Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Antojito Cantina: Mexican Pop-up for the Edinburgh Festival

So, every August the city of Edinburgh swells to twice its normal size as the world's comedians and theatre geeks (mostly comedians) flock to the Edinburgh Festival.

And with them flock hundreds of pop-up street food venues.

This year one in particular caught my eye: Antojito Cantina, temporarily housed at 3 Bristo Place and serving up US-style Mexican food, much like I grew up eating in California.

Their name means "snack bar" in Spanish, in that it is the word for "snack" followed by the word for "bar". And indeed their menu is composed of antojitos: nachos and burritos with various fillings/toppings.


Both these dishes are really American inventions; the classic Mexican antojito is a taco, by which I mean a fresh soft corn tortilla folded around a dollop of some delicious filling and topped with some kind of salsa.

Which is not to say that burritos are not delicious, because they are. And in some ways they're easier to eat than tacos, especially when running to the Festival show you have tickets for, which turns about to be at the Pleasance Dome instead of the Pleasance Courtyard (Oops!).

Now, this is the first "restaurant" review I'm posting, so let me cover the ground rules: I'll try to review five areas: Location, Ambience, Staff Knowledge, Menu, Dining Experience. Then I'll mention anything else noteworthy that doesn't fit into the above.

De acuerdo?

So...

1) Location: This is a pop-up specifically for the Festival, so 3 Bristo Place is pretty good. It's very handy for a lot of venues, including that damn purple cow that keeps coming back every year. The place even connects to one of the Assembly venues. They apparently sold them a bottle of hot sauce for their bar.

(Based on Antojito Cantina's hot sauce selection, Assembly Checkpoint must now be serving the best bloody marys in Edinburgh.)

On the other hand, having an actual brick-and-mortar location is a mixed blessing. There are dozens of interesting shacks, vans, booths, carts, etc selling food in the immediate area. Bristo Square/Teviot is just across the street and George Square with its famous Spiegeltent complex is only a few minutes walk away. I have a feeling it's harder to "stumble across" this place than it would be if they were literally on the street.

Of course, they do have a couple seats and tables, which can be an advantage (one lady sitting-in gawked at me while I sampled their "insane" hot sauce).

2) Ambience: Well, it's a pop-up, and despite having some seats it's not really meant to be a sit-down place. It looks and feels a lot like the many sandwich shops that dot Edinburgh's student-areas (which is what this part of town is the rest of the year).

But that's okay, because in Mexico a taco or burrito stand is pretty much the equivalent of a take-away sandwich shop. So I think this is par for course. It does what it should do and the jars of hot sauce on the shelves are a nice touch (especially as they're for sale, guys. Hint hint).

3) Staff Knowledge: The menu isn't very extensive, so there isn't much the staff need to know, but they've clearly been trained. This is important, in case they get customers who don't know anything Mexican or "Calimex" (California-Mexican) cuisine. I got the feeling the guys behind the counter would be able to answer most queries. Don't know if they're full time MexiGeeks, though.

4) Menu: Very basic: burritos, nachos, not much else. You can get these topped or filled with "barbacoa" braised beef (in Mexico it would probably be goat, but where you gonna get goat in this country?); pulled pork, aka "carnitas" (possibly Mexico's favourite meat), chicken tinga (a classic of Mexican street food), or "veggie beans".

(When I first saw "veggie beans" I assumed they meant refried beans fried in olive oil instead of lard, but I think they literally mean veggies and beans.)

I had a burrito with carnitas, though I was very tempted by the chicken tinga.

In true California style, the burrito comes with rice and beans in it, and you can add as many extra toppings as you want, like Subway. I went for "pico de gallo" and guacamole.

The inverted commas, by the way, are because in my house we just called this "salsa".

And finally they have three heat levels of hot sauce: hot, hotter, and insane. The first two are red, but the "insane" is yellow-orange. Which means no tomatoes and a lot of fresh habaneros.

You know which one I like, right?

I was sharing with Mrs MexiGeek so I ordered "hot" on the burrito, but I asked to try "insane."

In addition to the habaneros/Scotch bonnets, I also detected some fresh green chiles, which was surprising but delicious!

This sauce had a true sparkle on the palate and a surprisingly clean finish. I would say it's worth the trip just to get the sauce. I wish they bottled it.

5) Dining experience: This is where I would normally break it down into the three P's of promptness (how quickly to you get served?), presentation (how does the food look on the plate?), and palate (how does it taste?). Not all these points are relevant to a pop-up street food vendor, though.

As for promptness, there was no queue so we got served quickly, and if there were any delays it was probably because I kept chatting to the guys behind the counter.

Of course, during a lunch rush I can imagine queues out the door. But that comes with the territory.

Presentation is probably the least relevant for street food. They wrap the burrito up in foil and give it to you. But that's what all burrito shacks do. This kind of food isn't meant to be fine-dining.

(And actually, a big fat burrito wrapped in foil is very appetizing to those who love them.)

This actually looks pretty good.

And finally, palate. This is a good burrito. The guacamole was good (smooth, not chunky, but still fresh and delicious), as was the pico de gallo, and you know how I feel about the hot sauce. Also the carnitas were nice and soft and melt-in-your-mouth like they should be.

Mrs MexiGeek pointed out that £6 is a bit steep for a burrito, but this is the Festival. Just think what they're paying in rent!

Now, I saw several other temporary "Mexican" food shacks in my wanders through Festival-land. Some of them were even doing the same selection of dishes (for the same price).

But for my money, I'd stick Antojito Cantina. Their association with Glasgow's Street Food Cartel as well as my heroes at Lupe Pintos (which seems to be where they get a lot of their ingredients - their shelves look a lot like my kitchen cupboard!) gives them that edge that will be tough to beat for the Juanito-come-latelies.