Restaurant review: La Taqueria
53 Castle St, Belfast. Tel: 07748 786654
A Mexican wave has swept over Belfast in recent years. Burrito bars and fast tacos are everywhere, but just how badly has our view of this culinary culture been warped and skewed by the fast food phenomenon?
Quality Mexican food is not fast. And while it can be inexpensive, it's not cheap either. Like many good food cultures, it requires quality meat, fish and produce, lengthy marinating times, complex sauces and preparation skills to match anything first world.
While we have enjoyed the cheap burritos for some years now, the relatively recent arrival of La Taqueria is upping the game and placing this food on a higher platform - in this case up a flight of unprepossessing stairs in Castle Street.
The former Mourne Oyster Bar is now home to the Mexican restaurant, which is rewriting the rules and perceptions many of us may have harboured about central American food.
For a start, chef Adam Lynas is steeped in the culture. Having spent years in Montreal with his wife, who is from Mexicali, the state capital of Baja California in Mexico, and then some more years in the country itself, this makes him a naturalised citizen in my book and therefore qualified to claim top Mexicano status.
But you don't need me to tell you that as the dishes are clear evidence of his provenance. Perhaps most striking is the absence of burritos. The clue is in the name of the place of course, but still, we like our stereotypes so much here that it comes as a mild shock.
Instead, you will find a choice of intriguing starters and mains, a slightly baffling option of taco boards and some daily specials which require your full attention, as Joe the server provides forensic analysis and descriptors of what's on offer.
I was in Cosme recently, Manhattan's favourite posh Mexican, and the servers spoke to us in simple terms, like children, which was the right thing to do considering the complexities of the dishes.
Joe, however, assumed a degree of intelligence at our table which did not match his and so we ended up spending some significant time trying to understand the intricacies and complexities of each dish.
Having said that, once the food started to arrive, the light switched on, we got it and life became easier.
The green chorizo was distinctly not a Spanish one, this being a spicier and earthier (and green) version; the tomatillo sauce is not made from small tomatoes, tomatillos being more like a gooseberry and tacos al pastor is not a Sunday-only dish for Protestants, pastor in Mexican Spanish meaning farmer.
By the way, the tomatillo sauce which you will find on the side with your nachos and guacamole (made to order each time in la Taqueria), is something magical and precious, full of dry, bitter and savoury flavours which are like nothing else - they could sell this in jars and make a fortune.
There is also a salsa taquera, red and fiery and deepened with the scrapings from the meat pan - but be careful, it is weapons-grade spicy.
The approach to take here is adventurous and be ready not to go for volume. This is rich, intense food which is as authentic as I've had. The corn tortillas are made using meal which Chef Lynas sources directly and they are rich and filling.
Then the fillings are themselves generous and powerful. The shredded beef in one taco would probably do most people as a single course, but they come as a threesome and are so good it's hard not to stop until it's too late.
The quesadillas are a case in point. One large tortilla with green chorizo seasoned with green chillies Mexican herbs and pumpkin seeds is not just nutritionally admirable, but enough to constitute a starter for the three of us.
The melted cheese within the folded tortilla and the added crumbled chorizo are heavy with flavour and texture: don't try to finish the board of four alone.
A day's special tamal with pork and chillies comes steamed in a corn husk (do not eat this, Joe warns, and I am grateful) and drizzled with some tomatillo sauce and sour cream. The corn flavour conjures up that meal I had in Cosme, and others the advisor and I enjoyed in the US; it's that good.
Tamales in Mexico are peculiar in that they are steamed in either a husk or banana leaf. What is sure is that the flavours just burst through as a result.
La Taqueria might look like a weird porn shop at street level, but don't let the signage put you off, be brave, go up that flight of stairs and enter a world of very classy Mexican food where the list of tequilas will keep you amused while you down your first Mexican Firing Squad, consisting of tequila, pomegranate, angostura bitters, hellfire habanero bitters and lime. You'd nearly be better having this after your dinner as a digestif. What the hell. Have one to start and to finish. You don't get this close to Mexico every day.
Guacamole and nachos £7.50
Tacos beef £10.00
Tacos pastor £10.00
Papitas con chorizo £4.50
Dos Equis x 2 £8.40
Diet Pepsi £2.20