restaurant/ review

El Cartel, Edinburgh, restaurant review: Mexican flavours with definite street cred

Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.
El Cartel, Edinburgh – Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.

El Cartel, Edinburgh review – “Akin to how things would probably be served from a market still in Guadalajara, food is prepared to order.  So first up was Guacamole National.  Now you are probably thinking ‘mashed avocado, garlic and lime juice’. Well yes, but this was also wonderfully topped with a rich sheep-milk cheese, the sweet-acid of pomegranate seeds, and peppery scallions.  A combination that was deliciously liberated from the serving bowl with the aid of crispy plantain chips.”

If you consider yourself as a bit of a ‘foodie’ you almost certainly like to keep up with what’s currently ‘on trend’ in terms of eating and drinking.  Yet food fashions can quickly ebb and flow, like waves crashing on the white sands of a Baja Californian beach.  A particular dish or cuisine can be all the rage one day, only to disappear up the extractor fan of fickleness the next.  Anyone out there still hysterically searching for a cronut? No, thought not…

I do, however, like a food trend that makes an appearance on the scene and exhibits some staying power courtesy of the fact that it has something genuinely interesting and engaging to offer.  A case in point is the ascendancy of the street food scene in the UK over recent years. And by street food I’m not talking about a dilapidated burger van in a lay-by off the A1. Instead I refer to the diverse and flavoursome morsels of the sort that can be purchased from street vendors from Bangkok to Berlin, and Delhi to Durban. So enamoured have Brits become with this culturally diverse and convenient dining style that it now even has its own trade association and award scheme.

Frozen margarita.
Fabulous frozen margarita.

It’s probably true to say that practically every culture or country will have its own particular take on food that is prepared and served on the street.  Yet it would appear that Mexican street food in particular has captured the imagination and appetite of Edinburghers of late, with a gaggle of restaurants – including Wahaca and Topolabamba –  purveying this cuisine having opened branches in the Scottish capital in the last few months. But stealing a march on these new arrivals – having been set up in 2014 by the people behind Le Bon Vivant – is Thistle Street’s El Cartel.  Being only an (avocado) stone’s throw from JML’s work, it was apparent that we had put off for too long sampling El Cartel‘s “own take on freshly-made, authentic Mexican street food”, so the other week these two hungry hombres dropped by this particular cantina Mexicana.

I’m glad to say that we had decided to dine early, as the interior of El Cartel is relatively compact, meaning you can be on fairly intimate terms with your fellow diners, and the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so if the place is full, front of house will take your mobile number and call when a table becomes available.  Having bagged a spot for two with no trouble, we took in the trendy, charcoal-hued interior bedecked in Dia de los Muertos paraphernalia, as our server arrived with a jug of water and the food and drinks menus.  And whilst on the subject of drinks, although modest in size El Cartel serves over 80 types of tequilas, mescals and agaves as well as some enticing cocktails.  The house frozen Margarita is a thing of both deliciousness and beauty, to the point that my over-enthusiastic supping resulted in a moment of brain freeze…

Baja fish tacos - El Cartel.
Baja fish tacos.

This being a venue focused on street food, as our server explained, the dishes are not huge so it’s recommend each diner choose two or three plates of what they fancy, scoff, then see if they are ready for more.  The culinary offering basically falls into two categories: soft tacos – hand pressed in house from Masa Harina maize flour, and filled with a range of alluring ingredients; and antojitos – literally “little cravings” in Mexican Spanish, referring to street food such as quesadillas, barbecued corn on the cob, and other such delights. Six dishes were duly ordered between us.

Drunken frijoles.
Delicious Drunken frijoles.

Akin to how things would probably be served from a market still in Guadalajara, food is prepared to order and arrives when it’s ready.  So first up was “Guacamole National”.  Now you are probably thinking “mashed avocado, garlic and lime juice”. Well yes, but this was also wonderfully topped with a rich sheep-milk cheese, the sweet-acid of pomegranate seeds, and peppery scallions.  A combination that was deliciously liberated from the serving bowl with the aid of crispy plantain chips. Two pairs of tacos swooped onto the table next. “Baja cod” featured crisply battered fish fillets, sitting on top of a crunchy pomegranate infused salad, dressed with smoky/spicy chipotle-spiked creamy sauce, all encased in moist, soft taco shells that possessed the subtle piquancy of lime-soaked corn.  Equally delicious were their beefy counterparts – “Carne Asada” the same lovely taco shells but this time surrounding flash-fried, succulent strips of flat iron steak (an underused cut in my opinion) combined with a complimentary mix of chunks of avocado and roast cherry tomato, given a real kick by subtly fiery salsa featuring arbol chilies. Literally mouth watering.

Flat iron steak tacos.
Carne Asada – flat iron steak tacos.

Two sets of tacos dispatched it was time for some more antojitos.  Mushroom quesadillas – as the name suggests – comprised three crisp-toasted tortillas which were stuffed with savoury fungi and cheese, accompanied by spinach, pecan nuts and crema (a sort of Mexican crème fraîche).  A really smashing Central-American take on a cheese toasty that balanced contrasting flavours and textures very well.  El Cartel‘s frijoles were of the “drunken” variety – frijoles borrachos in Spanish – where beer enhances the flavour of stewed and then mashed pinto and kidney beans. Topped with grilled cheese and served with more plantain chips, this was a bowl of rich, earthy, umami flavours.

Mushroom quesadillas - El Cartel.
Marvellous mushroom quesadillas.

Five plates in, JML and I were beginning to feel pretty sated, yet I am glad to say we still had room to share a final pair of tacos, because they were a bit of a show stopper.  The ” Al Pastor” sounded simple enough – marinated pork shoulder, seared pineapple, white onion and coriander, again bounded by a soft tortilla shell.  But it was a taco the flavour of which was considerably more intense that the list of ingredients suggested, with succulent, spice-infused, slow cooked pork being perfectly complimented by the charred-acid bite of the grilled pineapple, and the onion and coriander adding subtle background taste accents.  A very splendid taco indeed.  Washed down with another Margarita for JML, and a darkly coffee-nutty-hoppy Day of the Dead porter for me, it was a really enjoyable dining experience.

I hope one day to visit Mexico in person. But until I get the opportunity I would wager that a trip to El Cartel is about as close my taste buds can get to experiencing the authentic flavours of Mexican street food.  The menu feels fresh and is certainly packed with flavour.  And the vibe of the place is just the right side of laid-back trendiness, as opposed to touristic Mexicana  – I didn’t spot a single sombrero, and A Tribe Called Quest, as opposed to Mariachi disco classics, drifted from the sound system. So if you fancy a gastronomic snap-shot tour of Central American cuisine, whilst still not setting foot outside central Edinburgh, El Cartel is probably right up your street!

Food – 8/10
Atmosphere – 7.5/10
Service – 8/10
Value – 7.5/10

Ambience – expect a welcoming, relaxed, yet bustling restaurant/bar.    

El Cartel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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