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Taco takeover: why Mexican cuisine is the next big thing

Taco takeover: why Mexican cuisine is the next big thing

by Hugh Thomas 02 February 2017

Hugh Thomas charts the rise of Mexican food in the UK and sits down with chef Martha Ortiz to find out how her new London restaurant Ella Canta is taking it to new heights.


Tacos were the dish du jour at the tail end of 2016, with an abundance of new taco-led restaurants opening – and flourishing – around London. There came El Pastor, with its punchy £2.50 24-hour marinated pork shoulder and caramelised pineapple taco. There came Breddos’ permanent home – a taqueria embodying the success of their taco-slinging escapades in car parks and cocktail bars. There came chef Neil Rankin’s Temper – a temple to meat and smoke and animal fat packaged and delivered via the taco.

Interest in the taco, not to mention Mexican cuisine more broadly, is showing no signs of calmándose. Thing is, we’ve arguably not seen its true colours yet. In spring, Martha Ortiz, one of South America’s luminary chefs (her Dulce Patria joint in Mexico City is consistently placed in Latin America’s Top 50 Restaurants list) opens her first venture outside Mexico, at the InterContinental Park Lane.

The name Ella Canta, meaning ‘she sings’, suggests what hopes to go on here – elements of beauty, femininity, and a will to express them. A sense of passion, too –when I ask Martha why she picked London as the site for her second restaurant, she says London picked her. ‘It’s like a relationship,’ she says, ‘when you want something, but it comes to you.’

Much like Dulce Patria, Ella Canta promises to be a concrescence of high and low cuisine. Mexican food, such as quesadillas, guacamoles and ceviche, is food for the people. Martha’s manifesto is about elevating these Mexican staples in a playful fashion, yet remaining respectful to their traditions. It’s a way of opening up cuisine – not like the exclusivity shackled to a lot of food in the UK. ‘Everybody eats a tortilla,’ says Martha. ‘It’s like our communion with the sun. It’s meant to be like that.’

Martha Ortiz
Martha Ortiz is one of Mexico's top chefs, and her Mexico City-based restaurant Dulce Patria always features in the Latin America's Top 50 Restaurants list
Ella Canta
Her new restaurant Ella Canta is at the InterContinental Park Lane in London

What’s natural to Latin Americans though might take some getting used to for west London’s white tablecloth demographic. ‘I’ve seen people eat just the [taco] filling with a fork,’ says Martha. ‘You have to learn how to do it. Like a Mexican.’

Arguably, the taco’s symbolism is the pinnacle to this egalitarian approach to food. As to the sudden interest in the taqueria in the UK, Martha thinks it’s a response to the current food arena. ‘In a way, I think tacos can be very simple but very sophisticated at the same time. It doesn’t take a lot of time to eat them, and you can eat them standing up or sitting down. They have that kind of democracy about them.’

Speaking of London’s Mexican establishments, she says we’re on the right track. ‘I’ve been to Wahaca, Peyote, and Peyotito,’ says Martha. ‘I really enjoyed Peyotito. The chef, Adriana [Cavita], is doing a great job. Thomasina Miers is making a big effort, and a good one. And I thought Santo Remedio was very good, with a sensible chef, before it closed.’

As good as our restaurants may be, some of the criticism directed towards them concerns our inability to produce authentic Mexican food in the UK. Whether it be lacking chefs with the right education, or not having access to ingredients that make dishes what they’re supposed to be. Martha suggests it’s similar to our relationship with Chinese food – our idea of it is heavily corrupted, and because we haven’t had much inspiration otherwise, the impression has stuck. Is it the same with Mexican food and the American bastardisation that is Tex-Mex?

Maybe that won’t be a problem much longer – with her new restaurant, Martha promises us a good schooling, as much as anything else. ‘We’ll bring lots of chillies, because people think they’re all the same, dry or fresh, she says. ‘I study chillies, and give lectures about them. We’ll also make our own masa [flour made from cooked corn kernels soaked in lime], and I have a part of the menu dedicated to the cacao, which is coming from Tabasco directly.’

Mexican food
Martha hopes to bring proper, authentic Mexican food to the fore in the UK, dispelling myths that it is all fajitas and burritos
Mexican
Lots of ingredients native to Mexico will be imported specially for the restaurant, including a vast array of chillies

If the idea of such a wide and liberal use of cacao – which has been used in Mexican cuisine for thousands of years – is new to you, then that should give you some indication of what to expect. Add to that the introduction of various mole – a collective term to describe the large variety of vibrant and intensely flavoured sauces that permeate Mexican cooking – and the experience should be nothing short of enlightening. ‘I will bring the black mole,’ says Martha. ‘The black tastes smoky, earthy, elegant. It’s cooked with ashes, which is so sophisticated and profound. And spiritual – you come from the ashes, you will be the ashes, and you eat the ashes.’

According to Martha, a good mole needs a good, strong wine. ‘They’re like lovers. I’m bringing premium Mexican wines because we’re in a good [part of the world] to have wine. And they’re very powerful in Mexican cuisine.’ The same goes for spirits. ‘We’re also bringing not just tequila and mescal, but ricilla, bacanora, and sotol, too. Which is very adventurous in this country.’

The Mexican attitude towards cooking is, in a way, everything the British one isn’t. Perhaps that’s why we find it so curious. You’ve got a sense of spirituality rooted in Mesoamerican tradition, like that of the Aztecs; a fastidious but instinctive approach to creating dishes vivid in colour and flavour; and the idea that food is one-for-all, not all-for-one. So, will the new tide of Mexican cuisine seduce the British appetite indefinitely, or simply wash over it? Hopefully, Ella Canta will have the answers.

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