NB - This is not a proper restaurant review - this is the personal experience of a Mexican writer visiting with on a day when she had a tummy-ache and a newly-developed meat intolerance. For a review, see here:
When the publishers of "The Joshua Files" offered to throw the launch party (early in 2008) in a 'top London Mexican restaurant' I had my doubts. I mean - was there such a thing? Cheesy-soaked nachos, soggy enchiladas and margaritas, I don't call a Mexican restaurant; no matter how much papel picado they string around and how much mariachi music they play. So I had a look - had London changed since last time I'd ventured out to eat 'Mexican'? (Which was around ten years ago...)
Turns out it had. We found this place, Mestizo, which is run by a Mexican woman, Marysol Alvarado, where they really seem to care about catering to we few England-based Mexicans who are fed up of not being able to get decent tortillas, having to cook our own frijoles refritos (refried beans) and not being able to go out to a proper Sunday brunch where you can eat hot spicy food and sweet buns for two hours.
Agent Cox, the Editor and I rolled up one quiet lunchtime last week to test the waters. The decor is minimalist-cosmopolitan rather than gaudy-Mexican. I suppose that fits in better with London. Me, I like the colonial style, but it does go best in the right setting, which isn't London. A plasma screen in the corner shows a looped video of Mexican folkloric dancing, including the jarocho, a sort of Irish-dancing style dance which Joshua sees in a scene in the first book. Watching it, I started to get a little nostalgic, especially when they showed the voladores de Papantla...oh , why, that's a long story... The music playing softly in the background was just right - not mariachi but popular Latinoamerican songs played on marimbas, with a bit of a tropical rhythm.
The menu looked very promising, sadly I was nursing a bit of a tummy ache as a result from departing from what was meant to be a temporary, Lenten vegan diet, but which has since made it impossible for me to to eat dairy without suffering for the next two days.
(Two days previously, in honour of a bi-annual visit from our former neighbour and great pal, the Chilean tenor Rodrigo del Pozo, I'd eaten spaghetti sorrentina at our local Italian in Summertown - Cibo - which has lots of melted mozzarella, and had even dared to have ice-cream for dessert. Hey, you have to try to get back on the horse! I was still doubled up by Tuesday...)
Anyway, I picked a big selection of things for Editor and I to try, including meat and dairy. Marysol offered to make the militantly vegan Agent Cox something off the menu, a mushroom-based mixiote. He also tucked into guacamole and nachos, which are safe.
I noticed that they had tamales. Brave, to try making tamales! They don't even get those right everywhere in Mexico. I asked Marysol to be straight with me - how were they? "They're good," she said. "Not exactly what you'd get in Mexico, of course, because it's tough to get the ingredients. But tasty."
So Editor and I started with a mixed dish of antojitos - like tapas, which included a little deep fried quesadilla, a jalada (jalapeno pepper with fresh cheese), a flauta (deep fried chicken taco) and a tamale (with mole sauce and chicken). It was all yummy, even the tamale which was a little drier than you might get on the streets of Mexico, but tasted good. Especially the flauta, small and crunchy with sour cream, salsa verde, lettuce and cheese - just right.
We also tried a gordita, filled with cochinita pibil (marinated, shredded pork). This was my first indication that the vegan diet had spoiled me for meat - at least red meat. It had been weeks since I tried it, and although it tasted really authentic, I had difficulty eating it.
We moved on to our 'main' - tacos al pastor and tacos of carnitas - shredded spicy beef.
The tacos al pastor looked and smelt delicious. Sometimes I wonder if I go to Mexico as much to eat tacos al pastor and chicken-with-mole, as I do to see my family. That's how much I love those tacos. In Mexico each taco place has their own secret recipe for the marinade. It must have orange juice, lime juice, oil, achiote and cumin, but whatever else can be the X-factor. My Uncle Agustin used to cook for a living and he reckons that you add a splash of Coca-Cola. You marinade thinly sliced pork loin and then mount them on a doner-type skewer, which must be flamed as it turns. In a busy taqueria in Mexico, the pastorero cuts slices from this doner-type thing with a sharp knife, dipping in and out between the bursts of flame. Then you eat the meat on corn tortillas with fresh onion, coriander and pineapple. My Aunty Tere used to own a taco restaurant in Tuxtla Gutierrez and told me that a good pastorero can command a relatively high wage for a restaurant worker - they are rare.
Anyway, at Mestizo I don't know if they have a pastorero, but the meat tasted great and they'd even slightly grilled the pineapple for extra yumminess. But after two mouthfuls I knew that I wasn't going to be able to eat it - however delicious. Agent Cox writes in his polemical tome "You Don't Need Meat" that when you stop eating meat, your system gets retrained so that you stop craving it, even liking it. Well, it's true. You don't even need to try very hard...it just happens.
A keen omnivore, the Editor tucked into everything with gusto...hurray for her!...while she told us all about her forthcoming wedding and honeymoon plans. (Bali! Lucky her - she'll have a lovely time and food is heaven!)
Meanwhile Agent Cox demolished the steamed contents of a maguey leaf stuffed with the mushroom mixiote, as well as a dish of frijoles (black beans) and a small pile of tortillas, loading them with salsa macho, which is one of those sauces I rarely eat - I stay away from the evil-looking blood-red ones cos they tend to hurt, as he was to discover! Then...still hungry, he tried to order another mixiote, to Marysol's impressed amazement...and doubt. Well, I was a bit concerned at what double helpings of all those different chiles might do to his system, so I vetoed that and told Marysol to bring frijoles refritos, pico de gallo (a raw tomato sauce with lime, chillies and coriander) and more tortillas, which won't do anything worse than make you fat.
We also shared a pitcher of margaritas - slightly frozen, which seemed to be churned in a machine like those which make 'slushies'. It wasn't bad at all, but made with orange juice rather than fresh lime. So I asked Marysol to bring us three margaritas made fresh with lime. "Oh, you want the real thing?" she said, and went off to rustle up the cocktails.
We tried bottles of Pacifico beer. It's from Mazatlan, and actually very good. A bit like Carta Blanca, but sweeter. They also have Corona and Negro Modelo, which I know is good but I wanted a nice mild lager.
All the lunchtime beer and cocktails were making me drowsy. Editor and Agent Cox both had meetings later that afternoon, which amazed me. I knew I'd pretty soon be good for nothing.
Ah, the idle life of a writer. It's not all bad.
Mind you next week won't be so relaxed. Many heavy, serious meetings at the school where I'm a governor...
In summary - Mestizo is just the place to get your fix of real Mexican food in London. Marysol told us that they even do a proper Mexican buffet-brunch on Sundays and showed us the menu - a selection of dishes that would do the Camino Real Hotel proud. I hope they add hot cakes with cajeta and chilaquiles with green tomato sauce. Mmmmmm.
Luckily I can just about eat eggs - although only a few bites, and the odd bit of chicken.
(Agent Cox will be cross with me if he ever reads this. Okay Peter! Don't eat meat - it's cruel to animals. Eggs and dairy are horrible for your cholesterol levels - and animals don't have the best time providing them either! Being vegan is healthier!)