El Tope, Sapporo

In this post we will share an inside-look at El Tope, a truly superior spot for Mexican food in Sapporo. A glowing review of El Tope is easy to write and a pleasure to share, as El Tope does so many things so well. That is why El Tope is at “the top” of the list of best Mexican food in Sapporo.

(We unironically used “top of the list” above. And only later tried to translate “El Tope” and discovered, it does, in fact, mean “the top” in Spanish. Amazing.)

El Tope is somewhat of a Susukino spot, at the far western edge of Tanukikouji. If there was a “Tankukikouji 8,” El Tope would be across the street, in one of the last buildings on the Tanukikouji 7 block. It’s on the second floor, up a spiral metal staircase, in a building full of other excellent restaurants (including Toritaberuka, we’ll get the one reviewed for you too).

In our review of the very different (but delicious… for different reasons) Spatacos (in Maruyama), we claimed to have some experience with genuine Mexican food and proper tacos. It is from that wealth of experience that we feel adequately prepared to tell that you El Tope’s food is worth every peso (see what we did there?).

As you arrive on the second floor of this building (which is a nest of tasty, interesting restaurants, many with very appealing atmosphere), you will quickly discover signs of Mexican influence. There are the familiar skulls of “Dia de los Muertos” themed art. A somewhat dark interior. Heavy, rough-hewn tables. A row of tequila bottles. And against the dark wood, the familiar (for those that know Latin culture) display of that full spectrum of colors that even the poorest neighborhoods in Mexico would have on display.

The interior is interesting to me, and also makes me laugh. Is El Tope a “typical” Mexican restaurant? Could there even be such a thing in a place as un-Mexican as Sapporo?

From my perspective, El Tope would be a “high-end” Mexican restaurant, if it were in Mexico (very high end) or even if it were in California. Most Mexican live simple lives. And El Tope’s look is flush with Mexican decor, almost too “richly” decorated to accurately reflect a culture that loves flair, but is generally of such humble means that is rarely resembles what El Tope has put together.

Does the inspiration for El Tope come from extensive exposure to Mexico, you might ask? No. In fact, rumor (based on first hand stories for the staff themselves) is that the chef (a Japanese woman with blonde hair and mischievous sparkle in her eyes) has never been to Mexico, and learned her craft from YouTube videos. Is it true? So we hear.

So: Is her food any good?

It’s spectacular.

We hinted at some personal experience, but allow me to indulge my ego a bit and say: I have easily eaten over 1000 tacos from maybe 100 different taco shops in my lifetime. That is actually likely to be a massive under-statement. While I have made a real effort to find some good Mexican food in Sapporo, I did not actually expect to find any. In Tokyo, I get by with Guzman and Gomez (which is “fresh” fast food, and even if they can give me a dose of pickled jalapenos, is not in any way “the real deal”). I did my due diligence, and had several experiences of “Mexican” places in Sapporo before I found El Tope. And when I finally arrived at “The Top”… I found real satisfaction.

Let me start with a story I tell everyone when I talk about El Tope (which I do a lot): El Tope, Sapporo has real, hand-pressed tortillas. If you know Mexican food (and I don’t expect you to know this), hand-made corn tortillas are very simple, but labor intensive, and are rare, even at “real” Mexican restaurants (in places where Mexicans actually live). Corn tortillas are a Mexican staple. They are made of cheap, simple ingredients. A normal Mexican restaurant (or a Mexican family) would buy them in bulk; vaguely “fresh” (made the same day?), and packaged, to be reheated as a given restaurant would make tacos for their customers.

Above is a shot of one of the staff using that wooden contraption to hand-press the tortillas. You can see some balls of “tortilla dough” (masa) on a plate on the far right.

At El Tope: They start with that “masa” mixture (which I assume they make in house, from ground corn, etc). And they ball it up, and add one ball at a time to that press, and manually flatten the corn dough into a round, freshly made, and very special “raw” tortillas. After that, each tortilla is grilled just for you, as your taco is being prepared. While most tortillas are generally very dry things, a freshly cooked tortilla is soft, “moist,” something you might enjoy eating plain (most pre-made tortillas, are not very tasty on their own). So to start with handmade tortillas… is to do it right, in a rare way.

El Tope has the standard “table charge.” And for that, you get your “treat” (the “otōshi”) that comes with that fee, which is generally an under-sized, mini taco, with a dash of cheese, or some spread made of beans, that kind of thing. It will be simple, it’s not much, but it sets the pace for an extraordinary meal.

If you’re doing it right, but now you’re ordered something to drink. El Tope has an excellent drink menu, which includes a fantastic selection of Mexican beers, including Negra Modelo (a beer my dad taught me to love). They also have margaritas (of course), but when I’m not drinking beer (which is most of the time), I would opt for a mojito… and El Tope makes a fantastic mojito.

Do you see what is going on here? We are in Sapporo, the best city in the world. We might expect ramen, and certainly soup curry, but a mojito and fresh corn tortillas? I would not have held my breath for that… but it’s true.

The tacos- let’s get down to it – are 100% perfect, amazing, world class tacos. I would put them up against any tacos, from anywhere in the world. No exaggeration. There are usually at least three kinds of meat available (including lamb, which is a very Hokkaido twist), but the carnitas (a slow-cooked style of pork) is both classic “taco shop” and at El Tope, makes for an exquisite moments of eating. Amazing. I’ll say it again… whoa, really good food.

There is also more than tacos to the menu. I usually start with their small, but wonderful little dish of guacamole (“sin cebolla por favor”,) and some of those handmade tortillas, deep fried into small, handmade corn chips. I would always order the tacos (you’d be a fool not to, and I am not that kind of fool). And then…

I don’t think El Tope’s fajitas are typical, they may not be perfectly authentic, but when you order the “spicy” version of the beef fajitas, you are stepping into one of the most special dishes in all of the Sapporo.

A small, sliced steak, comes served in the middle of sizzling hot cast iron pan, with sautéed onions, some small, diced potatoes, and a one-of-a-kind sauce I have never had anywhere else. I would (personally) order four extra tortillas (you can see them pictured above), with which to eat the rest of the dish. You take a tortilla, you spread a little bit of the left-over guacamole on it, you add once slice of the steak, then use your fork to scoop some of a the onion-potato-sauce mixture on top, and then, even as it drips onto your plate, feed that mess into your mouth and…

It’s not Mexico, but it’s as good as a lot of the food I have had in that country.

You can sit at the tiny, three-seat bar, and watch her cook. They smoke there, so you might end up with one of their edgy friends at your elbow, covered in tattoos (lots of tattoos at El Tope), smoking, and drinking a huge highball and chatting over the counter. You might even run into Phred from Mugishutei (he supplies their tequila and mescal, we told you he was a distributor). It’s cool in there and the food is que rico.

Highly recommended.

For other Mexican food in Sapporo, we of course can offer some suggestions. We already mentioned that we like Maruyama’s Spatacos very much. You might also check out テックスメックス Rosa in Sapporo, for their “Tex Mex meets Sapporo” version of Mexican food.

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