Mexican foodies take Berlin’s taste buds south of the border

Three friends - a Mexican, a Texan, and an Australian - have finally brought authentic Mexican food to Berlin. The Local sat down with them to find out how they did it.

Mexican foodies take Berlin's taste buds south of the border
From left to right: Wright, Boyce and Manneck. Photo: Kristen Allen

Before Maria Bonita set up shop in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, the only authentic Mexican for sale in the German capital was produced by a lone man who hand-pressed tortillas in his own kitchen and delivered them by bicycle.

His name and website were whispered breathlessly between spice-starved expats indignant over the bland and bungled restaurant imitations, where ketchup with onion bits passed for salsa, pre-packaged tortillas gummed up their guts, and kraut – that’s right, kraut – rounded out the garnish.

When the California-style burrito shop Dolores finally started offering some tasty solace to Berlin residents a few years ago, it in many ways only fuelled the hunger for quality tacos, tostadas and tamales.

It was around this time that the business of Adan Narvaez, the one-man victualler behind La Tortilla Atomica, began to boom. Starting with a single tortilla press, he has since expanded to a larger kitchen with two employees, a more diverse menu and even a regular catering gig at the Mexican embassy.

“Most of my clients are American and when I ask why they’re so hungry for Mexican food they tell me it makes them feel at home,” he said. “It was surprising, but they really know authentic Mexican food. Germans still think it’s just nachos and fajitas.”

Narvaez told The Local he is planning to open a restaurant in central Berlin soon – but he got some formidable and unexpected competition this July when three friends opened the Maria Bonita snack shop on Danziger Strasse.

Within just a few days, the name of the pretty Mexican lass was pulsing through internet chat forums and herds of hungry hipsters were chowing down on fresh fish tacos with sublime chipotle mayonnaise, glorious green enchiladas and guacamole to write home about.

Three amigos

Ramsés Manneck (25), Trey Wright (31), and Julian Boyce (26) met while working at a Berlin tours outfit and slinging burgers at White Trash Fast Food. They came up with the idea for a restaurant that served what Manneck describes as “authentic Mexican street food” in November 2008 when they tired of working for other people.

“It was a definite gap in the market,” Wright, a gringo who grew up near the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas, told The Local.

Manneck, who grew up in Mexico City where he owned a restaurant before coming to Berlin, says he “can’t cook for shit,” but knows what’s good and insists that all their spices are imported from Mexico.

“There is no Mexican food here,” he says. “Food in general here sucks.”

As for why no one has managed to open a Mexican restaurant before, Manneck laughs.

“Mexicans can be lazy – I hate to use a cliché – but this food is labour intensive,” he says.

While Manneck mans the register and waits tables, Wright and Boyce, who hails from Sydney, Australia, cook. The most striking thing about the three is that no matter how busy their tiny joint gets, and despite working 16-hour days, seven days a week, they seem to be genuinely having the time of their lives.

“It’s pretty much the only thing we know how to do,” says Manneck.

And though Wright says he never actually made a tortilla before they started the business, they all agree it has been a success in the four months since they began. Most of their customers are expats, though they are “breaking in” the sensitive palates of their German customers.

“We thought it would be street food, but I guess it has a good vibe because people come in and stay – the restaurant on the corner has started charging to use the bathroom because all of our customers go there,” says Boyce, the most talkative of the group, as he deftly rearranges vats of freshly prepared salsa and guacamole, a task he calls “fridge Tetris.”

In addition to the challenges of operating on a shoestring budget that inspired a creative approach to the restaurant’s decor, the Maria Bonita boys also had to grapple with a shortage of suitable ingredients such as ripe avocados and a very sceptical Corona beer rep.

“They gave us a crappy, leaky fridge,” Manneck says. “They didn’t take us seriously, now they come and visit all the time. We’re one of their top sellers.”

Knives and testosterone

They have since been provided with a functioning refrigerator, and in their limited time off, have found a new business partner and plan to open a larger restaurant with an expanded menu and a bar featuring top-shelf tequila and mezcal.

“There will be more knives and more testosterone,” Manneck told The Local.

The three signed a new lease contract this month for their bigger place, which is expected to open next spring. They won’t say where just yet, but promise it will be in central Berlin.

“And it’s going to have toilet!” Manneck adds. “And late-night debauchery until 3 or 4 am.”

Until then, customers can keep warm and ease their anticipation with a new delivery service and a winter menu that includes chicken enchiladas with mole sauce, mushroom tostadas, lamb tacos and a chili hot chocolate.

“If it doesn’t taste like what I had in Mexico we wouldn’t do it,” Manneck says.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.