It’s a balmy June evening and golden hour light streams through the windows of Santo Remedio, a Mexican restaurant near London Bridge. An extensive tequila and mezcal collection lines the shelves behind the bar and the sound of pre-dinner margaritas being shaken vigorously reverberates around the bright downstairs dining room. Over blue and white corn tortilla chips and a small molcajete (a stone bowl similar to a mortar) of fresh guacamole sprinkled with grasshoppers, I’m chatting to Santo Remedio co-owner and chef Edson Diaz-Fuentes about the Mexican food scene in Britain.
“I was born and raised in Mexico City but left there about 18 years ago. I studied hospitality management in Cancun and was always interested in food and cooked,” he tells me. “My wife Natalie and I moved to New York for a couple of years where we hosted supper clubs then came to London in 2014.”
“I remember being unimpressed with the Mexican offering. When I first came to the UK, people would say, ‘Oh I love burritos,’ and I would reply, ‘Don’t even mention that word.’”
Diaz-Fuentes’ first experiences of Mexican food in the UK aren’t surprising. Despite the cuisine’s popularity, the "Mexican" dishes most commonly served in restaurants are Tex-Mex. The stats say it all. From 2010 to 2015, burrito chains opened an average 57 percent more outlets per year, compared to a 16 percent annual rise in burger restaurants over the same period. I’m the first to admit that growing up, having Mexican for dinner was shorthand for hard shell Old El Paso taco kits or chicken fajitas with pre-mixed seasoning.
Diaz-Fuentes is attempting to change the Tex-Mex preconceptions of Mexican food by cooking and serving traditional dishes to British diners. And it all starts with the ingredients.
“Since I came here in 2014, the produce that’s available has improved. Suppliers have made it their job to bring me some really interesting things,” he says. “There’s nothing like Mexican serranos or jalapeños that have been grown in Mexico, with the sunshine from Mexico. The spice levels are right. The serranos are super spicy and the jalapeños are spicy but with a lot of flavour.”
“We still have issues every week with tomatoes and tomatillos. It’s not easy but one of the key things is using the best ingredients possible. It makes a massive difference to all the dishes.”
As if on cue, two men come crashing through the door, one juggling bags of corn and a huge polystyrene box and the other with a wild handlebar moustache zipping open his suitcase to reveal packets and packets of aprons. A flurry of hugs and excited Spanish ensues. “We’ve been waiting for these aprons since we achieved our crowdfunding last year!” Diaz-Fuentes tells me.
This is not, however, a visit from his supplier. Top Mexican chef, restaurateur, and culinary TV judge Aquiles Chavez (with the moustache) and his assistant Julio have just flown in from Mexico to host a couple of dinners at Santo Remedio. Tonight, we’re hitting up some of Diaz-Fuentes’ favourite places in London with the city’s finest Mexican chefs in tow.
In the cab on the way to first stop—Thai restaurant Som Saa—Diaz-Fuentes and Chavez discuss the menu in a mixture of Spanish and English. Ideas like confit rabbit with beans, lavender panna cotta, and duck with mole verde fly between the two. I ask Chavez what he wants to achieve while he’s in London.
He tells me, “I want to show that Mexican food is not just tacos. And I’m here for the fish and chips. It’s my favourite. We have to get fish and chips while I’m here.”
Chavez goes on to explain that the mole verde that came with him in his checked luggage: “It takes four days to make so I had to bring it with me.”
Diaz-Fuentes chips in, “Another one of my challenge is to educate customers that Mexican food is not cheap. The labour, the ingredients, the technique behind the dishes are intense. Things like carnitas or barbecoa requires three days intensive labour—the butchering, the marinating, and the cooking.”
After introductions are made and a round of drinks ordered, I ask the group about their views on the Mexican offering, outside their own restaurants, in London.
“It’s a challenge because people have the idea of Mexican food which is Tex-Mex. But I think that people are starting to know more,” says Gavita. “I came here because I like the idea of sharing Mexican culture and food, and because it’s a challenge. Otherwise it’s not fun! You have to think about how you’re going to reach people and how they’ll understand Mexican food.”
Edson agrees that things are changing, “In a ten-year period, a lot of things have changed. Wahaca opened in 2007 and while it’s far away from Mexico, it’s good. Places like El Pastor and Annabel’s are great, and then there are restaurants like Ella Canta with Martha Ortiz which is super high-end. Even places like Hawksmoor [a British steakhouse] has a great tequila and mezcal selection in their bar.”
Of course, there’s still progress to be made. Desiree tells me about a recently opened Mexican eatery in Chelsea where she was served a breakfast dish with a distinct lack of salsa: “They were trying but I don’t think they know what they’re doing.”
Dishes start to fill the table: whiskey-marinated beef jerky with green papaya salad, fragrant pork belly curry with sharp pickled ginger and sour tamarind, and Som Saa’s signature whole deep-fried sea bass.
Natalie leans over the table, “Watch, you’ll see that everyone starts comparing the food to the Mexican equivalent. My mum always used to do it but now we do too!”
Sure enough, in the next five minutes, everyone is comparing notes about which herbs and chilies are like Mexican ones. Chavez notes, “It’s all very similar to Mexican flavours. You have those spicy, bitter notes, and fried fish is common.”
Pre-dinner Thai feast devoured, everyone jumps in a cab to the next stop: Indian barbecue restaurant Brigadiers. In the ornate stained glass and tiled bar, Edson corners Chavez to finalise the menu and place orders before his supplier’s 10 PM deadline. After we sit down, Chavez tells me about his approach to Mexican food in his native country.
“I was classically trained and wanted to open a French restaurant in Mexico but it was hard to get ingredients,” he says. “So now I cook local Mexican cuisine but we make some changes to the presentation. The flavours is traditional but we apply French techniques to Mexican produce.”
After a brief debate over Peruvian ceviche versus Mexican aguachile (“Mexican is better,” argues Chavez, while Natalie and Desiree insist it’s too chewy because the fish is cured for longer), food arrives and the table is silent. To put it lightly, the chili chicken lettuce cups pack a punch.
“I’m not afraid of using chilies and I think Londoners appreciate the heat, I love that,” says Edson. “Thai and Indian food is different to Mexican spice but we also use the heat of the chilies to enhance the flavour of dishes, not to overpower them. I wanted to put those traditional dishes on the menu so that people would appreciate and understand them. And they do.”
With much snacking on cheese bhajias and lamb chops, and delving into a grand biryani (with the top expertly sliced off by Chavez), everyone is spent. Natalie turns to me and says, “When we talked about going to some of our favourite restaurants, these are the kinds of places we go to. There are some great Mexican places but not that many and we crave big, bold flavours.”
After listening to the chefs’ conviction about improving London’s Mexican offering tonight, I’m confident that there’ll be more favourites popping up. And not a burrito in sight.