Sunday, May 6, 2012

Mestizo: Yes, There are Good Tamales in London

Name Mestizo Restaurant & Tequila Bar 
Address 103 Hampstead Road, NW1 3EL
Phone 020 73874064
Web site
Main dish price range £9.80 - £24
Rating 4 Stars. It's got a 3-star dinner, a 4-star brunch, and a 5-star tamale 
Recommended dishes Tamales and Pastor Tacos

London, of course, is a long way from Mexico-- the land of Coronas, sun, and ceviche. And Nick, as many of you know by now, is originally from California, probably the best place to find perfect Mexican food in the United States. (I'm dreaming of taco trucks as I write these words.)  So, you could say we were highly skeptical when a group of charming London School Economics alums we met told us they'd found the spot where real Mexican nationals go to pick up their tamales and eat authentic Mexican food. Immediately, we were intrigued. Could this exist?  And... would it be the next best thing to tacos on the beach in Tulum?

The place our new friends recommended was Mestizo, a nicely appointed restaurant with red walls and white tablecloths just a five minute walk from the either the Euston or Warren Street tube stations.  Knowing it was slightly more sleek than the usual place we review here, Nick and I decided to first try this restaurant on Valentine's Day, and our meal there quickly started off on a real high note. The Tamales (£5.40), our first appetizer, struck the perfect balance.  Peeling back husk revealed a mouthwatering soft and lightly moist dose of masa flour, wrapped around a generous meat filling. For the two tamales that came with our order, Nick and I opted for the delicious puerco con salsa verde (pork with green salsa) filling-- which had the perfect amount of kick-- and also the queso con rajas (cheese with peppers), a classic. Our meal was off to an auspicious and authentic start.

Answering a craving: The delectable Tamales at Mestizo.

Next up, we chased down our tamales with the restaurant's Sopa de Tortilla (£6.50), a nearly perfect fresh tomato soup with bits of fresh, homemade, corn tortillas sprinkled throughout.  The accompaniments that came on the side were also a particular highlight, and we enjoyed the white, crumbly cotija cheese, as well as the fresh avocado and bits of dried chilies.  As loyal readers know, Nick is never one to turn down a good opportunity to devour his share-- and often my share-- of chilies, so being able to sprinkle them liberally is always a plus.

A good back-up Valentine's date: Mestizo's divine Sopa de Tortilla.
When it came to the main courses, however, we began to feel a little deflated.  I've always been a sucker for a good mole, a term that most Mexican lovers know can mean a whole variety of yummy sauces that typically blanket tender, moist chicken and fresh rice and beans. At Mestizo, Mexico's national dish is presented in its most popular and classic form: A deep brown mole poblano, made from chili peppers, almonds, and about 20 other herbs and spices, finished with unsweetened chocolate. Mestizo's Mole Poblano main course (£14) was definitely good, but it was a bit more watery and not as thick as the best iterations I've had of this dish. The flavoring also wasn't as complex and multilayered as I would have liked.  I'd definitely rank it a B, and a good way to answer your mole craving in London in a pinch. For £14 though, and used as the main attraction of the dish-- as opposed to a seasoning in a taco-- I wanted more.

More Mole?  I'm not so sure. 
Our second main course, which left us particularly unimpressed, may have been more of a strategic ordering mistake.  Nick and I opted for the Pollo Ticul (£14), a classic Yucatan dish.  The chicken is speckled with achiote seeds-- lending a slightly bitter, earthy sort flavor-- and then sweetened with orange juice and honey, covered with vegetables, and cooked in a banana leaf. While it seemed decently well-executed, it wasn't nearly as spicy as we'd expected and lacked the sort of flavors we crave most in our Mexican food.  The whole thing was rather bland, mushy, and unmemorable, sort of like something I'd expect at a high-street chain.  It also wasn't cheap.

Bring on the bland: Mestizo's Pollo Ticul is a unmemorable mashup.
Ready to put Mestizo in our good-not-great category, Nick and I contacted our new friends, and they then told us the real secret of Mestizo lovers-- the restaurant's £20, all-you-can-eat, Sunday brunch. We assembled a big group, and headed together to this giant orgy of Mexican food-- and this time, Mestizo definitely didn't disappoint.  The waitresses kicked off our meal by offering us a selection of aguas frescas (pitchers of sweetened, ice-cold, fruit juices), and then we descended on the buffet, which included both pre-made items as well as two cooks on hand to make ready-to-order dishes like huevos rancheros (runny eggs with tortilla, fresh salsa, and refried beans) and chilaquiles (mole-soaked tortillas topped with eggs). Mestizo's selection of classic tacos were also made on the spot, their tortillas warmed on a griddle. Classic flavors like tinga (shredded chicken with tomatoes), pastor (marinated pork and pineapple), carnitas (slow-cooked pork), and rajas con crema (poblano pepper with sweet corn) were all available-- and many of them were excellent.

When it came to the regular buffet food, there were also some real highlights. Cerdo en Pipian, a pork in green chili sauce, had a great flavor and was kept piping hot, and a chicharron en salsa verde was also particularly delicious. Bonus authenticity points go to Mestizo for also offering nopales, a type of cactus widely available in Mexico that our friend had yet to find anywhere else in London. The one thing I'd leave behind, however, was the flan dessert, which was soaked in an overpowering orange syrup that overshadowed the flavor.

Overall, Nick and I are definitely planning to return to Mestizo, most likely on a Sunday afternoon.  (Writing this now-- on a Sunday, in fact-- I'm hearing Mestizo's call.) Also worth noting for the younger and more party-minded than us: Mestizo also supposedly has a world class selection of 160 tequilas, served at a bar downstairs that Travel and Leisure magazine once dubbed the "sexiest" tequila bar in all of Europe. Party on, Wayne-- or better yet, Waynitos.

Mestizo on Urbanspoon


Cholula tee said... is a good option, really nice homemade tamales

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