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I Miss Mexican Food

I knew there would be some things I would sorely miss moving from San Francisco to London:

  • Going to the Baker Beach and seeing the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Hiking up in Muir Woods
  • Trips to Wine Country or down to Carmel and Big Sur
  • My “Compassionate Health” Card

I was expecting good food to be high on that list as well but the first few days we were out here we were quite blown away at how things had turned around. We were finding surprisingly good food in everything from nice restaurants to pubs to food stands/trucks. It wasn’t just greasy fish & chips and Indian curry that were your go-tos … it was Thai, Turkish cuisine, Spanish tapas, artisanal burgers, and of course non-greasy and much upgraded fish & chips.

Surprisingly one of the things we had a bit of trouble finding great options in was Indian, not for lack of places within the city but we simply didn’t seem to be picking the right ones. We’re slowly getting better and have kept a list of the places we eat/drink for future reference.

Of course the one cuisine we figured we’d miss most was Mexican and boy were we right! It’s amazing for a city and food scene that is so ethnically diverse and cultured that Mexican, and especially good Mexican, is by far the hardest thing to find. There are Italian spots everywhere, Chinese take away and fancy dine-in places, sushi, Ethiopian, you name it.

Now it’s not for lack of places because you can find Chilango which is basically a Chipotle-style place.  They’re not bad and a good alternative for something quick if you’re dying for some Mexican-like food.

Then there is Tortilla whose slogan is “Real California Burritos & Tacos.” I tried one and it’s the only time I’ve been sick out here … allegedly they’ve never been to California to do their market research. They’re everywhere around town which is sort of a giveaway that it’s not going to be super authentic, I mean even their chips & salsa wasn’t great … a lot of heat in the spicy salsa but no real flavor.

One I haven’t tried yet but still want to because I hear their salsa is good and spicy is Benito’s Hat. Again they are plenty of them around town but I’m willing to try it.

Then we come to the more upscale spots, one of which we’ve tried. La Bodega Negra has 2 locations around the corner from one another. The first is a casual café, bar restaurant atmosphere with an open kitchen, views of the Palace Theatre and the busy intersection of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. It’s lively, loud, open and usually pretty busy for lunch, after work drinks/quick snacks as well as dinner.

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I did stop here to have a drink before we ate at their restaurant around the corner. It did have a lot of atmosphere although like most drinks out her it wasn’t particularly strong. So we walked around the corner to the restaurant for our reservation. I’ll start by saying that the ambiance, atmosphere and setting was amazing and, unfortunately maybe the best part.

You walk into a door that, from the outside, looks like it leads into a sex shop. Big “XXX” and “Live Girls” neon signs and other signs fill the windows with a blacked-out door. Once inside you’re in a small room with an unassuming host dressed in all black and a small clipboard. They act like they don’t know they’re a restaurant unless you have a reservation in which case they take you downstairs after you check any coats or bags.

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Once you get downstairs it livens up and you walk into a cave-like room with an openish kitchen, a bar and small dining room to your left and 2 other dining rooms to your right. We were in the far dining room to the right which had amazing ambiance. Again you have the cave atmosphere with the wall you entered through being stone with a neat archway. The wall to the left of that features a number of pictures, murals and mirrors. The wall behind us was made of old wine barrels stacked up from left to right and top to bottom. The other wall looked like they bombed out a small section to put in a large U-shaped booth in a rather good size nook.

Things were looking up and we ordered drinks. The Pisco Sour was pretty good I must admit although the few Mezcal Old Fashioned drinks I had afterwards were a bit better. We got quite a few things from the menu and maybe half of it was good although not a bunch of it was as traditional as I expected.

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After we ordered we looked around and saw some interesting takes on Mexican cuisine such as something that looked like a pizza or flatbread. Our first dish came out and it was the Quesadilla Rustica with quatro queso, roasted tomato and epazote. Turns out it’s not really a quesadilla at all but that flatbread thing we just saw. While the flavor wasn’t bad it was open-faced and on a crispy tortilla, how do you mess that up?

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Luckily the tacos that came next were better. They were smaller 2-bite guys (which we ordered more of after our mains came). The char-roasted mushrooms were good but I heard the winner was the braised beef (although I didn’t try any of those). It was also a bit random for them to have ceviche on a Mexican menu but we figured we should try 1 of the 3 so we went with the Ceviche Baja. it consisted of Seabass & Citrus. This was actually one of the best things we had there!

We did both of the tostaditos as well which were maybe the biggest rip-off of the night as it was 1 rather small tostadito per order. We did both the nopales with black beans and queso fresca and tuna with chipotle, avocado and jalapeño. The nopales one literally had no flavor at all and the tuna one, for £7, was a slice of sashimi tuna on a tostadito with a hard piece of avocado, 2 small jalapeño slices and a dash of chipotle sauce.

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Finally our mains came and they were, again, interesting and a bit pricey for what you got. The habanero soft shell crab (another odd choice) was tasty and presented nicely but very deceptive on how many pieces you actually get … hence us ordering more tacos afterwards. The Chilli Poblano Relleno Quinoa was a pretty good vegetarian option although they don’t know how to properly utilize cheese in this country. It’s treated like it’s caviar out here or something because they are not at all liberal with their cheese in any dish which is, along with salsa, beans and rice, a backbone of a good Mexican dish.

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So while it was not bad once you know what to order, for the price of the bill at the end of it, it’s not someplace you can go often. So for anyone who is in or around London:

What’s your favorite Mexican food restaurant, taqueria, stand, food truck, etc?

Have Oyster Card … Will Travel!

– Beard

What's on your mind?

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