Tres Carnales: authenticity and integrity as keys to success

The guys on their vision, Edmonton's food scene, gluten-free Mexican food, social media, sweatshop chicken and their next venture.

L-R: Daniel Braun, Chris Sills and Edgar Gutierrez of Tres Carnales.
L-R: Daniel Braun, Chris Sills and Edgar Gutierrez of Tres Carnales.

With the mantra, “Tacos for the people,” owners Daniel (Dani) Braun, Chris Sills and Edgar Guitterrez of Tres Carnales have been making waves in Alberta’s food scene for bringing kick-ass, authentic Mexican cuisine and culture to Edmonton, and the ripple is reaching the rest of Canada. Having been featured in Maclean’s list of 50 Best Restaurants in Canada, and appeared on Food Network Canada’s You Gotta Eat Here, it has generated a lot of hype to try and live up to. Eat North sat down with them to get the scoop on their success thus far, and what the future has in store for the taco-making masters, including the opening of Edmonton’s first non-chain rotisserie restaurant: Rostizado. If the chile rellenos (which the guys are still testing) are any indication, there more to be desired than just tacos and tortas.

How did Tres Carnales get its start?

Dani: Edgar and I worked at a steakhouse together in 2006. I was managing and Edgar was in the kitchen. I met Chris and we really gelled over Mexican food.

Chris: When Dani and I decided to do something, neither of us had any idea how to run a kitchen -- costing, inventory, ordering, all of that shit -- neither of us knew anything. So I said, “I’ve got this guy. He’s a wicked chef, pastry chef, Red Seal, all that.” The rest is history. In terms of coming up with a concept, we got drunk by a pool in Mexico and thought it up.

Dani: We had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted from a Mexican restaurant: everything that Mexican restaurants were not up until that time. Usually, they were either mom and pop establishments [often Peruvian-Mexican or Salvadorian-Mexican], or stereotypical Tex-Mex. It’s a little bit overdone, but no one really has done the taco, quesadilla, torta part properly, so we are going to go ahead try.

How did you make sure that your food would be as authentic as possible, and not North American-ized?

Chris: We are pretty headstrong. If someone requests a dish to be changed based on an allergy, we’ll do it. But some things, we are just unwavering on. No, you cannot have the fish tacos any other way than the way we serve them. That’s the dish. If you take away anything, it no longer represents us.

Dani: We think a lot of establishments have compromised that vision in order to keep customers happy. Deep in our hearts, we know that if people understand where we come from, then they will enjoy it and they will be happy.

Were you concerned at first that it wasn’t going to catch on?

Chris: No, not at all. The first Friday night, we ran out of food. I had to stand at the door for the last hour and tell people, “Sorry, we didn’t anticipate that we would be this busy.”

Signature dish?

The Al Pastor [slow roasted, marinated pork] and the fish tacos. Our fish tacos have garnered international attention.

Are there any items on the menu that you guys really like but customers are more hesitant to try?

Chris: If we run a feature, like beef tongue, and define it as langua, no one even knows it’s tongue and they love it. We really wanted to do more of the off cuts -- tripe, tongue, pigs head -- but it hasn’t really caught on.

Do you think the fact that many of your tacos are naturally gluten free makes them more popular?

Chris: It’s so hilarious. People think that they are going to lose weight just because they don’t eat gluten. Maybe, maybe not, but there are a lot of things that gluten is good for, like giving bread its structure. Bread has become evil all of a sudden. People are so uneducated about it, too. Half of them don’t even know what gluten actually is! Don't get me wrong, celiac disease is serious. My Grandmother lived with it most of her life. It wasn't a diet trend to her. Her diet kept her out of pain. It's the "fashion" of it that kills me. [To see gluten-free diet practitioners define gluten, check out this gem from Jimmy Kimmel.]

In many cases, places that have been featured on TV shows like You Gotta Eat Here often end up being a bit of a let-down because of all the hype. Do you feel increased pressure because of that?

Chris: There are so many online comments about us. From, “Too much hype. Don’t believe the hype,” to, “Totally worth the hype, place is amazing.” It just depends on people’s perception. People consider us to be hype-masters. But we have food to back it up. Sometimes shit sneaks past us. Maybe the Al Pastor was a little dry, or maybe it was too saucy. We taste everything at the beginning of each shift but stuff can happen.

Edgar: I think that is when we perform the best, when our backs are against the wall and the pressure is on. And, Dani always reminds us, “We are under the microscope now, guys.”

Food is always being tested and coolers are being checked to make sure they are the right temperature. Being in the spotlight like that pushes us to be better.

Out of all of the awards and recognition you have received so far, which have been the most validating?

Dani: Maclean’s magazine top 50, for sure. Chris was speechless, which is rare. The guy was taking pictures, Edgar was cooking and we thought it was a photo shoot to showcase sustainability. The guy was like, “Oh no, you are mistaken, this is for a special edition of Maclean’s magazine showcasing Canada’s 50 best restaurants.” We were like, “What? Shut the bleep up!”

We went and celebrated for the whole night. To this day, we still cannot believe it. We never thought that a taco shop that was so laidback could make the list. It’s just baffling.

Chris: We were in seventh heaven that whole month; we couldn’t believe it. We gave copies of the magazine to all our family members. All of the articles we have ever been in, I have them laid out on my coffee tables [laughs].

What is your take on Edmonton’s food scene?

Chris: We were a chain restaurant city for so long. We are trying to work against that; we won’t compromise our integrity and that really helps to push the envelope. Daniel Costa [of Corso 32] is the same way. He got a phone call from Shawn Horcoff of the Edmonton Oilers the first week they opened, asking to come down and check out the place. He told him that unfortunately, they were full and it wouldn’t be possible. What are you going to do, kick someone who already has a reservation out?

It’s those kind of attitudes backed up by a commitment to really, really good, fresh food. We don’t have a freezer. We have a shit ton of reach-in coolers and we get regular deliveries. Our fish comes in fresh every morning.

Edgar: Sometimes twice a day.

Do you think that Edmonton’s food scene will ever reach the level of that in big city centres like Vancouver and Toronto?

Chris: For sure, for sure, for sure. Costa opened Bar Bricco a little while ago and it’s fucking terrific. We are opening another restaurant and we think it is going to be pretty fucking terrific. We need more people to jump off but I think it’s happening and it hasn’t reach critical mass yet.

Top places to eat in Edmonton?

Chris: Oh, Corso 32, by far. Daniel Costa's other restaurant, Bar Bricco is also worth checking out for wine and snacks. The ricotta agnolotti is amazing. You dunk them in sage brown butter and then swipe them through parmesan cheese. It’s so simple, but so good.

How important is social media to chefs and restaurateurs nowadays?

Dani: Social media has helped a lot with the awareness and connection, the connectivity with people. It used to be more about competition between restaurants, but with social media, it is more of a community. Together we can accomplish so much more than what we can individually. People just came to realize that it is a much nicer way to do business. It works better.

Tell me a little bit more about your new venture.

Chris: Modern-meets-warehouse, Mexican rotisserie. One of our favourite take-out dishes in Mexico is rostizado or pollo rostizado [rotisserie chicken]. Particularly when you have a hangover, you go get one of those chickens, you throw it on your counter and as you walk by, you just pull pieces of chicken off and eat it. They are fucking delicious. We started to miss it [back here in Edmonton]. Rotisserie chicken at Sobeys and Save-On is like sweatshop chicken; it’s just junk. The pork and chicken in Mexico, on the other hand, are freaking awesome. The beef is terrible.

We are going to do pork, kind of like a porchetta but we are butterflying a shoulder, slathering it with salsa verde and garlic and rolling it up, putting it on a skewer and slow roasting it. The chicken: same way. We are dry rubbing under and over the skin and letting it air dry in the cooler overnight. Then, we throw it on the next day. It is going to be served one of three ways: the chicken (quarter, half or full bird), a side of potatoes, a stack of tortillas and a salsa; you can have the chicken pulled and served in a sandwich; or on top of a salad. You check off [on the menu] how you want to have it. There are also going to be a bunch of vegetarian and vegan options.

It is going to be the antithesis of Tres Carnales. Unlike here, it is going to be sitdown. We are also expanding both our cocktail and dessert menus. We’ve got a big churro press, Mexican hot chocolate, Mexican coffee stewed with cinnamon and orange rind.

Dani: It’s the restaurant that we thought we wanted to open at the beginning but Edmonton wasn’t ready yet. But now that we have built what we have, we think it is.