The first and only Mexican restaurant on Saipan

Posted on Jul 10 2019

The vibrant colors and decor of Loco & Taco automatically exudes a Mexican vibe. (Bea Cabrera)

Loco & Taco located in Garapan across Paseo de Marianas is the first and only Mexican restaurant on island to date. In 2012, businessman Sungnam Lee opened Loco & Taco because he wanted to share the love and hospitality that he experienced when he spent time in Mexico City.

Lee grew up in Japan and after graduating from college in 2002, Lee went to the United States specifically Texas to study English for one year. While there, he made friends with other students from diverse backgrounds—Mexico, Chile, and South America. “There is something about their food that is very attractive… this made my curiosity about Mexican food grow big,” Lee said.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t really interested in Mexican food—I just love to eat. My friends exposed me to different spices and flavors. Since then, I visit the hometown of my friends just learning about their food, culture and way of life,” he added

Lee said that when he came to Saipan in 2005, he started working as a general manager in a hotel on Capital Hill but that did not make him forget his fondness of Mexican cuisine. “After working in the hotel business, I decided to put up my own business starting with Nan Chang where we served American, Japanese, and a little bit of Mexican food.”

“Mexican food is not just about flavor because it is about the process,” said Loco & Taco general manager Sungnam Lee. (Bea Cabrera)

“Then in 2012, we changed Nan Chang to what Loco & Taco is today and concentrate on a Mexican-themed restaurant,” he added.

To hone his craft even more, Lee decided to go to Mexico a couple of years ago and paid a restaurant daily to learn to cook true authentic Mexican food and bring it to Saipan. “I was there, a paying culinary student but what I got from the experience was to wash dishes and cut tomatoes. I realized that I am not going to learn from the restaurants,” he said.

“I found myself going to homes and families in their farms where I stayed for months to observe how home-made Mexican food is made. I don’t speak Spanish and luckily, they adjusted. They taught me how to make hand-made ‘blue corn tortilla’ which we serve at our restaurant as they are traditionally used to make tacos because they are a healthier option and a bit more durable,” he added.

Lee got a big surprise when he learned that Mexican food is not just about spices or secret ingredients. “I was looking for flavor but I realized that I was looking at the wrong direction. The flavor in Mexican dishes is just a product of a long and careful process. The process includes ‘love’ and this produces patience because Mexican food takes time,” he said

Hand-made blue corn tortilla is served fresh and warm at Loco & Taco. (Bea Cabrera)

“For example, our carnitas take three to five days to prepare. We do not use water—what I learned from the families in Mexico is that they use fresh pineapple juice, cinnamon, and lemon and that is what I do here using local fruits. Finally, I cook the meat in slow fire that is why it takes days to get the final product,” he added.

Lee fondly recalls that Mexicans have a belief that cooking is also spiritual. “They say that an ‘angel’ does some part in the cooking. Since we did our best in putting all the ingredients together, didn’t eat or touch the meat and put over very slow fire for three to five days, the angel comes to the process and seen in the steam coming out of the dish. I find that very beautiful and poetic,” he said.

“This is the same process we also do at Loco & Taco. The meat and tortilla in our ‘beef colorado’ takes a lot of time to prepare we have to use six kinds of chilis. The process may be long but it is worth it and our customers are guaranteed fresh and well-cooked ingredients every time,” he added.

By word of mouth, Loco & Taco is fast becoming known also for their $1 tacos every day. “This idea came from friends and people that helped me after Super Typhoon Yutu. We were closed in October up until April because of the damage the restaurant incurred and during that time, regular customers and even strangers never stopped sending help to me—they brought water and noodles to the shop to make sure we are alright,” he said.

“I don’t have any connection with some of those people but it only means that they love our food and so our offering of $1 tacos every day is my way of giving back to the people and the entire community for helping us and believing in us. Monday to Friday from 5pm to 7pm, we serve $1 carnitas tacos and from Saturday to Sunday 5pm-7pm, we serve $1 fish tacos,” he added.

Lee said that when he arrived on Saipan in 2005, he found out that the people here have a different kind of energy.” I was born in Korea but grew up in Japan and to me, that means something… that there is more to life than being financially stable—the people of Saipan taught me to prioritize happiness. In the same manner, Mexican people taught me love and care in in feeding their families… both very humbling realizations.”

“These are the traits that I want Loco & Taco to give to people. That when they come and dine with us, they come home happy and enjoyed their food with friends and family,” he added.

Loco & Taco is open for lunch from 11am to 2pm and dinner from 5pm to 10pm Monday to Sunday. For more information, call (670)233-5233.

Bea Cabrera
Bea Cabrera, who holds a law degree, also has a bachelor's degree in mass communications. She has been exposed to multiple aspects of mass media, doing sales, marketing, copywriting, and photography.
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