Inside Dubai Marina's latest Mexican hotspot
Front of house
Already well established in North America, with six branches across Toronto, Winnipeg, and Baltimore, La Carnita has brought its Mexican street food vibes to the Middle East for the first time — but with some changes for the Dubai market.
Hamdan Al Khajafi is the founder of La Carnita Dubai, deciding to open it after experiencing the Toronto version first-hand while in Canada.
The design was done by Solid Design Creative, the Toronto based firm behind the original La Carnita branches, so the similarities are clear. From the street-inspired graffiti on the walls to the lighting fixtures that are staples in the first La Carnita, the Dubai restaurant takes liberally from what has come before while adding its own spin.
General manager Conchi Ramos is in charge of the front-of-house team and says that from seeing the first render she wanted to join. “The design is incredible. I hadn’t seen anything like this in Dubai — yes you have beautiful venues, but nothing like this.”
With four members of the front-of-house team also joining La Carnita Dubai from the Canadian branches, it’s as close an experience to being in Toronto as you can get.
But Al Khajafi admits that it wasn’t possible to just transplant La Carnita from one continent to another, there had to be changes.
He says: “Frankly speaking, the biggest difference is the diners. In Toronto they are in and they are out. In Dubai it’s not like that, it’s more like you go and you stay so from a design point of view we invested a lot in our seating. It’s cushioned, there’s a perfect angle to lean back that is comfortable and makes you want to stay. In Toronto all the chairs are hard wood so you end up wanting to move to the next place or stand at the bar."
It has proved popular, taking 300 covers a night at the weekend in the 120 seat venue.
He is confident it can sustain that, saying: “I don’t want to be a cool place now and then a new place comes up all the people have gone.
“But Andrew [Richmond], who’s the founder in Toronto said to me ‘Listen dude, you’ve got to know there’s thousands of concepts opening in Toronto every single day, each one cooler than the other. But still people always come to Carnita’ and that’s made me feel much more comfortable with how we've started."
Back of house
Aside from seat design, the biggest change in La Carnita has been on the menu. While it continues to keep all the tacos that have brought the brand success in North America, there’s been the introduction of mains.
“In Toronto you don’t have the main course section,” Al Khajafi explains. “Here we have created it because people want to sit and spend more time.”
Charged with introducing a whole new section while maintaining the original La Carnita attitude is head chef Lara Said. Having spent the majority of her formative years in Dubai before moving to Paris to attend the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, Al Khajafi believes she is the ideal candidate to bring La Carnita to the GCC.
Coming from a fine dining background with a spell at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London before moving back to Dubai to work at the likes of Le Petit Maison, Jean-Georges, and Il Borro, La Carnita offers an entirely new challenge.
Naturally, the menu takes much of its influence from La Carnita in Toronto, with Said saying that “all of the tacos are exactly the same. We try to make them as similar as they are in Canada”. Before adding, “I think ours are a little bit better. Just because the quality of the ingredients we get in Dubai is so great.
“The suppliers have helped us a lot at Carnita. We use Fresh Express, they deliver twice a week with amazing produce from Mexico and Holland and all over the world so it’s pretty easy to find what we need.”
Said really gets to show her creativity when it comes to the main dishes that are designed by her and the team.
She says: “In terms of similarities it’s as close as it could be and then there's the main course items, they are only on the Dubai menu. No other Carnita in the world has these.
“I feel like people love to share in the Middle East so what we wanted to do is put items on the menu that could be put in the middle of the table and everyone could have a bite. So we do a large 350-400g ribeye steak that people can share, we do lamb chops, we do an amazing whole grilled seabass with jicama slaw.”
Said is allowed more creativity than your average head chef at a Mexican restaurant as she admits that they don’t try and replicate traditional Mexican recipes.
She says: “Carnita is not trying to be 100% Mexican at all. I wouldn’t say its authentic in any way. I think the only reason that it’s similar is the ingredients we use. We get fresh tomatillos, all our chillies are imported from Mexico. All our products are Mexican but the dishes aren’t 100% Mexican. It’s more of a North American influence and I think that’s what makes Carnita so special.”
Authentic or not, it's been a positive start for the hybrid concept, with Said saying that "growing up in Dubai, this is what we lacked".