Mexican cuisine has suffered a bit of an image problem here in the UK. The brash TexMex chains that came to dominate high streets back in the 80s and 90s have largely disappeared although the whiff of freshly microwaved burrito still lingers in the memory. These garishly themed cantinas with their sticky laminated menus, Mariachi paraphernalia and posters of wacky tacos dressed in giant sombreros were more about after-work ‘fun’ than eating well.
Many Brits still complain that Mexican food lacks variety – ‘it all tastes the same’ they sneer chewing on their Tex Mex take out. When it comes to basics, they have a point; there’s only so much you can do with shredded meat, grated cheese, refried beans and rice other than wrap it all up in a corn container. Of course Mexican food is far more than just tacos and hangovers, but you may need to scout around to find a good independently run neighbourhood joint.
The first Mexican restaurants arrived here in the 1970s on the back of America’s newfound love of all things south of the border. In California, the locals still treat Mexican food with a mad sort of reverence. Finding a half decent restaurant has become a kind of competitive sport. ‘Does anyone know a good Mexican?’ isn’t a Trump dog-whistle but the perennial cry of pampered gringos yearning for authentic quesadillas. Spend time with a group of Californians and it won’t be long before they start gabbing about their favourite hangout, usually some out-of-the-way corrugated shack in The Valley that serves ‘awesome enchiladas’. Cali kids may be spoilt for choice but most cantinas owe more to drive-thru Taco Bells than dusty Taluca kitchens.
Back in Blighty, Mexican food has been enjoying something of a resurgence of late, although most Brits still struggle to name the contents of a tamale (corned base masa dough wrapped in banana leaves, stuffed with… you guessed it, a combination of shredded meat, cheese and vegetables with a dash of chili). In 2015, the number of Mexican restaurants in the UK grew by 71 per cent with more upmarket chains such as Wahaca jazzing up tired formulas for more sophisticated palates.
It’s often the most unassuming places that serve the best staples. In Manchester for instance, locals go loco for the fiery tacos and spicy salsa at Pancho’s Burritos in the Arndale Market while Bristol has some excellent pop-ups and street food stands if you know where to look. The family run El Cartel in Edinburgh is famous for its Al Pastor Pork Ribs in a tangy cumin, garlic and pineapple glaze and their Lengua de Buey – crispy shredded ox patties with cooked salsa verde – is also excelente. Taqueria in Notting Hill has a good selection of small plates including deep fried oysters and tasty tuna tostadas.
If you plan to travel to Mexico any time soon (lockdown rules permitting) head to the romantic beachside shacks dotted along the Yucatan’s dreamy coastline. Order pan de cazon made with locally caught dogfish in spiced tomato sauce with rich, smoky refried beans. Drive inland to the region’s stately capital Merida for a bewildering array of street stalls, markets and traditional dining rooms serving age-old Yucatecan recipes. In the city’s historic centre you’ll find La Chaya Maya serving regional classics such as cochinita pibil – pork marinated in ground achiote seeds and bitter orange juice baked in tender banana leaves and hearty relleno negro – black turkey stew. The peachy-pink colonial town house setting is wonderfully atmospheric.
If you’re stuck at home and fancy recreating a laidback beachside feast forget about those bland fajita kits and try one of Rick Stein’s innovative dishes from his Road to Mexico cookbook. Stein has a deep affection for the country and it shows in his engaging BBC series of the same name. If you’re a fan of small aquatic crustaceans go for his easy to prepare deep-fried king prawns with a coconut batter. The spicy Chocolate and Pasilla Fondant Truffles are also a doddle to make but be warned, they are dangerously addictive.
Six classic dishes to try:
Let’s start with the most well known. Derived from the Spanish word meaning “little donkey” this classic dish originated in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Legend has it that these hearty wraps stuffed with shredded chicken, beef, or pork with rice, refried beans, lettuce, cheese, salsa and pico de gallo were invented in the 19th century by hungry vaqueros, the cowboys of northern Mexico.
Considered sacred food of the Gods by Aztec and Maya civilizations, this traditional Mesoamerican dish can be traced back to 7000 BC. Made from small corn dough pockets stuffed with a variety of fillings including meats, cheeses, fruit, vegetables and chilies, the ancients typically ate them during hunting trips or when travelling large distances. Traditionally steamed in banana leaves, tamales have become hugely popular across North America.
Once used as part of ritual sacrifices, this gory pre Hispanic soup originally included human remains. Once the sacrificial victim’s heart had been torn out, the rest of the body was chopped into cubes and cooked with maize. These days chefs prefer to use chicken or pork mixed with hominy corn and a variety of herbs and spices. For best results leave the dish to stew overnight then serve with shredded lettuce, radish, onion, lime and chilli sprinkled on top. Popular as an everyday meal or for those special (non-sacrificial) occasions.
A traditional Mexican corn on the cob available on countless street corners across the country. The cobs are boiled and then served either on a stick, a bit like an ice-lolly, or in cups (once the kernels having been removed). Smear with salt, chilli powder, lime, butter, cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream for a messy but satisfying snack-on-the-move.
Chiles en Nogada
This patriotic dish boats all three colours of the Mexican flag. Poblano chillies filled with picadillo (a heady mix of chopped meat, fruits and spices) represent the green part of the flag, the creamy walnut sauce is the white and pomegranate seeds make up the red. First served to Don Agustin de Iturbide, liberator and subsequent Emperor of Mexico, the dish originates from the city of Puebla in east-central Mexico.