Located at the trendy Hornstull neighbourhood of Södermalm, at Verkstadsgatan 4, you’ll find Chelas, Stockholm’s newest Mexican restaurant. Chelas opened its doors in July of 2019. The name comes from the Mexican slang word for beers and a phrase the Mexicans use when they want to socialise with friends and family: “Saca las chelas”. Literally translated it means “Bring out the beers”, but it can actually be better interpreted as “Let’s have some beers and hang out”.
Mexican food has always been very important for Amelia and Victor Handal, siblings and two of the owners of Chelas. “Every celebration in the family revolves around food”, says Amelia. Chelas originally started as a dream in the mind of Victor and his school friend Kaveh Sedigh, who is also one of the owners. As Victor and Amelia had grown up with Mexican food, they really felt they missed the genuine Mexican cuisine here in Sweden. That is why they recognised the opportunity and the real need for a restaurant that showcases and highlights that kind of food. The trio met Mexican chef José Manuel Cruz and everything just started falling into place… “And now we’re working towards the same goal which is highlighting Mexican cuisine, showing people that a taco something more than the Santa Maria tacos, that they’re used to eating here in Sweden on Fridays. And we are combining this food with a very familiar and friendly style of service”, says Amelia Handal.
Mexican gastronomy is wide-ranging and full of contrasts. Wherever you go from north to south, the Mexicans have very different ways of preparing even the same dish. With this in mind, you have a big bill of fare to choose from, so how do you design a menu that’s going to encompass it all? We spoke with Chef José Manuel Cruz, who is responsible for the food served a Chelas. He is using the original recipes from the traditional Mexican dishes and focusing on dishes they can prepare here in Sweden in a way that is as close as possible to how you would have them in Mexico. Obviously we’re not in Mexico, but in Scandinavia, so this is where it gets complicated, as José explained to us. You need to be able to get the ingredients to make the dishes in exactly the right way.
It requires a tremendous amount of logistics for Chelas to bring all the fresh ingredients, which are sourced not only from Mexico, but also from other countries here in Europe with similar weather conditions that are growing the ingredients. The results of these efforts and the attention to detail are evident in what they bring to the table.
Two of the main ingredients are poblano chilli and tomatillo. The Chelas team makes sure they use the best sources to get these products fresh and not canned. There are some products that come directly from Mexico, including herbs and spices like epazote, achiote, huitlacoche, nopales, the famous Valentina and Tajin spicy sauces, Oaxaca’s chocolate… With the aim of expanding their menu, Chelas also wants to start bringing in some other ingredients that are exclusively sourced from Mexico.
“We want to show the Swedish people the perfect balance that exists in Mexican food. If you have a spicy sauce, you balance it with the sour cream, and the cheese. When you mix everything together, that makes a perfect balance. All this is finished off with the tortilla… A corn tortilla is for me the perfect food to balance everything. It’s so neutral that you can balance everything with it. And we’re not shy with the spiciness. We’re really trying to show how we eat in Mexico. And for the Mexican and Latin American people visiting Chelas, we want to make them feel less homesick. It’s happened to me and I think every person who is far away from the homecountry, and the challenge is making everyone feel like they’re eating at home, a Mexican home”, says José Manuel Cruz, Chelas’ chef.
When we visited Chelas, we were offered their red enchiladas, filled with chicken and covered with red sauce which is chicken stock based: There is also another option with green sauce, which is vegan. We were immediately struck by the consistency and flavour of their corn tortilla, which is made using the traditional process of nixtamalization of the corn. Honestly, it doesn’t get more authentic and delicious this side of the globe. It really does taste like it does in Mexico. We would have liked the sauce a notch or two more spicy, but perhaps that’s not an issue for the average Swede. The enchiladas came with a cactus salad, which is something that Sweden hasn’t seen before at a Mexican restaurant. It is made with nopal, a typical cactus you buy at Mexican markets. The cactus salad was absolutely delicious.
We were then offered to try their fish taco, the chochina pibil taco and the “rajas” with poblano chili taco. The fish taco comes with a battered fish fillet, chilli mayo sauces and chopped vegetables. It reminded us of the north-Pacific side of Mexico. We really liked that there were fresh jalapeño bits in it, adding to the spiciness of the taco. The chochinita pibil is a taco made with pulled pork in a sauce with various spices that give it a smoky taste. Our favourite was the “rajas” taco made with poblano chili, sweet corn, onion, cream, and fresh cheese. This is the vegetarian option and it’s that sourness and smokiness of the poblano chilli, which makes it supremely delightful. The only thing we did miss were some extra sauces on the side, like you have in Mexico, for some added heat.
The decoration of the restaurant adds further to the sense of authenticity in Mexican style. From the moment you enter, you face the bar with details covered in Mexican hand-painted tiles. There are also other ornamental objects, which Victor Handal himself picked up at Mexico’s city markets.
Something that makes the Chelas team very proud of their restaurant, is the fact that they offer a full experience to their guests. If the guests are Swedish, they try to teach them about the names of the food and drinks in Spanish, while they are eating something they may have never tasted before. The guests will also get to learn the ways to eat and drink it all in the Mexican way. If the guests are Mexican or Latin American, they are offered something they probably haven’t had in a long time.
All in all, a pleasant addition to the international restaurant map of Stockholm.