Byker, in the east end of Newcastle, is known for a few things. A bloke invented Domestos in his shed there in 1929 and it was the setting for Ant McPartlin’s blinding by paintball gun. Its food scene, however, isn’t generally mentioned.
The area has had its share of problems. Before the back-to-back Victorian slums were pulled down in the 1960s, it was a tight-knit working class community that relied on the city’s shipyards for work. However, a 2015 Government study put it in the most deprived 10 percent of the areas of the UK, and the average male life expectancy is 12.6 years lower in Byker than it is in the leafy, affluent suburb of South Gosforth, two miles away.
Another kicking came in the summer. Marylebone-based retail property advisors Harper Dennis Hobbs named Shields Road, Byker’s high street, as the “least vital” shopping area in the UK, with nearly a fifth of the shop floor space available lying empty. “The retail mix on Shields Road is dominated by ‘undesirable’ retail, such as betting shops and money lenders,” said the pearl-clutching report. That, along with its “pawnbrokers, e-cigarette stores, and payday loan shops”—and, one assumes, its reckless lack of Fabergé egg dealers—make Shields Road not just “undesirable” but The Absolute Worst, according to Harper Dennis Hobbs.
“I think that was probably written by someone who’d never even been to Newcastle to be honest,” says Emma Wass lightly, as we sit in the window of her tiny taco shop, Chucho’s, at the top end of Shields Road. Jesus Tavizon Sosa, her husband and Chucho’s head chef, joins us. Since opening in the summer, Chucho’s has quietly gained cult status in the city. Some of its most popular dishes are the pork carnitas with guacamole, as well as tacos with chicken, chorizo, fish, steak, or rellena—a kind of Mexican black pudding.
The pair met in Sheffield, Wass’ home town, eight years ago when Tavizon Sosa travelled to the city from Veracruz in Mexico to see his mate Rafino—who happens to be at Chucho’s this evening, munching carnitas while we talk, occasionally chatting to Tavizon Sosa. At the time, Rafino was studying for his PhD.
Despite not speaking much English, Tavizon Sosa’s three-month holiday turned into an extended stay, and he began working in kitchens, starting out as a cleaner and making his way up. It was only when he took Wass back to Veracruz three years ago that he realised how much he’d missed Mexican food, bought a tortilla-maker, and badgered his mum and grandma for recipes. That turned into dinner parties, which turned into a taco truck, which turned into a search for a bricks-and-mortar base. But when they saw the rents of places in Newcastle’s city centre, Wass and Tavizon Sosa were on the brink of giving up on the idea.
“We were just like, ‘This is just not doable, we can’t do this,” Wass remembers.
Which is what brought the couple to Shields Road. They found a knackered, grease-slicked old pizza shop online, did it up, and hoped that Byker would take to tacos.
As it turns out, Chucho’s makes sense for Shields Road too. It’s affordable—three tacos are £6—and Tavizon Sosa and Wass say the place has turned into a meeting point for people from across Latin America, as well as locals. Compared to Veracruz, Tavizon Sosa laughs, “even this is very posh. We eat on the street from the little carts, and eat standing.”
Much like the restaurant’s decor (loud, flat blocks of orange and pink and blue) and soundtrack (Jon Bon Jovi on repeat), the tacos are meant to be a barrage of flavour, served with a lack of decorum that would give Harper Dennis Hobbs a fit of the vapours.
“In Mexico, we’re not used to do[ing] queues. In Mexico, it’s like ‘Hey!’” Tavizon Sosa explains, waving his arms and miming a fight to the front of a scrum. “And they’re just chopping, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. And this massive crowd [going] ‘Aaaahh!’ Everywhere. And this is the street. This is basically the soul of Mexican food.”
So does everyone in Byker get it? Pretty much, Wass says. Tavizon Sosa groans slightly, remembering one of those who didn’t. “‘No, you don’t sell burritos and you don’t sell nachos?’ Uh, no mate. ‘What kind of Mexican restaurant is this?’” He looks comically non-plussed.
“There are obviously a lot of places they’ve not been to if they think Shields Road is the worst,” Wass laughs, circling back to the worst street accolade. “It’s so funny! I think that’s a real shame, because on this street, there are a lot of independent businesses.” In fact, she says, the area is “quite up and coming.”
Whether Shields Road will ever up or come is a moot point. Tavizon Sosa has a very clear idea of the role Chucho’s plays here.
“To be original. That’s it,” he says firmly. “To be original. To be authentic. It’s something that we have in our veins, you know?”