Wine Culture Magazine

Craving authentic Mexican food? Head to Oliver, and bring your appetite

A selection of tacos and enchiladas at TacoRiendo in Oliver, where the clientele is half migrant farmworkers and half visitors. Joanne Sasvari photo

When Ana De Luna convinced her husband Ruben to move to Oliver so she could spend more time racing at the Area 27 motorsports club, there was only one problem

“It’s a nice and friendly town,” he says. “But they didn’t have any Mexican restaurants, and why not?”

So the couple opened their own.

Casa Luna opened in late 2019, around the same time as TacoRiendo up the street and La Marqueza in Osoyoos. They join El Sabor de Marina food truck, which started serving their legendary burritos a few years earlier, in making South Okanagan wine country the province’s new hot spot for authentic Mexican fare.

Originally, the idea was mainly to offer a taste of home to the hundreds of migrant farmworkers who work the vineyards each year. But the restaurants have become just as popular with visitors and year-round residents.

Tacos with carnitas and pineapple-topped pork al pastor, at Casa Luna in Oliver.

Take TacoRiendo, where the clientele is “50/50 migrant workers and visitors,” according to owner Jany Lopez.

Originally from Mazatlan, Lopez moved to the area in 2002. A few years later, she opened a store for migrant workers (Tienda Mexicana in Oliver), followed by a short-lived restaurant in Osoyoos.

Last year, she and her husband opened TacoRiendo, a casual spot bursting with cheerful colours. The name is a sort of pun: “It’s a smiling taco, or a running taco,” she says.

The menu features casual classics like burritos, enchiladas, tacos, tostadas, and the like. Flavours are bright and fresh—the rich, savoury tortilla soup has just the gentlest kick of heat—and the portions are satisfyingly generous.

“It’s home cooking,” Lopez says. “My husband is from Mexico City and I’m from the coast, so it’s a blend. We interviewed a lot of the migrant workers about what was the best dish they wanted. We wanted to be authentic. So we have a little bit of everything.”

Like Lopez, Mara Marquez hails from the Mazatlan area, where her family owns a shrimp farm. “My mother had to feed 150 people a day, so I had to cook with her,” Marquez says.

She came to Canada in 2007 and, upon moving to Osoyoos, opened a “very, very little” Mexican store for migrant workers. Last fall, she opened La Marqueza, a bright, airy spot on the main drag.

The chips, pico de gallo and guacamole at La Marqueza in Osoyoos. Joanne Sasvari photo

It’s part Mexican market and part casual eatery where guests can dive into chips and guacamole or tacos loaded with pork al pastor, grilled chicken or slow-cooked beef tongue. “Believe it or not, it’s very popular,” Marquez says with a laugh.

“Everything we do, we do it from scratch,” she adds. “We are always looking for the best meat we can. The al pastor—the process for that takes two to three days to marinate.”

Mexican farm workers comprise a large part of her clientele. “If you come here on Fridays, it’s just like you’re in Mexico,” she says. “This is where they do their shopping.” But tourists love it, too. She even offers a takeout “make your own taco kit” they can take to the beach.

“It’s more basic street food—we didn’t want to do fine dining,” Marquez says. But it’s really, really good street food.

Casa Luna, on the other hand, has a slightly upscale cantina vibe. Decked out in the bright, shiny paper cut-outs knowns as “papel picado,” it’s famed for its “happiness drinks,” especially the Margaritas. Its expansive menu includes everything from crowd-pleasing nachos to daily specials that are “always something that is hard to find and hard to make,” says De Luna.

El Sabor de Marina, the original Mexican food truck, can be found parked just south of Oliver. Joanne Sasvari photo

Like Lopez and Marquez, the De Lunas are also from Mexico, but arrived here via Langley, where De Luna ran a financial service business for a decade. “My wife wanted to open a restaurant for the 10 years we lived in Canada,” De Luna says. When Ana fell in love with motorsports, their next move was an obvious one. Now her fellow Area 27 club members are some of their best customers.

The recipes are mainly family ones, and everything is made from scratch. “I am the fourth generation with this recipe book,” De Luna says. “The chips are handmade here. We use a proper copper pot to make the carnitas. We try to do everything authentic.” Those carnitas—slow-cooked, shredded pork, lightly scented with orange and spice, and garnished with onions and cilantro—are simply irresistible.

Unfortunately, the Mexican eateries aren’t serving local wine with their cuisine, at least not yet, but as they become a part of the community, that can’t be far behind.

In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy another round of tacos, and maybe just one more happiness drink.

Mexican wines

Mexico has a long history of winemaking—grapes have been grown here since the 16th century—but it has not been an easy one. For much of that time only the clergy were allowed to produce wine, and only for religious reasons; even when a nascent wine industry did emerge, it was quashed by war or rebellion. It’s only since the 1980s that Mexico has become serious about wine, especially in Baja California, where experts have called the Valley of Guadalupe “the next Napa Valley.” Although Mexican wines have won international awards and are exported to 38 countries, few of them ever appear in B.C.

Pairing Mexican food with wine

Beer may be the traditional partner for Mexican food, but wine can be just as delicious. The key is to consider the dish’s levels of spice and acidity. Rosés or soft reds with gentle tannins and juicy fruit—such as Gamay or Grenache—pair nicely with most tacos, tostadas, enchiladas and the like. Bolder flavours, like barbacoa and mole, can handle bolder wines like Syrah, though the tannins should still be fairly supple. For dishes with lots of cilantro, avocado and/or lime—think shrimp ceviche or guacamole—consider a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris instead.

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