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