In search of the perfect tacos, in Manila

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Each taco in Lágrima is served with the same components: guacamole, beans, sour cream, salsa — the works — but each cut of meat is a different experience altogether. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Authenticity is quite a dangerous territory. Mostly because everyone has his own take on what it means to be truly authentic. Many can be skeptical, others just plain unbelieving, and labeling yourself “authentic” ends in your being either a savior or a pariah. Truly it’s a dangerous territory — one that Mano Lotho and Jorge Barita have courageously and unflinchingly entered with their new taqueira, Lágrima.

Everything surrounding Lágrima had been born out of moments of serendipity, because a restaurant was never in the plans of Lotho, the press and communications officer of the luxury boutique Homme et Femme. But it did begin when he was looking for a plate of Mexican food.

lagrima manila The interiors of Lágrima is sparse and straightforward so the experience is focused on enjoying the food. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Raised in Glendale, California, Lotho grew up with food cooked by Mexican immigrants who barely spoke a word of English. From a young age he’d already tasted the real thing — and therein lies problem. Because Mexicans don’t run Mexican restaurants here in the Philippines, Filipinos do. And try as they might, Filipinos could probably never do it justice, simply because they’re not Mexican. So when Lotho found out that there was a taqueria in Cebu owned by a man from Oaxaca, it wasn’t long until he and his wife found themselves in La Lucha falling in love with its tacos.

La Lucha is run by Barita, a burly Mexican with a killer mustache and an affable personality. A man with no wife or children, Barita one day decided to book a plane to the first patch of land he pointed on the world map, which just so happened to be Cebu City. He went, came home, then found himself back in Cebu and setting up a small taqueria, eventually garnering a cult following within the small island.

lagrima manila Lágrima's beginnings start from co-owner Jorge Barita's taqueria in Cebu, La Lucha, which has earned a cult following for its authentic dishes. Photo by JL JAVIER

Lotho explains that Barita “lit a beacon for authentic [Mexican] food,” adding that he was nothing short of attracted to it. It took Lotho three years to court the man, to persuade him to come to Manila and set up shop with him. It was a combination of Lotho’s efforts and numerous promises that struck something within the Oaxacan.

It was serendipitous, because La Lucha meant the struggle in Spanish; it was an ode to the little guy, to the ones who never gave up. Barita was not only being goaded by Lotho, he was also being approached by hundreds of others, others with more money — others with bigger plans. However, Lotho had sincerity and tenacity, a passion to bring something truly authentic to the city known for jumping onto the latest food fads. He promised to bring the true flavors of Mexico to Manila, not as an investment, but as a joint venture. He promised to be there every step of the way. He was the embodiment of La Lucha.

lagrima manila Mano Lotho, Lágrima's co-owner, says that calling something "authentic" can be difficult. “For example, somebody from Baja cooks tacos differently,” he says, which means that Jorge Barita (pictured), the taqueria's other co-owner who comes from Oaxaca, makes his food differently as well. “It’s authentic to that limit.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Lotho does not want to be a trend. He wants to bring something authentic and honest to the restaurant scene. However, the difficulty lies within authenticity itself. Lotho explains that naming something authentic is difficult. “For example, somebody from Baja cooks tacos differently,” he says, which means that Barita, coming from Oaxaca, makes his food differently as well. “It’s authentic to that limit.”

Named after Lotho’s grandmother, and meaning tears of joy, Lágrima is a change up from Barita’s La Lucha. It holds many meanings all at once, but mostly it represents La Lucha in a different context. This is Barita’s food in the Manila setting. The logo is a reconfiguration of La Lucha’s original design: an eye with a crown adorning it, a single tear falling from its side. Because even though the restaurant strives to give the authentic Mexican experience, it does not come without its compromises. The restaurant does not scream authentic taqueria — the walls are solid black, the tables simple and cubic. There’s no flair; nothing’s extravagant or loud. It’s a haunt made for the modern Manileño, silent and simple.

lagrima manila Lágrima wants to retain the simplicity of the tacos, each dish recalling its humble beginnings as a poor man's meal which historically used the cheapest cuts of meat and turned into something glorious. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Lotho explains that this was because he wanted to keep prices relatively low. He wanted to retain the essence of the taco as a poor man’s meal. The contents of tacos were historically created from the cheapest cuts of meat, and it took time and effort to make something barely edible to something glorious. Lotho wants to show that there is something inherently complex behind something as simple as the taco. That was the compromise: ambiance for honesty.

Though the decor does not scream Mexican, the menu, in all its simplicity, does. Each taco is served with the same components: guacamole, beans, sour cream, salsa — the works — but each cut of meat is a different experience altogether. The chorizo is smoky and intense compared to the carnitas, which hold softness and sultriness with each bite, and the pollo shows a lilt of springiness. It is the work of a tongue well-versed in the flavors of Mexico, one who had grown up with them. The flavors are familiar, similar to those of other Mexican joints, but altogether different.

lagrima manila Mano Lotho, co-owner of Lágrima (which is named after his grandmother), doesn't want to join in on any trend but rather bring something honest to Manila's restaurant scene. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Lágrima is many things, but mostly it is a beginning. The beginning of Lotho’s stint in food, the beginning of authentic Mexican food in Manila, and maybe the beginning of something great. Lágrima is only on its first few weeks of operation; things are still changing, still evolving. However, if its food and its heart say anything, it’s that Lágrima is here to stay, hopefully for a long time.

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Lágrima Manila is located on the ground floor of BSA Mansion, 108 Benavidez St., Legaspi Village, Makati. Visit @lagrimanila on Instagram.