Wednesday, 25 January 2017
El Pastor, London Bridge
Timing, as they say, is everything. Had El Pastor opened even just a few months earlier than it did, further back in 2016, it would have been heralded as the saviour of Mexican cuisine in London, a slick, satisfying operation which finally showed what anyone who'd ever eaten proper Mexican food had been tiresomely banging on about for all these years (that would be me then), forever to wrestle away this most wonderful and sophisticated of cuisines from the greasy clutches of the Tex-Mex chains.
Unfortunately for them - and by "them" I mean the Hart Bros, the brains behing Barrafina and Quo Vadis - the opening of this shiny spot in Borough Market coincided with not just one but two or three other top-drawer Mexican operations that also landed towards the end of 2016, and what would have been a full-on, focussed love affair mere months earlier was, in the end, diluted with a little more, well, reality. Reviews were positive, but not glowing, and I wonder whether for restaurateurs so used to unqualified praise for their Spanish concept (again, guilty), for London not to be bowled over by El Pastor may have come as somewhat of a disappointment.
But all restaurants must be placed in context, and I could no more ignore the existence of Breddos while reviewing El Pastor than I could ignore Barrafina while assessing José Pizarro or La Tasca(!) or anywhere else. And although El Pastor is clearly a very good restaurant, objectively serving very nice, authentic Mexican food for not a great deal of money, in an exciting "industrial chic" space, and however annoying it is to all of the people that have so obviously put so much hard work into the place, I'm just going to sit here and tell you why I liked Breddos more.
Firstly, the salsas. One of the utter joys in eating in Mexico is that no two restaurants will make salsa tasting the same. I don't just mean variations the levels of heat or that some offer green instead of red. I mean that the house salsa offered for dipping your nachos in when you sit down can be a kaleidoscope of variations from smokey to sugary, savoury to salty, vegetal and chunky to a processed, refined sheen. You never know what you're going to get, and it's enormous fun. El Pastor's selection is of a fairly workaday tomato/coriander chunky affair, a hot habanero (presumably) that was my favourite, and a tomatillo which needed a bit more something. Seasoning, perhaps, or fresh herbs. I'm sure I don't know. But I do know that it pales in comparison to the vibrant and full-flavoured verde at Breddos.
Next, the tortillas. This being London 2017 it almost goes without saying that El Pastor grind, mixamatosis (sorry, nixtamalise) and press their own tortillas, and in fact you can see the whole process happening in the mezzanine level towards the back of the main room. On the face of it, they're doing everything right, including using a rare strain of maize rescued from near-extinction by an artisan producer somewhere in Mexico (apparently). So why do I find the end product a little dry and bland, and not quite as bouncy and full of flavour as the Other Guys?
To assemble your taco you take some of the pork filling - the El Pastor itself - a nice moist pile of slow-cooked pig, a few of the pork scratchings (sorry chicharrón), a bit of salsa, a scattering of fresh coriander, then fold it up and wolf it down. This is why most people will be coming here, and quite rightly too, as it's definitely a top bit of taco work, each element considered, refined and intelligently sourced. Whether you're more of a DIY enthusiast or prefer your taco coming already assembled and dressed, well, that will ultimately be down to personal choice, but I don't like to be left in charge of balancing ingredients and dressings in a cuisine I'm not an expert in. I don't even much like being left in charge of dressing my own salad. But even so, this was a good taco.
There were, despite my grumblings, some very impressive things on the menu at El Pastor. Tuna tartare was a generous pile of fresh tuna bound with a complex chile-sesame paste; easily enjoyed.
Chicken tacos, rubbed in adobo, were nice and moist and full of flavour, hard to find fault with.
And short-rib, also precisely cooked and prepared, equally difficult to complain about. It was all very confident, mature, clearly well researched, and well executed. There was nothing wrong with any of it.
Maybe, in the end, whether you're a Breddos or El Pastor person comes down to your position on the thorny question of authenticity. Do you value as close adherence as possible to the traditional methods of the cuisine in question, possibly at the expense of surprise and running the risk that some ingredients will necessarily be different (inferior) to those in the motherland? Or do you take the personality and main techniques of Mexican food but apply it to masa-fried chicken, Cornish mackerel and Iberico pork and the rest and see what sticks? Which of these scenarios would you be more happy with?
Or maybe that argument is completely reductive, I don't know what I'm talking about and El Pastor, and Breddos, and (for all I know) Corazon and the rest are each perfectly good restaurants all worth your money and I should just shut up and enjoy the fact that we have any decent tacos in London at all. Yes, do you know what, I'll do that.
We were spotted by the PR and this meal was comped.