El Rocho | Circular Road, Raffles Place

Esta es decepcionantemente mal.

As someone who has previously worked in the media industry, with media tastings part and parcel of the job, I’ve learned to take local media reviews (including blogs, particularly when they are invited tastings) with a pinch of salt. While I was a writer, it accidentally dawned on me that for many cases, there was a clear distinction in the quality of food served at media events, and of those served to regular dine-in customers. Personally, I’ve never understood the rationale for this double standard, but I guess there’s an immense pressure to get into the media’s good graces – coverage, media coverage, to pull in the crowds. But, what happens when the initial momentum dies down? If you haven’t got a strong product and fail to meet the expectations of the media hype that you’ve manufactured, you create a problem of distrust. The masses stop believing in the media, the media loses its readership and credibility, and writers lose their jobs.

El Rocho, located at Circular Road, Raffles Place, has been well received by media websites and food bloggers alike (who were invited for a media tasting). And Darren and I, on the recommendation of these avenues, decided to check out the place and to our horror, found the experience nothing like what was described.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? This homely speakeasy, set amidst the bestial flock of touristy restaurants in the Boat Quay-Circular Road district, is quite possibly, the last place any regular Singaporean would head to if they want a good meal. El Rocho’s only as Mexican as the vintage poster replicas of Mexican cities and Mexican icons lining the walls of the small, cozy restaurant. El Rocho is backed by chef-proprietor Marcus Loh, who did Mathematics at University of Wisconsin before graduating, only to realize that his true calling was cookery. So, he packed his bags and headed eastwards to New York, where he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. His first, and seemingly only brush with Hispanic culture were his classmates, who would “cook for him” and “show him around New York’s street side Hispanic stalls”. Marcus then returned to Singapore, and honed his culinary skills with the prestigious Les Amis Group in the kitchens of Au Jardin and Annam (neither of which are nearly Hispanic), before striking out on his own to open El Rocho’s. The restaurant boasts a simplified menu – discreet in its presentation, but honest in its intent – a celebration if you will; a coming together of cultures. Mexican, Tex-Mex…who cares? Marcus’ El Rocho doesn’t take sides. Rather, the restaurant takes a more accurate portrayal of food. Nothing’s ever black and white, nothing’s ever truly authentic – there’s a symbiosis, there’s evolution, and to ignore the culture’s journey is to ignore the idiosyncracies and unique characteristics that makes today’s culture what it is today. El Rocho’s only failure, in my opinion, is that it completely neglected to make the food good.

We started out with an entrée of Shrimp Nachos, a cauldron of warm, rich and aromatic cheese, fresh prawns and tortilla chips topped with finely chopped parsley. It’s in every sense of the word, a crowd pleaser and a great appetizer, except that the taste seemed to be jarring and inappropriate. The dish had an overarching faux Asian affectation, overpowering my senses with a stench and flavor that I wasn’t quite prepared for. For me, it was such a mind fuck. It was like being back in Europe, like my first day in Amsterdam where I dined at a really, really popular Asian eatery – contemporary interior, hipster territory really. Diners pick their choice of vegetables and meats, then choose from a variety of countries which their stir-fry will be based on. “Japanese” is teriyaki, “Chinese” is hoi sin, “Singapore/Hong Kong” is soy sauce, “Szechuan” is mildly hot tomato sauce, “Indian” is a sauce which is almost the same as MacDonald’s Singapore’s curry sauce but less spicy…you get the drift. For an Asia-based Asian, horrible stuff. Unsure if the Shrimp Nachos was actually Mexican (we learn as we go, I’m always ready to be corrected), we questioned the wait staff who offered an explanation which was neither satisfactory nor justifiable. It would be enjoyable in a different setting, but for a Mexican restaurant trying to portray itself as something characteristically Mexican, it was erroneous.

I thought I might find some salvation in the Chicken Burrito and Beef Taco, but those were fascinatingly flavorless for some reason. I mean, I’m dumbfounded really. I can’t even begin to explain how something like a taco and a burrito, which should be bursting at its seams of spice and seasoning since one could physically see all the condiments, meats and spices, seem so devoid of taste.

And oh yes, the tortilla chips somehow taste very “low quality” from some reason.

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