Review: Vatos Urban Tacos, Beach Road

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(Source)

Note: Sid, one of the three (not two, as previously said) proprietors, has addressed many of the review’s concerns in the comments section. Do read his comment too, in the interest of fairness!

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 three 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 horribly 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.

Vatos Urban Tacos Beach Road Chips and Salsa

Still, things look up a little after all that discomfiture. The first serving of tortilla 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.

Vatos Urban Tacos Beach Road Pork Belly Taco

The pork belly taco is completely dominated by the pork belly, in a generally good way. 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 muffly taco skin.

Vatos Urban Tacos Carnitas Taco

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 – five 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)

Hours:

Sun – Thurs, 11.30am – 11pm

Fri – Sat, 11.30am – midnight

Website

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Babette,

    First of all, I would like to apologize for your bad experience at Vatos Urban Tacos. There is no excuse for the type of reception you received when you entered the restaurant. We take great care to provide the best service possible. All of our floor staff go through a rigorous orientation and training before they are on the floor, so I am surprised that you received such neglectful service. I can only assume that it was a kitchen staff that was getting something from the store room. Nevertheless, as an employee of Vatos, they should be representing our company properly, and there is not excuse for the brusque greeting you received. Having said that, I’d like to address some of the points you made in your blog. I hope you don’t mind.

    1. The height of the bar stools. We custom made and ordered all of our furniture from Korea. The manufacturer made a mistake and sent us bar stools with the wrong height. Unfortunately, it will take over a month for us to get the right-sized stools shipped to us from Korea. I apologize again for the uncomfortable sitting arrangement.

    2. The hot sauce (along with all of our other sauces) is made from fresh ingredients (fresh garlic, peppers, cilantro, etc.) in-house, every day. We have not and will never use bottled or canned sauces. I’m sorry you weren’t impressed with it, but we take a lot of time and care when making it every morning.

    3. The carnitas is a little drier than the carnitas we have in Korea. The pork shoulder we use actually has the problem of NOT having enough fat. That creates a pork with less jus than we would like as well. We’ve experimented with 5 different types of pork, but found that to be the problem with all of them. We are currently working on a “creative” remedy to make the carnitas a little “juicer.” Please give us a little time to work it out. Again, I apologize for the dry carnitas.

    4. There are actually three (not two) co-founders and co-owners of Vatos Urban Tacos, of whom, I am one. I moved to Singapore in August to start up this branch (our sixth, by the way), and have been at the restaurant from open to close nearly every day. I think it’s a little harsh to say that we don’t “care” about our guests and the restaurant. We care so much that one of the owners actually moved here to make sure everything would be done the right way. We also care enough to read as many blogs and reviews as we can and to respond if we feel the need to. I’ve been interviewed by the New York Times, NBC News, CNN, etc., yet I still think it’s important to take the time to listen and interact with our guests and with local bloggers. So please believe me when I say that I definitely DO CARE. Having said that, we have been open less than a month and are experiencing a lot of growing pains, especially since this is a new country that I am still very unfamiliar with. We have and will continue to make mistakes, but please don’t blame that on my not caring about the restaurant and the experience we provide our guests.

    I have shared your review with every single one of our employees and have told them that they are ALL responsible for the bad experience you had. I hope you give Vatos and my employees a chance to redeem themselves soon.

    Best,

    Sid Kim

    Owner, Vatos Urban Tacos

    1. Dear Sid,

      Thanks for replying to my review – I think that alone gives the lie to my comment that you don’t care. And thank you as well for the explanations about the different issues I’ve raised – it looks like a bout of the good ol’ teething pains.

      I should think I will visit Vatos once more soon in 2016, and hopefully it will be better once things have settled down.

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