A RECENT day out in Tijuana (across the US border from San Diego), exploring the markets and street food, hardly qualifies this ToM reviewer to be an expert in Mexican food. Even with the back-up of a couple of cookbooks from 95-year-old doyenne Diane Kennedy, which just make me fret I can’t pick up so many of the ingredients.
Still that stands me in better stead than a lifetime’s Tex-Mexperience of nacho platefuls, dowsed in beef chilli, sour cream and greasy guac.
I sensed El Taquero was cut from different non-Gringo cloth when I popped in to road test an array of artisan Mezcal, Tequila’s more complex big brother. Both spirits are distilled using the heart of the agave plant called the piña, Tequila from the blue agave plant alone, Mezcal from any number of variants. The name means “oven-cooked agave”, though that oven in the most traditional processes is a fire pit dug in the earth to roast the piña.
It apparently takes 100kg of agave to make one litre of Mezcal; mindful of that on this visit I limited myself to a smooth and smoky 51% dram of Marca Negra Espadin (£6.50), which worked a treat with a small plate of huitlacoche (£6). Unfamiliar? Under my radar till now.
Or is it the same thing as epazote? El Taquero translate if as corn truffle, which sounds nicer than ‘corn smut fungus’ from the side of the field. Ms Kennedy describes it as perfectly delicious with an inky, mushroomy flavour that is almost impossible to describe.”
So I won’t; I enjoyed it immensely in a quesadilla, which along with sopes, tostadas, antojitos, carnitas, quesadillas and various potent salsas are the bedrock of the food offering overseen by the head chef with the longest name in Manchester – Luis Adrian Morales De La Torre.
Like the operations manager Hannah Monroy, he hails from Mexico City. So too does the top of the range tortilla press, used daily. In the early, less authentic Taquero days there wasn’t the same attention to detail with other ingredients.
That’s all changed. Mostly. Hannah tells me it’s too expensive to import fresh tomatillos, but I’m heartened by the presence of cactus in salads and hibscus in tacos and the way they’ve adapted the stamped slogan ‘hecho en Mexico’ (made in Mexico) for the cuisine’s Manchester incarnation – ‘Hecho en Manchester’.
Hannah insisted it would be sacrilege not to kick off with a dish that’s as exciting as some of the football Mexico played in the World Cup.
Sopa de Tortilla (£4.90) is bread and veg soup, which doesn’t sound exciting, but I loved its combo of mild chillies, crispy tortilla batons, avocado, chicharron and guajillo chilli rings.
It was the first of several delights. Notably Tostada de Marlin Ahumado (£3.90) a toasted tortilla, topped with black beans, creamy sauce avocado cream and house-smoked Marlin fish. Now that’s a thing.
Then, with more bite, Aguachile de Camarón (£7.50), where shrimp marinated in a red aguachile sauce of habanero and paprika. Mellower was Cochinita Pibil (£9), pulled pork that had been marinated with axiote paste and orange.
I accompanied all this – plus some better than average guacamole – with a glass of Mexican Cabernet Sauvignon. Better with beer or an ‘agua fresca’ infused with tamarind (my favourite) or hibiscus flowers.
El Taquero’s aim is to create perhaps the only genuine taqueria outside London, showcasing the real cuisine. It’s on its way. At the moment they are not trying to scare the Mancs; I think via specials we are going to be introduced to a whole new spectrum of regional delicacies. A valuable, intriguing addition to the Nachos Quarter (sorry Northern Quarter).
El Taquero, 42 Back Turner St, Manchester M4 1FR. 0161 819 2675.