I’m done going out of my way to find fiery Mexican food in Europe. I just assume that, like the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, it doesn’t exist.
Still, there’s always the hope that I’m wrong. So when I stumble across a Mexican restaurant in Europe, I give it a go in the off chance of debunking my theory (and of finding the Tooth Fairy, who owes me $5). The worst it’s ever gotten me is a doner kebab masquerading as a burrito.
And the best it’s gotten me might be El Popo Limburg in Heerlen, Netherlands.
The kitschy Tex-Mex joint moved last spring from the hard-to-find upper-floor location it occupied for more than a decade to a street-level storefront just off Heerlen’s main strip. The restaurant’s exterior is covered in bright, glossy hues that, while perhaps cliche, draw a sharp contrast with the rest of the street and make it an easy find.
Owners Desiree and Hub went all out on the inside as well, creating an atmosphere as fun as their food is savory. A knife-wielding bandito mannequin descends from the ceiling into a dimly lit but brightly painted room littered with inflatable plastic Corona bottles, sombreros and statues of gauchos, cacti and parrots (as well as some real caged birds).
While inspiration for the decor apparently was drawn from stereotypes of Mexico — a place, Desiree acknowledged, she and her husband have never visited — the cuisine fits another stereotype: my own pigeonholing of Europe’s “Mexican” fare.
Desiree wishes it were different, but since she’s catering to local tastes, she admits El Popo isn’t one to bring the heat. Dutch people in general like spicy food, she said, “but not in Heerlen. The people in Heerlen are not ready for the real Mexican food.”
While my search for a local salsa that could brand a calf continues, El Popo nonetheless impressed with a mouthwatering assortment of Mexican and Tex-Mex classics toned down for the local tongue.
I chose the mixed fajitas, and what I got was a hot iron skillet of salmon and beef sizzling alongside strips of chicken and filet de pacific (which I think is a fancy way of saying “halibut”), all atop a bed of sauteed peppers and onions. Guacamole, sour cream and fresh vegetables came in bowls fashioned from banana leaves, while a side of Mexican rice came in an earthenware bowl.
What tasted like teriyaki mixed with the juices of the meats, vegetables and fish to produce a tangy flavor well complemented by the guacamole and sour cream.
There was enough meat to fill five tortillas, though the dish comes with just three
Ask for more if you need them; Desiree, who runs the dining area and speaks English, will cheerfully bring what you need.
Had I asked her advice before ordering, I might have tried the carnitas, which Desiree said is El Popo’s spiciest offering — but still not scorching.
EL POPO LIMBURG
Location: Geleenstraat 50, Heerlen, Netherlands.
Directions: From Brunssum, go south on Akerstraat and continue straight through the roundabout as it changes to Heerenweg. Go through one roundabout, and at the next, take the first exit onto Wickraderweg. After about half a kilometer, turn left onto Kloosterweg. At the first roundabout, take the first exit onto Looierstraat. At the next roundabout, take the second exit onto Schakel- weg. After 100 yards, turn right onto Geerstraat. About 400 yards later, turn left onto Geleenstraat. El Popo Limburg is on your right, diagonally across from the parking garage at the town hall square.
Hours: 4:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Prices: Entrees from about 13 euros to 18.95 euros. Tapas from 3.95 euros to 7.35 euros. Margaritas from 3.25 euros to 4.25 euros; bottled beers from 3.90 euros to 4.40 euros.
Menu: English available.
Clientele: Mostly Dutch.
More information: Phone: 045-5778080; website: www.elpopolimburg.nl.