As regular readers of £31.75 will know, I’m yet to be blown away by Mexican food in London. While I’ve tried most of them, and jump on each new opening quicker than Cameron jumps in another man’s grave, on the whole it’s been a disappointing journey. Time, then, to cautiously add two more to the list – one brand new, one not so new.
El Panchos has been recommended several times but I’ve stubbornly judged this book by its garish. flashing, cover and walked on by until now. Anywhere that declares “let’s roll the fajita and slam the tequila” across its bows can’t be taken that seriously. And I’ve realised, having been taken there for a popstar’s birthday with 22 of her entourage, that that’s exactly the point.
Yes, they hedge more bets on their menu than a midwestern family flown in to Vegas on their annual spree, offering all the usual Brit-Mex fare alongside calimari, tuna steak, BBQ ribs and even, I shit thee not, prawn cocktail. Yes, fajitas are filled with frying beef you’d turn down in Morrisons and ready grated cheese ready grated from the tents left over at Glastonbury every year. And yes, the vegetarian options are probably in their own, previously undiscovered, genus of foodstuffs.
But this place is not about gastronomy, it’s about the experience. When everyone’s dancing to the ‘Macarena’, Madonna and Shakira’s greatest hits in oversized floppy sombreros, the food is an afterthought. Stressing over it would be like sulking at the Mexico pavilion of Disney’s Epcot. There’s times (or rather places) when you need to let loose, quit analysing the quality of the cheese, down another Cuervo and clap your hands to the resident mariachi. So what if Mexican food here means “salsita’s” (a sizzling platter with chips and salad) and queso hamburguesas?
The staff are tirelessly cheerful and sweet, the vibes good, and the decor screaming fun. And when they crank up the Lionel closely followed by Chaka Khan and bring round more tequila it all feels a damn sight more appealing than the Michelin starched alternative.
And so to the new contender, Chipotle. Unknown to us but beloved by the US, it’s another fast food chain that started 17 years ago in North America and has multiplied to 950 branches in the meantime. This week they opened their first European branch on Charing Cross Road, and are planning more openings in Paris and Munich soon. So far, so corporate behemoth, but there’s a few key differences. For starters, the branches aren’t franchised, so in theory quality should be consistent. Second, they make a big song and dance about ethical farming, which means their chicken is “higher welfare”, their steak “farm assured”, and their carnita created with “outdoor reared pork”. The ins and outs of classifications and quality are best left to discussion elsewhere and maybe Hugh FW’s inquisitive little face, but on the surface it seems kosher. I think. On the one hand they were once owned by McDonalds, on the other they sponsored ‘Food, Inc’. Maybe some US readers can wade in at this point?
There’s a distinctly American twang to the conversational babble upon entry, many of whom are flabbergasted by the price and doing mental currency conversion out loud, and in fact I might be the only non US resident in here. Even the staff are American, presumably shipped in to make sure everything goes smoothly in the first few weeks. A finely-tuned assembly line of about 12 cranks out burrito after burrito, rustling up the usual combo of ingredients. Mine was barbacoa, a dense and perfectly-packed brick bursting with rice, fresh lettuce, mature cheese, warm black beans, roasted chili corn salsa (a nice addition absent from other London chains) and the tangiest most tender meat I’ve found in a London Mexi joint.
The only downside? They also indulge in guac extortion, charging extra for a dollop. Oh, and the fact that they reportedly pack in 1,000 calories each. Chips were unreal, soft and malleable but with a chewy crunch, and evidently fried in some tasty fat while guacamole was quality over quantity, perfectly blended but too sparse.
Service was quick, clear and friendly and less obviously read off a crib sheet than most, and the decor in-and-out utilitarian. It’s not a place to linger like Benito’s Hat but for a post-work stop-gap it definitely beats the lonely basement of a deserted Subway. The US trio next to me finished theirs with satisfied sighs and declared in a sated SoCal drawl that “Tortilla’s OK, but this is better”. Amen to that.
Price per head: £24.50 for the El Panchos experience, £9.25 for a burrito, chips and guacamole at Chipotle.
Soundtrack: Lionel in one, nothing of note in the other.
Clientele: El Panchos packs in quite a few couples around the big parties, Chipotle whips through anyone and everyone.
Website: El Panchos / Chipotle
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