff.
I wanted to get more stuff, maybe even get one of the makgeollitas they’re famed for, but after the two helpings of tacos and the pre-meal experience I really cannot bring myself to throw any more money at Vatos. The staff is generally well informed about the food and polite, besides that one guy of course. But I’m turned off with no likely prospect of re-turning-on.
Maybe this sounds horribly petty. But a restaurant is about the details of the experience, and this place just smacks of negligence. The knowledge that this isn’t even the maiden effort of the proprietors, that they’ve run this before in another major food city, further removes all sympathy I have for them. Maybe I can’t speak for their entire menu. But they’re done this before – four bloody branches in fact – and they still can’t figure out what height is comfortable for people sitting and drinking at a bar, or train the front of house not to treat walk-ins like spectres? That isn’t not knowing. That’s not caring. And that makes Vatos the sort of place where spending a dollar is spending a dollar too much for me.
Vatos Urban Tacos
36 Beach Road (map)
Sun – Thurs, 11.30am – 11pm
Fri – Sat, 11.30am – midnight