Friday, 5 June 2015

El Cartel - Finally a Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh I can support

This guac rocks. 
One thing I've never been able to do in Edinburgh is find a Mexican restaurant I can endorse.

Sure, I rave about Lupe Pintos deli, where you can buy all the ingredients to make your own brill Mexican food (and get awesome recipes from their cookbooks or just asking the staff), but I've never found a restaurant, cafe, street stall, whatever in Edinburgh that I could recommend to my readers.

Until now. El Cartel on Thistle Street.

Oddly enough, El Cartel was launched by the team behind Bon Vivant, which isn't Mexican. But in spite of that they got it spot on when they cooked this place up.

El Cartel has three things going for it, a kind of Holy Trinity of Awesome that will make them tough to top for the foreseeable future.

1. Simplicity
This may not come as a surprise, but I've often tinkered with the idea of opening a restaurant. But I always get bogged down by the complexity and richness of Mexican cuisine. I would want it to be a taqueria, a fonda, and a restaurante all in one.
That can't really be done. So El Cartel don't do it. This is basically a taqueria (taco shop), and a fecking amazing one at that. By focusing on tacos and getting it so, so right, they probably accomplish more than they could if they tried to add all the soups, tortasmoles, and platos fuertes in Mexico.
2. Authenticity
So they're just going to do tacos (and a few other things). Great. But what kind of tacos?
This is the all-important question, because tacos are probably the most eaten and least understood "dish" in all of Mexican cuisine.
Thanks to Taco Hell, I mean Taco Bell, and the dominance of flour tortillas in Tex Mex and California, most people outside Mexico don't really know what a taco is.
A taco, as I've said before in this blog, is ANYTHING folded up in a soft corn tortilla. None of that U-shaped hard shell crapola.
So whatever the filling, if it ain't in a soft corn tortilla, it ain't a taco. And at El Cartel they only do soft corn tortillas, which are obviously homemade by the way.
Look at the charring and the uneven edges: that's how you know you're eating a good tortilla!
But it also matters what you put in the taco. That ground beef and "seven layers" ain't Mexican either. 
Mrs MexiGeek ordered cochinita pibil, a classic of the Yucatan, complete with cebollas en escabeche. This is absolutely the first time I've dined in a Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh that has served something I've actually cooked at home. 
I chose the "duck carnitas". Prehispanic Mexico had no chicken or pork, so they ate wild duck, wild turkey, and venison. These things are still important parts of Mexican cuisine. Having said that, I've never heard of shredding duck into carnitas. Texture-wise this resembled the crispy shredded duck of Asian cuisine. It may sound odd, but Asian fusion is actually pretty big in the trendy bits of Mexico City, so I can imagine this being served in Mexico. And if it isn't, it should be, because this was delicious.
3. Vibe
Great food deserves a great setting. Though the "greasy dive" thing can work for some venues, most people don't want to eat in a shit-hole.
El Cartel has a great vibe. Almost everything is black, and the skeletal dia de los muertos decorations add splashes of colour - as do the snack-bar style spinning coolers of their frozen margaritas. 
The place is casual - walk-ins only, no reservations, but also user-friendly. If there aren't any tables, they send across the street to Bon Vivant and will come fetch you when a table opens up.
One drawback to the black decor is it was way too dark to photograph our food, so the photos in this post were shamelessly ripped off from their Facebook page.
In addition to this, El Cartel also sports some excellent starters, including excellent guacamole with pomegranates (yes, this is a real thing) served with plantain crisps (also a real thing), probably the most impressive selection of tequilas and mezcals of any restaurant in Edinburgh, and their own homemade habanero sauce.

There are other salsas on the table, but forget them. Go for their own brand. I literally couldn't make a better one myself.

Of course, being the aficionado I am, I have some suggestions as well. They use a soft crumbly cheese, which is basically like feta. I hope they look into sourcing their queso from Gringa Dairy. It would give their tacos that extra bit of authenticity.

And while they have ample tequilas, mezcals, and Mexican beers, I would really like to see michelada on a menu, and if any restaurant in Edinburgh is gonna do it, this is the one.

(Miro's Cantina has what they call "michelada" on their menu, but it's just beer and cholula.)

I've been waiting a long time to write a review this positive. I imagine a lot of people are interested in trying authentic Mexican food, but don't have the confidence in the kitchen to attempt these recipes. So I've always wanted to be able to name one local restaurant I could send them to.

And now I have one. El Cartel. The only Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh approved by MexiGeek.