Food & wine
Magical tacos in the middle of a Basque Michelin-starred paradise
In the Spanish food paradise of San Sebastián you will find a very special restaurant. Forget pinxtos, cider and Txakoli wine. Here, it's all about the tacos, Mexican beer and mezcal.
San Sebastián has for many years been known as one of the world's foremost food cities. Its close proximity to the sea, lush Basque country with access to fantastic ingredients, and innovation from some of the world's best chefs have made the city a food paradise like no other in the world.
No city in Europe has more Michelin stars per capita.
San Sebastián is synonymous with pinxtos and authentic Basque cuisine. So, it was a surprise when we were strongly recommended to stop by a newly opened Mexican restaurant, Doña Chepina, in the lively Egia neighbourhood in the east of the city.
Who eats Mexican street food when they are in a Michelin-starred city?
When we arrive at restaurant Doña Chepina, there is only one table available in the small dining room, and we are promptly notified that it too is reserved for lunch. Fortunately, the bar is free and the 15-minute walk from the centre of San Sebastián and our hotel, Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, in the clammy Basque weather will quickly prove to be worth every bead of sweat.
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A Mexican family restaurant in San Sebastián
Restaurant Doña Chepina was started by 28-year-old Betsy Trejo. Originally from Mexico City, she moved to the Spanish city in the north to study in 2016. After a few years in the Basque country, there was one thing in particular she missed from her home – the food.
"Despite the incredible food all over the city, I didn't feel like there was an authentic Mexican restaurant in San Sebastián. All the other Mexican restaurants that exist in the city are more Mexican with a twist. Real Mexican street food wasn't available," Betsy told Picolo.com.
But the path to her own restaurant did not come as a result of a natural interest in cooking. In fact, Betsy had very little experience in the kitchen when she started cooking for friends and acquaintances at home in her apartment. She received her kitchen training from watching videos on YouTube. The food she prepared was based on her mother's recipes, and her friends liked what they were served.
"It may not be a traditional way to learn to cook, but it was really fun and educational," she says with a smile.
Inspiration from her homeland
Her interest in cooking led Betsy to learn more, not only about food, but also about her country's long culinary traditions. Tacos in particular are beloved by Mexicans (and the rest of the world). In 2021, Betsy travelled around Mexico for three months to gather inspiration and recipes and to learn more.
The result of that journey was eventually Doña Chepina, named after Betsy's mother. The restaurant is hidden in the hip and vibrant neighbourhood of Egia. The room itself is simply decorated. There are only six or seven tables, as well as some seating at the bar and on benches outside the front door.
Betsy has adorned the walls with fantastical animals and motifs that are typically Mexican, as well as pictures reminiscent of her homeland.
Simple but amazing tacos
The menu at Doña Chepina is simple, yet exquisite and tasty. At the time of writing, there are seven tacos to choose from, one of which is vegetarian. If you are feeling adventurous, you can go for a combo where you get to sample six tacos from the menu. In addition, you will find other classics such as nachos, Mexican sandwiches, and desserts.
Everything is made from scratch in the small kitchen, from corn tortillas and salsa to the stock in which the meat is cooked. The result is juicy and tender tacos – in fact, some of the best we've tasted this side of the Atlantic.
Common to all the dishes on the menu is that they are typical food from Betsy's hometown, Mexico City.
"All the dishes are based on street food you find all over Mexico City. It's simple, but so good. The dishes are mainly based on my mother's and other family recipes."
It's easy to tell that family is important to Betsy. Actually, the whole Doña Chepina project is a family affair. Betsy's sister and mother work in the kitchen, while her nephew, who has extensive experience from various resort towns in Mexico, stands behind the bar. They have all come across the Atlantic to help Betsy start the restaurant.
The Trejo family seems to have managed with panache. Despite opening as recently as March 2023, the restaurant has quickly become a talking point, including in the city's hard-to-impress gastronomic scene. It has also become a favourite haunt for San Sebastián's small Mexican community. Betsy believes that part of the secret lies what is served on Sundays, when the kitchen serves up bigger, regional Mexican favourites — just like Mom made at home in the kitchen.
"It could be chilaquiles, chicharrón, a salsa verde con nopales, or quesabirrias. It's all based on what kind of produce we have available that day, but it's often a little heartier dishes – perfect if you have been out late the night before. Maybe that's why it's become so popular?" The young entrepreneur asks rhetorically, before bursting into laughter.
Hoping for full time
Despite its growing success and popularity, running the restaurant isn't a full-time gig for Betsy. She still works as the general manager of a downtown hotel.
"My dream, of course, is to be able to work with the restaurant 100 percent. It hasn't been possible so far, but I hope it will become a reality one day."
Editorial note: The airline Norwegian covered air travel in connection with this article. All editorial decisions have been made by Picolo.com, freely and exclusively.
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