Why there are no great Mexican restaurants in London

by timchester

If you’ve got even a passing preference for burritos and tortillas, you’ll know London is in the midst of a minor Mexican revolution right now. Places to grab some carne asade tacos and a salt-rimmed margarita are popping up left, right and centre across the capital, and one of the newest is Goodge Street’s Benito’s Hat. Touted by many as the perfect taqueria, it’s a quick-fix take out posing as a hangout spot that offers your fast-becoming-bog-standard burrito/taco/salad choices, spun together along a production line with a smile. It’s fine, and I’ve eaten there many times.

The only problem with my last visit was that I had just returned from Southern California, the home away from home for Mexican cuisine and I quickly realised they still blow us far, far out of the water. The ingredients and construction may be the same, but the ethos is entirely different.

Over there, it’s celebrated as street food: messy, sumptuous, abundant. Here it’s measured into joyless profit bundles. Over there, from the family-run Guacamoles of Palm Springs to the street stalls of San Diego via the shopping mall branches of Rubio’s, the steak spills out of the edges, the guacamole oozes through your fingers and a seperate salsa bar lets you stock up on as much mild, medium and hot salsa, onions, peppers and lettuce as you want. Here, in Benito’s Hat, it’s a choice of THREE (stone cold) items wrapped into a tight foil wrap, salsa squirted stingily from a dinner lady condiment bladder and guac for 50p extra.

Of course, there’s something churlish about expecting Californian customs and attention to belly-filling outside California, and Benito’s website reminds us they “enjoy mixing authentic Mexican flavours with a dash of London’s own special character”. It’s just unfortunate they chose to add the miserly side of London’s special character, and made it more of a glug.

So this is why there’s no great Mexican restaurants in London: most of them aren’t run by Mexicans.

Benito’s Hat is owned by a city lawyer who went trekking round Texas for a bit, Covent Garden’s Wahaca is helmed by an English former Masterchef champion and Upper Street burrito bar Chilango is owned by a guy from Chicago called Eric. If you need further proof how far these people are from the dusty streets of Oaxaca, check out Eric’s “story” on the Chilango website. Before opening the restaurant he and his friend Dan “embarked on a gastro adventure… to Mexico City, Zihuatenejo, Ixtapa (and a few other places that we can’t spell)”.

Plus, at our last census in 2001 there were a meagre 5,000 Mexican heads counted in the entire country, so there’s few people to cause an uproar at these privileged gringos appropriating their culture – and even less who might club together in any kind of ‘quarter’ and define a region of London as mini-Mexico.

In fact, if you want Mexican in London you’ll be heading to some of the most affluent, tourist-filled and least interesting sheep pens in the capital: Canary Wharf, Covent Garden, Upper Street.

All of the above considered, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat at London’s Mexican restaurants (and I stuff my gills at them all frequently). Underneath the hand-rubbing attention to the bottom line – and despite the huge gulf between most of them and anything approaching true authenticity – they’re usually run with passion by true lovers of Mexican food. Loads of them are good. It’s just none of them are great.

Try these for size, starting at Wahaca followed by Mestizo if you have the cash. And let me know where I’ve missed – I’m especially interested in stands and stalls.

  • Benito’s Hat – fun fast food joint running to a tight-fisted profit margin
  • Cafe Pacifico – Covent Garden themed hellhole great for sombrero-clad office workers on a leaving do
  • Mestizo – joint best Mexican food in London, at an exorbitant premium
  • Wahaca – best all-rounder if you don’t mind waiting an hour
  • Tortilla – rapidly growing chain bringing the Pret vibe to Mexican
  • Chilango (formerly Mucho Mas) – ditto
  • Crazy Homies – fun, screamingly kitsch margarita den with great tacos
  • Green & Red – joint best Mexican food in great location with the biggest tequila selection (but you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with city boys)
  • Mercado – fun and messy Mexican cafe in the middle of BFE (ie where I live)
  • Desperados – worth a visit if you’re desperado and this kind of decor appeals:
Cartoon porn from Desperados' gents

Cartoon porn from Desperados' gents

(Unmentionable: Exquisite on London’s dodgiest street Blackstock Road)

{ 6 trackbacks }

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate B January 26, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I think your point regarding the proprietors is correct. I’m not sure about the parentage of Free Bird but this tasty stall found in SoHo’s Rupurt Street has two friendly young… probably Mexican, certainly Latin Americans, serving up the best burrito I have tasted in London. Much lauded on Qype, they are worth checking out as being reasonable priced and far more authentic than many I’ve tried in London. One round the corner in Soho serves a vegetarian option with British winter vegetables! I think there is not much place for a fat chunk of carrot in a burrito.

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Krista January 30, 2010 at 6:19 pm

I’m going to defend Eric here because I know him personally and he’s awesome. He lived in Chicago forever. OK, it’s not Mexico, but have you been to Chicago? There’s a Mexican place on every corner. That’s what you have for lunch at work and on Friday nights at 3 a.m. when the bars close down. I think that’s where his love of Mexican came from, and him and Dan have researched the sh*t out of what they’re doing. Give them some credit for quitting their day jobs and pursuing a dream!

To your list…add Taqueria, Crazy Homies, La Perla, Cafe El Paso, and that new place close to Spitalfields whose name escapes me at the moment. Also, I like the Luardo’s van on Whitecross Street. There’s Freebird on Exmouth Market during the week. And there’s that new burrito place on Clerkenwell Rd and St. John Street. (Again, name escapes me.)

I really enjoyed Mercado my one visit there. But I do love Crazy Homies the best. More Tex Mex than anything and the service is crap, but I love it anyhow.

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timchester January 30, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Points taken krista. I do like that place quite a bit. Crazy homies is great and an oversight – will add them asap

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Dave May 10, 2010 at 8:41 am

Mexican food doesn’t travel well at all to any country. Tacos, burritos and such like is just a cheap fast food in Mexico. Consider it to be like kebabs here, best eaten drunk on a Friday night.
Mexican food is a complicated cuisine. It’s slow food at its best.
The reason it doesn’t travel well at all, is because in Mexico all the cooks are women, and they do not leave Mexico much. Goto any restaurant in Mexico and you will see women doing all the cooking. Not the men.

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Tycie May 15, 2010 at 9:28 am

You should review the Daddy Donkey burrito stall on Leather Lane market, although they do charge the obligatory 50p extra for guac which riles a bit. But it’s still my Friday lunchtime belly busting treat. Allow 20 mins for the queue.

You also need to rate the margaritas when you do a review because they vary wildly and I would go to a place specifically for a great margarita.

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timchester May 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Thanks Tycie. Yeah Friday is burrito day for me too generally. Margies – good shout. I’ll add those in as I revisit places. TC

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Luke the Yank October 8, 2010 at 6:38 am

Will 2nd the Luardo’s van on Whitecross as a very decent burrito.

You missed off El Camino in Notting Hill and now Brewer Street. Decent all round though they do charge extra for salsa verde which I have complained to them about.

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Eddie August 10, 2011 at 8:54 am

Check Entrecote tortilla 21 Cranbourn St. next to leicester square tube station Exit 3 the best one i had in my life

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Itra January 7, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Try ‘Adobo’ – they come closest to my American burrito standards.

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timchester January 9, 2012 at 11:13 am

Thanks for the tip. I’d never heard of this place but looks great. Meatballs in tacos are a first for me in London, ditto chorizo

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Nick January 17, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Is Notting Hill’s Taqueria missing from this discussion? It may not be cheap, but it is what Wahaca wishes it could be, and likely will never be. I’d say it is about as close to proper Mexican as you can get in London aside from Buen Provecho.

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timchester January 19, 2012 at 11:33 am

Cheers Nick. I feel like I’ve been there, years ago, but it didn’t stick in my memory. Maybe a revisit is on the cards.

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Indira March 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm

How about Poncho No 8 (is this the place some people are referring to above?!)? I think they have a few locations around London but I had an excellent burrito at the one near Spitalfields – definitely better than Chilango and Chipotle, I thought. Also, Casa Morito in Market Row, Brixton is seriously great. Can’t wait to go back for more!

I wish there was more good Mexican food around London but it does seem to be on the rise… I’m off to the States in a few weeks so can’t wait to sample some delicacies in California!

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blah November 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm

lupita (embankment) is the sister of a mexico city restaurant and pretty good?

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CG April 7, 2013 at 10:01 am

Boho Mexica is currently, by far, the best and most authentic.

La Esquina in NYC, which is awesome and always packed, is opening up here later in ‘13. La Bodega Negra blatantly ripped off La Esquina with having a “fake” store front and is a poor copy when it comes to the food as well.

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Daniel McCarthy April 19, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Try Tequeria on Westbourne Grove going into Notting Hill. Amazing soft tacos, rice and plaintain. I’m no Mexican but this place is supposed to be the real deal. All I know is the food and cocktails are amazing.

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Fabiola Zamora June 29, 2013 at 9:13 pm

I’m mexican and i’ve never been in london but it seems to me that you don’t have authentic mexican cuisine at all in there! I mean, burritos are not even eaten in here (really, just in a 7/12 at a gas station) You have to try mole poblano, tamales, tacos dorados, caldo de olla, chilpachole, pozole, tamales, carnitas, enfrijoladas, enchiladas, menudo, caldo de pollo, adobo, costillitas en salsa verde, manchamantel, and the real deal: Tacos (but authentic ones) de canasta, sudados, al pastor… Maybe if I ever get to go to London I could open a mexican restaurant, I mean, I know how to make masa, mexican cheeses like Oaxaca and panela and salsas. :p

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Edward July 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I agree with a lot of what you have said.

However, I think there is one exception, Santo on Portobello Road.

It is Mexican owned, the food is good and the place has an authentic feel.

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Mar January 16, 2014 at 2:09 am

This seems to be a very old article. I currently live in the UK and have been to London many times.

I am very hard to please when it comes to flavours and their authenticity and in London it seems most of “mexican” restaurants mix a couple of Mexican authentic food with a lot of Tex Mex.

I have tried Lupita, Taqueria, Cafe Lupita, Mestizo, Chilango… and the ones I have enjoyed the most are Taqueria and Cafe Lupita. The others seem crap to me, some try to make it look like mexican food but they lack the real Mexican taste (notice how I write “mexican” for non authentic and “Mexican” for authentic!). Wahaca is one of the worst in my opinion, no wonder they have to spend tons of pounds on marketing!

One that is also not listed (maybe because it didnt exist by the time this article was written) is Tamal.co.uk, a small stall in Maltby Street Market which sell really good Mexican tamales (you can also order them online if you are not in london). Oh and Santo Remedio has a couple of dishes too

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Tim February 20, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Try Luardos at Whitecross Market. Best burrito I’ve had in the UK, and comparable to California-style burritos.

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