The sun has come out the day I visit Mexican restaurant El Pastor in King's Cross. On my table are an array of dishes: seabass ceviche, the eponymous El Pastor taco, guacamole, frijoles charros, corn tortillas and salsa. I pick up a soft Baja fish taco and am reminded of the last time I ate El Pastor's Mexican food – not at its original site in Borough Market, or here at its second site in King's Cross, but in a rainy field at an electronic music festival.
"That was very brave of us to do a food offering at a festival where everyone's stomachs had shrunk to the size of a chickpea," jokes Crispin Somerville, co-founder of El Pastor. "It definitely wasn't our greatest sales highlight…but we all had so much fun. Electronic music is a very big part of our lives. How could we miss it?"
Dining on El Pastor tacos at a festival seems a little odd until you find out about the history of the restaurant. The idea to start a Mexican restaurant came to Somerville and co-founder Sam Hart after ten years of running a nightclub in Mexico City. After working in the music industry, the pair set their sights on opening a Mexican restaurant in London that evoked a similar culinary standard to that found on their post-night out tacos.
In 2016, the pair opened El Pastor in Borough Market, importing (ethical – they tell me) avocados from Mexico, producing their own corn tortillas and trying to replicate the atmosphere of their previous street food experiences. Today, they have two main sites in London, a "Plaza Pastor" – also in King’s Cross – and a shop in Maltby Street Market.
One of the big motivations for opening El Pastor, Somerville tells me, was that the Mexican food scene in the mid 2010s left something to be desired. "Whenever a new place would open up in London, we would go," says Somerville. "Lots of them would advertise 'authentic' Mexican street food or 'authentic' Mexican food. We often found that the food in those new openings didn't reflect the food that we'd experienced in Mexico."
There were lots of red flags: "It started with the tortillas, which we found were nothing like the tortillas or corn-based products we'd eaten in Mexico," he continues. "It moved onto the use of chilli, which we found was quite a toned-down version of the chilis we had experienced. We felt that a lot of the 'authentic' Mexican food offering that we'd experienced had been toned down to suit an English or a British palette, and we felt that had lost some of its magic."
It's that magic they wanted El Pastor to offer. "We were really honed in on trying to get the food that we'd eaten in Mexico City right," says Somerville. "We wanted to reflect what we considered to be an experience of modern-day Mexico City culturally."
Today, while Mexican food in the UK isn't as available as something like fresh pasta (especially Mexican food made by Mexican people), there are more good spots than there were. From Mexican-inspired Breddos or Taco Queen and Club Mexicana, to more traditional spots like Cravings La Caretta in Peckham or the extremely hyped La Chingada in Surrey Quays (which, Somerville tells me, source their tortillas from El Pastor), the scene has certainly grown since 2016.
"I think [Mexican food in London] has changed radically and for the better," says Somerville. "There is some epic stuff going on. The more good tacos there are, the more good taco purveyors prosper."
If surviving as a restaurant in London wasn't enough, El Pastor is feeling extra brave, taking their tacos abroad to Beat Hotel festival in Marakesh this month. It's set to be pretty different from my experience of eating tacos in the rain at Houghton – El Pastor is hosting a poolside dinner, serving their tacos and a barbacoa dish under the Moroccan sun.
"We're really led by our music tastes," says Somerville. "So we're not all about doing every festival we can get our hands on. We're quite picky."
While they might love the experience of serving food at an electronic music festival, there is one challenge yet to solve: how do you get festival-goers more interested staying up until 6AM than slow-cooked pork shoulder to come and eat tacos?
"We haven't really worked that out yet," laughs Somerville. "I think if we did holistic smoothies we'd probably sell a bit more, but we just stick to what we do. We just keep trying to do the best food we can."
Beat Hotel Marrakech in Morocco has been postponed due to coronavirus. More information can be found here.