Mexican food – we all know what it is, right? Nachos or burritos with ready-mixed guacamole, loads of Cheddar cheese, and enough chillies to clear your sinuses for a year. Well, actually, no. That’s Tex-Mex that you are describing and although there is no question that it can be a delicious cuisine in its own right, no Mexican living south of the border would ever embrace it as Mexican home cooking. This is one of the first lessons I learnt when we visited Chihuahua, Mexico for a wedding a few years ago. Instead, I discovered the many and varied joys of taquerias and empanadas and moles, and the vast and complex cuisine that spawned them. But what if you can’t afford a plane ticket to Mexico? In London there is a simple solution: head for Mestizo.
Mestizo in north London, owned and staffed by Mexicans, has been open for ten years this year – and I have been visiting it for at least eight of those years. It opened in the days before Wahaca and Lupita and the like, when real Mexican food was quite unheard of in London, and has been going strong ever since. They set out to show that true Mexican cuisine is something special (in fact, Mexican traditional cuisine was added to UNESCO’s register of intangible cultural heritage in 2010) and that it spans not only 2000 years of history but also a vast and varied collection of distinct regional cuisines. To showcase this, each year Mestizo hosts a number of festivals including a gastronomic festival (highlighting classic dishes from different parts of Mexico), an Independence Day festival, a chile festival, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and of course, a festival to celebrate Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead, the day when the spirits of departed friends and relatives are said return to visit the living.
When I entered the restaurant last week, the first thing that struck me was the staggering range of tequilas displayed behind the bar on beautifully lit mirrored shelves: Mestizo has over 125 tequilas, the largest collection in the UK, ranging from the usual blanco through reposada to premium anejo aged tequila. The second thing that caught my eye was the large and elaborately decorated Dia de los Muertos altar that had been set up beside the bar. The Dia de los Muertos altar is one of the most important aspects of this festival celebrating departed loved ones and in Mexico, all families build an altar in the days or even weeks leading up to 1 November. The altar may be as simple as a table top or, as in Mestizo, be an elaborate multi-tiered affair built from wooden crates and draped with papel picado (decorative pieces of cut-out paper). All altars feature certain common elements including candles and incense; marigolds (their scent is said to lead the spirits to the altar); salt (representing continued life); water (to refresh the spirits after their journey); pan de muerto (a special sweet bread baked for the festival); decorated sugar skulls or papier maché skeleton figures; photos of the deceased; and ofrenda – offerings of the departed’s favourite food and drink for the spirits to enjoy during their visit – so it is not uncommon to find a bottle of tequila on an altar!
In the week leading up to Dia de los Muertos this year, Mestizo has been hosting a festival of mole, the iconic sauce of Mexican cuisine. Although the word “mole” is a generic term for sauce, it has also come to mean a number of widely varying sauce-based dishes containing chile with the three most famous ones being from Puebla, Oaxaca and Tlaxcala. A common legend explaining the origins of the sauce tells of the nuns of the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla who went into a panic when they heard the bishop would be visiting as they had almost no ingredients to prepare a meal for him. Legend has it that the nuns prayed and then threw together whatever they had (such as chile peppers, spices, stale bread and chocolate); killed a turkey and served the cooked turkey meat in their rathre makeshift sauce. The bishop loved it and one of the most iconic sauces in the world was born. Even today, mole sauces have massive and complex ingredient lists (20 or more ingredients in the sauce alone) and every family has its own special recipe. On the menu at Mestizo during the mole festival were 12 moles from across the country, and while we were making our tough decision, we had some special Dia de los Muertos drinks: a Diablo Margarita (£7.50) for me (Sauza Hornitos Tequila, triple sec, agave syrup and fresh tamarind in chile salt-rimmed glass) and Nick bravely had a Levanta Muertos (£5.50) (a mixture of beer, clam juice, Worcestershire sauce, Maggi sauce, Tabasco and lime juice served in a salt-rimmed goblet). Imagine a more savoury bloody Mary… with beer – apparently it is a hangover cure par excellence.
Other than the 12 moles, there was also a selection of starters from the usual a la carte menu available, and Nick and I respectively chose the ceviche de camaron (£8.80) and the flautas (£7.20) to start. Ceviche is traditionally a Peruvian dish where raw fish is “cooked” in a lime juice marinade, but the Mexican variation which is popular in Veracruz is made with cooked shrimp in lemon juice, chopped tomatoes, onions, serrano chiles and coriander leaf. Ours was served with tostados (tortilla chips) and fresh avocado and it was addictively good. The shrimps were fat and sweet and the sauce was tangy and piquant without overwhelming the prawns, and the avocado added a creamy, cooling note. Flautas (literally “flutes”) are rolled tortillas that are filled with chicken and then fried till crisp before being served topped with lettuce, sour cream, green tomatillo salsa and queso fresco (a fresh, crumbly Mexican cheese rather like a mild feta). I have loved them since I first ate them at Mestizo in 2005 and I still do, with their crispy exterior, mild filling, fresh salsa and salty cheese. Very moreish!
And then it was on to the main event: the moles. We were seriously spoilt for choice. Other than the super-traditional turkey mole poblano, there was also beef or vegetable mole de olla; pato en pipian verde (a green mole with duck; carretero lamb cutlet mole from Veracruz) – even a couple of seafood moles! After much debate, Nick settled on the guajolote en mole negro (£14.00) while I chose the cordero en mole amarillo (£16.50). Guajolote is the wonderfully onomatopoeic Mexican word for turkey, and Nick’s dish consisted of turkey steaks coated in what looked like dark chocolate sauce, served with rice, refried beans, and flour tortillas that came in the most covetable fabric tortilla warmer. Although I am not always a huge fan of the dark, smoky flavours of mole negro, I was rather taken with Nick’s, allegedly one of the hardest moles to make containing six different types of chile peppers, seeds, nuts, spices, herbs and chocolate. It had the consistency of a thick gravy but the intriguing flavour of spice and bitter cocoa. Definitely a perfect introduction to Mexican food for the uninitiated. My Oaxacan yellow mole amarillo was a far milder affair made from, amongst others, guajillo chile peppers, tomato, cumin, garlic and onion . Rather than the more traditional turkey or chicken, the meat in this mole is a lamb shank and mine was fork-tender. The sauce is milder and more subtle than mole negro but still has a little chile sting in the tail – a great dish to break people into the idea of a Mexican mole gently.
Portions are generous (as you can see!) and we were pretty full by this stage, but it seemed churlish not to try a dessert or two. Nick played it very safe and had some ice-cream (£4.80): one scoop each of vanilla and a particularly good chocolate ice-cream full of chocolate chunks. I could not resist the lure of the crepas de cajeta (4.20) consisting of thin crepes topped with cajeta, a creamy caramel sauce rather like dulce du leche, but made by reducing and caramelising sweetened goat’s milk. The dish arrived piping hot – very sweet but so, so good. I also loved the crunch of the walnuts and the vanilla ice cream which melted creamily into the cajeta. We both finished off with cups of cafá de Olla, traditional Mexican sweetened black cinnamon coffee served in little earthenware cups .
If you happen to visit on a Thursday, you will find the popular Jueves Mexicano (Mexican Thursday) in full swing ‘Downstairs’ at Mestizo. This is the restaurant’s basement private function area and boasts not only its own bar but also also an impressive collection of Mezcals and its own taqueria-style taco stand. At other times, the function room is available to hire as a meeting or eating venue and sometimes also hosts live Mexican and Latin music and guest DJs.
I’ve often heard people scoff that you can’t get proper Mexican food in London – but the fact is that at Mestizo you can: proper Mexican food cooked and served by proper Mexicans. You may argue that, being non-Mexican, I would not know if it is the real thing or not, but I take the word of my Mexican friend who swears by the place for her taco fix. (By the way, it is one of only two places I know in London that serve my all-time favourite tacos – tacos al pastor!). Come on Sunday for their brunch menu when for £19.99 you can eat as much as you like from a menu that includes menudo, tacos, huevos rancheros and bottomless horchata. They also cater for special diets. If I have any criticism it is that the service can also be a little, erm, authentically Mexican and too laid-back and/or disorganised, but always with a winning smile. But the food makes up for any glitches in the service and is the reason that I have been going there since 2005.
Mestizo Restaurant & Tequila Bar
103 Hampstead Rd
Tel: 020 7387 4064
Fax: 020 7383 4984
If you enjoyed this review, you may like to see my other restaurant reviews.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Mestizo but was not required to write a positive review. All opinions expressed are my own and I retained full editorial control.