I’ve always loved Mexican food. Or, at least, what I always thought of as Mexican food: fajitas, tacos, burritos; little bundles of vaguey spiced meat, drowning in sauce and enough saturated fat to make your arteries go clang from just looking at it. I visited San Diego last year and loved the food we found at the family-run Mexican restaurants in the Gaslamp District, full of flavour and notably more exotic than the stuff that we made out of yellow boxes at home. Last summer, when Chipotle ran its free burrito promotion, I literally ate one a day for three weeks solid. (Wouldn’t recommend it, FYI, it does unnatural things to the human body.) But it turns out – at least according to Mestizo on Hampstead Road – that I’d never even come close to real Mexican food.
Mestizo has become a bit of an institution in London. It’s nearly ten years old – positively venerable in today’s world of chop ‘n change pop-ups and swiftly-turning fads – and popular with local Mexicans. We walked in just as it began its Mole Festival (‘mo-lay’, as in guacamole, just means ‘sauce’), which coincides with this year’s Día de Muertos festival, to find the place properly decked out in all its technicolor splendor: sugar skulls crammed on to every surface and a large alter – the biggest in London, allegedly – dominating the space.
We started off with a frozen margarita – one of my favourite drinks in the whole world and typically difficult to find in London, I guess because it’s rarely hot enough to justify a machine to make frosted drinks on tap.
The menu at this place is almost too extensive. Long menus always make me feel quite stressed, just in case I choose the wrong thing. I get aggressive food envy if someone else picks a dish that looks better than mine…it’s becoming a real problem. My knowledge of Spanish is limited to ‘beer please’ and ‘where are the toilets?’, so the selection process was quite slow-going. That said, we did seem to make excellent choices! We started with the ceviche: big, fat prawns in a bath of spicy salsa with avocado and tortilla chips, which have totally ruined Doritos for me forever. The chips, like almost everything in Mexican cuisine, are made from corn, and although fried in oil don’t taste at all greasy. (We were told this is because corn doesn’t absorb as much as, say, flour, which soaks up fat like a fresher soaks up Strongbow.)
We also ordered a platter of startery bits. I found the tamal – a steamed corn husk with chicken – a little underwhelming, but the jalada – a whole jalepeno breaded and stuffed with cream cheese – was delicious. The highlight was the flauta, a deep-fried cogar of chicken, salsa verde and sour cream.
Each table had a little piece of its own Mexican kitsch – a wooden block painted half green and half red. Green end up indicated to the wait staff you wanted service, red side meant you didn’t. If you didn’t want to be disturbed, you laid it on its side. It’s such an amazingly simple idea; why doesn’t every restaurant do this!?
The starters were super filling – the ceviche alone could have served as a main course – but we still had our mains to come. I’d double-prawned and chosen the camarones en mole de tamarindo (£14.50), a grown-up sweet ‘n sour style dish with a complex flavour. My dinner buddy El ordered the mancha manteles with chicken (£14.00), a fruity, nutty dish served with a mole known as ‘tablecloth stainer’ (!),
As well as the enormous selection of tequilas and margaritas you’d expect at the best-stocked tequila bar in the UK – over 250 varieties – Mestizo also serves a number of authentic non-alcoholic drinks.
In the spirit of adventure, we tried the agua de tamarind, a sweet drink that tasted of honied figs, and agua de horchata, a milky, cinnamonny concoction with a flavour I can only describe as ‘festive grandma’ – clean, soft-smelling, slightly floral, with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. At £1.80 a glass, they’re worth trying.
They also do a selection of brightly coloured fizzy pop, sort of like Mexican Panda Pops (Panther Pops?). They’re probably the very worst thing for you, but so pretty!
I’m not a huge dessert person and we were both obscenely full (the portions are enormous), but we gave the candied pumpkin and sweet potato pudding a go, which was served cold and flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla. We could barely manage it between us, but it was very good, although quite unusual.
Obviously, we couldn’t leave without trying some tequila, so that’s Agavero tequila liqueur you see in the background there. Vomit-flecked memories of tequila slammers at university did rear their ugly heads, but the liqueur was actually a very smooth drink, with the natural sweetness of agave to take the edge off. Mestizo actually run tequila-tasting evenings on a mission to undo the damage of cheap shots and prove that the spirit isn’t actually the devil’s pisswater. One for the bucket list, I think.
Full disclosure: I was invited to review Mestizo but, as ever, all opinions are my own. Its mole festival runs until Sunday – and I suspect they might be fully booked up – but the menu is still as authentic all year round (the founders are all legit Mexicans, unlike those of many other restaurants, who apparently are mostly American). Peruse the menu in advance on Mestizo’s website, and find the restaurant near Warren Street at 103 Hampstead Road, NW1 3EL
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.