Tired eateries boasting sombreros and plastic cacti have done little for the reputation of Mexican food. But a torrent of new restaurants could see the country’s authentic cuisine get the recognition it deserves
Fri 22 Aug 2014 11.26 BSTFirst published on Fri 22 Aug 2014 11.26 BST
There is more to Mexican food than tacos. Photograph: Alamy
A couple of weeks before the opening of a new Mexican restaurant, you might expect the developers to be busy screwing the last plastic cactus to the wall, supervising the arrival of the first batch of super-hot chillis and making sure that the waiters’ comedy sombreros fit. At Niño Viejo in Barcelona, however, sombreros are not in evidence. In fact, the only headwear on show is the hard-hats being worn by men shifting a work-surface from one side of the kitchen to the other, while a worried-looking Albert Adrià looks on.
Adrià is the man who, along with his more famous brother, Ferran Adrià, helped make El Bulli the “official” best restaurant in the world. Since then, he has been building a small restaurant empire in the old theatre district of Barcelona, Paral.lel. He’s done a cheaper, more accessible version of El Bulli (Tickets), he’s done traditional Spanish (Bodega 1900), he’s done impeccably modish Peruvian-Japanese (Pakta). Is the fact that he is about to “do” Mexican, in the form of taco bar Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa, a high-end restaurant next door, the latest sign that this misunderstood country’s cuisine is about to be the next big thing?
Mexico has been getting the critics excited for several years. Two of its restaurants, Pujol and Biko, appeared in the 2013 “World’s 50 Best” list. In the UK, Mexican chains such as Benito’s Hat, Chilango and Chipotle are starting to challenge the dominance of Indian and Chinese restaurants on the high street. Ask experts to name good, “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Europe, though, and they tend to draw a blank after a handful of names. “In Europe, because of the difficulties of finding the product, there aren’t many great Mexican restaurants,” says Adrià. “But in Mexico there’s a revolution going on in food.”
Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa’s head chef, Paco Méndez (who worked with the Adriàs at El Bulli), says there has always been more to Mexican food than people realised. “For me, only China has as much richness and variety in its cuisine as Mexico,” he says. “We have something that others don’t have and that’s different climates: we’re on the equator and in the tropics, but we also have the cold, the sea and the mountains.”
Sign up for Word of Mouth: the best of Guardian Food every week
But can any of that richness make it to Europe? One man who thinks that it can is ex-banker Tarun Mahrotri. He opened Peyote, in London’s Mayfair, last year, placing a sizeable bet that high-end Mexican could win over the super-rich. “I’m from an Indian background,” he says, “and for me it’s very similar to Indian food. Mole is like curry, the tortillas are like Indian bread, the salsas are like Indian chutney. Indian is the most widely consumed national cuisine in the UK but eventually somebody came along and did it in a more refined way. Now you’ve got places such as Gymkhana, which was voted the country’s best restaurant.”
The big difference between Mexican food and Indian food in the UK is that the latter arrived via a large community of people from the sub-continent. The former is arriving, on the whole, via US-owned chains. If there is a demand for more authentic Mexican food, it is being driven by the increasing popularity of Mexico as a tourist destination. British Airways, for example, has increased direct flights to the country from five to nine a week since 2001.
Until recently, anyone attempting to meet that demand faced problems in sourcing ingredients. However, there are entrepreneurs attempting to fill the gap. In 2013, another ex-banker, American Kristen Schnepp, opened the Gringa Dairy in Peckham, South London, making Mexican cheeses such as queso fresco, queso oaxaca and queso chihuahua. “I noticed that the quality of Mexican restaurants in London was improving every year,” she says. “There was basically nothing 20 years ago, just bad Tex-Mex hen-party places. Now there’s Mestizo, Peyote, Taqueria, Lupita, Casa Morita in Brixton and Wahaca.” Schnepp thinks Mexican food will ultimately be a lot bigger than just the “next Peru”. “I think it’ll be like Italian food,” she says. “You have your pizza restaurants but also regional places. There’ll be Tex-Mex places with sombreros and hen parties but also more traditional places.”
For any of this to come to pass it seems likely that we will need more actual Mexicans leading the way. There’s no shortage of trained chefs waiting for their chance. The Mexican food revolution began when culinary schools sprouted up around the country. There are now more than 400 of them and students can pay as much as $25,000 (£15,000) a year. “There aren’t enough restaurants for so many students to get work,” says Méndez. “Now all the chefs want to be on TV. In Mexico, 25% of the TV is cooking programmes.”
Meanwhile, back in Barcelona, the delayed opening of Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa could be a metaphor for our long wait for “real” Mexican food. At the time of writing, the former has just opened its doors and, according to early reviews, there’s still not a sombrero to be seen.