Welcome to Health Goth, our column dedicated to cooking vegetables in ways that even our most cheeseburger-loving, juice-bar-loathing readers would approve of. Not everyone realises this, but vegetables actually do taste good. We invite chefs to prove this assertion—and they do, time and time again.
Taco Queen probably shouldn’t have worked. The small restaurant in Peckham, South London, which opened in August 2016, wasn’t started by food experts. In fact, the couple behind the operation—Lucy Lightowlers and Ryan McCann—had never worked in the food industry before.
“We didn't really have a plan,” Lightowlers tells me, as I sit down with her and McCann at the restaurant on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. “Ryan and I both used to work in music, at record labels, and we were both miserable for a really long time and eventually decided to pack it in.”
“He went from bit-torrenting records to bit-torrenting cookbooks,” Lightowlers laughs.
Taco Queen shouldn’t have worked, but as someone who has spent many evenings uncomfortably full from the cornflake-battered avocado tacos or kimchi quesadillas, I can confirm that it certainly does.
The pair now play a proud part in Peckham’s expanding food scene—one that encompasses everything from Afghan curry served in a Tupperware container with fresh naan, to boujee fresh pasta and 2 AM fried chicken.
“We'd never worked in kitchens, we'd never worked as chefs,” explains Lightowlers, “but we decided to try and do a food stall, and find a market locally.”
The first problem to solve was what kind of food they’d sell.
“Funnily enough, my original idea was just nachos,” says McCann. “I just thought, ‘I don't know anywhere in London where you can get good nachos.’ But you [he gestures to Lightowlers] were hesitant. You were like, 'We're not going to quit our jobs so you can make nachos.’”
“Then I spoke to my friend who was living in LA at the time, and he was like, ‘Why aren't you thinking of doing tacos?’” McCann continues.
While Lightowlers continued working, McCann quit his job and tried to set up a food stall—the first iteration of Taco Queen—selling tacos anywhere he could find.
“I did loads of crappy events in car parks. I would turn up to anything with a table and make some tacos,” he says. “I did it on the street one day outside Four Quarters [a local bar] and nobody bought any tacos, the table collapsed and the beans went all over Rye Lane. It was depressing.”
Taco Queen’s lucky break came in two waves. First was entering DIY electronic music space Rye Wax in Peckham in late 2015, a bar-cum-club-cum-record-store with a small kiosk for food.
“We were their third choice or fourth choice,” McCann remembers, laughing. “Everybody else said no. We were left by default.”
It soon became clear that the kitchen space in Rye Wax wasn’t big enough for their ambitious taco recipes. Luckily, the pair heard about somewhere on sale just a few hundred metres down the road down, slap bang in the middle of Peckham High Street. A branch of Greggs that burned down during the London Riots of 2011 had been rebuilt and empty for a year, and was looking for tenants.
Hoping to fill the dearth of Mexican restaurants in London, McCann and Lightowlers decided to make Taco Queen a permanent establishment, using ingredients sourced almost entirely from the long-standing fruit and veg stalls and international supermarkets in Peckham.
“We have to send out for very little,” McCann tells me. “[We order] some Mexican chilis and tortillas, but aside from that everything is on Rye Lane.”
With little professional food experience to pull from, McCann took advice from a local business owner and friend. “Chris [co-owner of now-closed Peckham juice bar Ali Baba] would just use the most unusual ingredients that he would find in the shops around here. He opened my eyes to there being loads of really interesting ingredients around Rye Lane.”
Which is how one of Taco Queen’s most spectacular dishes was born. Its magnum opus. Its jackfruit nachos.
These nachos are nothing like the sad, stale pile you’d buy at a pub—characterised by a pathetic portion of “melted” cheese, vinegary salsa, something vaguely resembling guac, and one single jalapeno. Instead, the nachos at Taco Queen are absurdly flavourful; boasting a holy ratio of topping to chip. Behold, in all their glory: layers of freshly fried corn tortillas, covered in a creamy, spicy cheese sauce, and topped with piles of fresh guac and salsa. The succulent jackfruit, dispersed generously between the chips, and finally, the refreshing lime cream, sliced radishes, jalapenos, and coriander garnishings. I am not shocked in the slightest when McCann tells me that these veggie nachos consistently outsell their meat counterparts.
Unsurprisingly, making jackfruit nachos takes time and love. First, you need to prepare the separate constituents. On the day I’m visiting, the jackfruit is already prepped, and has been cooked with soy sauce and Korean red pepper flakes for about 30 minutes. With the jackfruit, guacamole, and salsa already made, I watch one of the Taco Queen chefs make a creamy sauce with cheese, evaporated milk, and more chili. The corn tortillas go in the deep-fryer and, once crispy and glistening, come out ready to form the nacho base. In about three minutes, the nachos are built: a beautiful combination of sweet, salty, and spicy.
“I was able to fulfil my dream of doing nachos when we started the restaurant,” says McCann, “and [the jackfruit] was just the obvious vegetarian choice.”
“The misunderstanding was that it was a meat substitute—that it's just like pulled pork,” he continues. “The first 12 we tried, I was using a marinade I would put on a piece of pork, and it didn't work.”
When McCann and Lightowlers started Taco Queen, they focused on recreating traditional Mexican dishes they'd tried in LA, such as cochinita pibil and mole poblano. But they soon found that focusing on flavour, rather than "authenticity," yielded better results.
"We got a copy of The Vietnamese Market Cookbook, and the first chapter said, 'Approach of every meal thinking of the tongue and parts of the tongue—sour, sweet, bitter—and try and have something on the table for each one, so you're constantly cleansing your palette,'" says McCann. "When we started doing tacos, we started doing that with every taco."
This, along with McCann's interest in Serious Eats culinary consultant J. Kenji López-Alt, explains the Asian influence behind many Taco Queen dishes. Traditional Mexican flavours are enhanced with fish sauce, soy, and gochujang.
“I think a lot of [the flavours] come from not having worked in kitchens but being people who like eating,” explains Lightowlers. “We started off being like, ‘What would I want to eat?’”
This approach seems to have made Taco Queen the unpretentious, grab-a-taco-before-getting-a-tinny-in-the-park eatery it is today.
“We wanted to be McDonald's, Nando’s, and Weatherspoons,” McCann explains, “because that's what everyone around here goes to.”
Taco Queen’s neighbourhood—Peckham—can be a contentious subject for two white restaurant owners. Located about 15 minutes from London Bridge by train, the area is known for its large Afro-Caribbean community, as well as its affordability for those on low incomes, including students from local universities Goldsmiths and Camberwell College of Arts.
Just like everywhere in London, it hasn’t escaped the curse of gentrification. According to website Zoopla, property prices in Peckham have risen by 53.9 percent in the last five years, with the average property now standing at £561,646. Prices in the South East of London were some of the fastest to grow after the financial crash, forcing out tenants who have rented here for years. In Peckham, locals are being slowly replaced by an influx of shirt-wearing city bros who complain of the “smell,” and attend soulless events organised by a guy names Marcus from Wiltshire, selling £7 pints and ceviche.
Simultaneously, businesses have appeared in the area, marketed solely towards this type of new, Peckham high-earner. Places like Yogarise are archetypal of the problems facing the area. The yoga studio, owned by two white, middle-class entrepreneurs came under fire when they complained about the “massive ghetto blasters and screaming” noise from West African churches in the area, in an interview with the Evening Standard. The publication later removed the quotes from the piece for “causing local animosity.”
I asked Lightowlers and McCann what responsibility they feel comes with owning a restaurant in Peckham.
“It’s an area that's alive because of everyone on low incomes, whether they're students or families on a lower rate of earnings,” says Lightowlers. “So when we started making food, we thought, ‘What's the point of trying to appeal to people you don't see here, why don't you try and appeal to the people that do live here.' Why would you ignore that, and shoot to people that you genuinely don't see that much of?’”
For now, at least, Taco Queen are conscious of the balancing act of opening a new venture, while supporting businesses in the area and not pricing out locals. Whether a large plate of nachos for £7.75 succeeds at that task is up for debate.
Even if we can all agree that they’re really fucking delicious.