Ahh the wonders of rue Notre-Dame… The precious little brocades (antique shops), a very special bridal boutique, and historical facades overgrown by florals gushing forth from every terrace, the heart and soul of the trendy Chartrons neighborhood of Bordeaux. Get a beer at Zhytho or sit out on the terrace of the Halle de Chartrons, grab a bite to eat and an after dinner cocktail at apothek. It’s a vibe, and one of my favorite kinds of nights in this city I now call home. When a colleague first told me about a pint-sized Mexican taqueria in Chartrons, I was hoping it would be located on too-cool-for-school rue Notre-Dame. I called for a reservation a few days before, and arrived with Ben for dinner at 8:30. Since then, I’ve been back once for a birthday celebration with friends. I’ve been hesitating to write this review, considering the overwhelmingly positive response this place gets all over the www. But to be completely honest, I was underwhelmed by both of my experiences here and am not planning to return any time soon.
In terms of vibe, this place passes. The tables are covered with colorful fabrics and set before a painted mural of joyful skeletons on the wall facing the bar. Seats are low stools on tables that are close together, creating exactly the kind of intimate dining environment you want from this genre of restaurant. Vibrant salsa music adds a hint of spice. It’s also very compact (read: intimate) and well-located. It seems like that perfect little secret spot to keep in your pocket to whip out whenever you’d like to impress friends. The place is run by a sassy Mexican lady named Claudia Flores, who either likes you or doesn’t, and makes her opinion known. But she also routinely decides to close up shop on a whim, neglecting to tell guests who have reserved for the evening and leaving them stunned in front of a locked storefront, usually in the rain (this is Bordeaux we’re talking about, after all). And I guess she can do that since La Copa Rota is one of like 5 “Latin American” restaurants in the city to offer tacos. But it doesn’t really seem acceptable. My shared birthday dinner there didn’t really go as expected either. The margaritas were laughably small and weak, the tacos all seemed to be vegan despite only around 2 out of 12 of us not eating meat. Basically every measure was taken to cut cost.
Anyway, on to the menu.
The guacamole was tasty, seasoned with lime juice, not too much salt and black pepper cracked over the surface of the fresh tomato slices. The tortilla chips also seemed homemade, or at least far from the flimsy, brittle El Paso corn chips available in the “International” aisle of any French supermarket. A good start to the meal, though a bit steep at 6.50€.
Next came two tacos. The Picadillo had beef with grilled red + green bell peppers and onions, topped with lettuce and a cream sauce. The Cochinita had juicy chunks of pork marinated until bright red with achiote grains, topped with onions and lettuce. Both were served on a homemade corn tortilla, but the ones we got were not warmed through all the way. The meats were nicely cooked, though lacked flavor (and, especially, spice), though for 3€ each perhaps they were worth it.
We also ordered the Mole Poblano, a chicken thigh doused in a dark brown mole sauce and served with a scoop of white rice. La Copa Rota’s mole was tremendously disappointing. For having “25 ingredients,” the sauce was flavorless and watery compared to the thick, unctuous symphony I was expecting. The cacao flavor was in there, but in an unpleasantly sweet way, without really blending with the other ingredients. The chicken was cooked okay, although the skin got quite soggy. Perhaps this works in a city where there is no other mole to compare it to, but it left me thoroughly unimpressed. It’s a challenging dish anyway, so I wasn’t expecting too much quality for 10€.
From the outside looking in, La Copa Rota seems to have everything you need for that perfect neighborhood taqueria. It’s colorful, vibrant and different just by being Mexican in a place as somber as Bordeaux. And if you’re an expat as painfully nostalgic about frothy margaritas on the rocks and tacos al pastor after work as I am, then you’ll probably be tempted to go here at one point. The loud and snazzy vibe might even be enough for you. But for me it isn’t. The food for me lacked flavor, spice and – most importantly – love and care. Maybe when it first opened, things were different. Maybe I just got unlucky both times I ate there. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a new Mexican chef to set up shop next door and give La Copa Rota a run for its money, or at least make them work a little harder to earn it.