Anthea Gerrie samples the fare at El Pastor Soho, London’s latest Mexican resto.
“It’s like having dinner in Mexico City!” exclaimed my better half, sipping a fine mezcal at El Pastor Soho, the new West End iteration of an eatery which started life as a south London taqueria dedicated to recreating the ambience of that exuberant capital far, far away.
Their stash of sipping-quality mezcal, premium tequila and margaritas made properly with Cointreau and fresh lime juice, all too elusive in the British capital, is only part of the story. Authentic Mexican food is all about the quality of the corn in the tortillas, and since its 2016 inception, El Pastor has imported its own heritage varieties from Mexican farmers, treating it on arrival to the time-consuming process of nixtamlisation which makes it easier to grind into a dough and digest.
Credit the Aztecs for this ritual and for making corn a religion in Mexico, and the Hart brothers best known for fine dining restaurants Quo Vadis and Barrafina, plus their Mexicophile friend Crispin Somerville, for elevating the food of El Pastor to a level of quality and complexity which will satisfy gourmets who want more than the excellent tacos which alone are worth the trip.
While El Pastor might shy away from being defined as a fine dining establishment – affordable finger food which perfectly complements the tequilas, beers and mezcals for which Mexico is as famous as its tacos appears to be the aim – the room says otherwise. With its high ceilings and chandeliers, it recalls the faded grandeur of 19th-century buildings in Mexico City’s centro historico, the acoustics amplifying the terrific buzz at which this place operates. The zinc bar retained from Mark Hix’s old restaurant on this site is a fine place to sit and sip while waiting for a table to open up.
A shot of Del Maguey Iberico, the mezcal which drove my other half into raptures, is priced at £20, although the selection starts at less than half that, with margaritas at a reasonable-for-Soho £10 apiece, although an extra 75p for serving them on the rocks seems a bit cheeky. One good thing about Mexican spirits is that they are self-limiting; the first round induces euphoria, and the second reminds you this would be a good time to stop after draining our glass. And you really need neither, as Mexican beer alone washes down tacos perfectly – Corona recommended at £5.50 a bottle.
The taco menu is a mix of traditional – the slow-cooked pork preferred in Mexico, here served ready-dressed with the salsa and other condiments you’d normally add yourself at table (£7.50 for two) – and fancy: deep-fried soft-shell crab with chayote slaw (£10.50 for a generous serving) and confit mushrooms with Oaxaca-style string cheese (£7) to please vegetarians.
Tacos are actually a second course in Mexico City restaurants which serve other dishes, as a bowl of home-made chips with salsa is always slammed on the table gratis for diners perusing the menu. Here it’s chargeable, and not just a choice between zingy green and smoky red; El Pastor makes a third version with the roasted pineapple favoured by the Maya spiced up with fierce habanero chile; the full trio of tiny pots is £3. A generous pot of guacamole (£8) was a bit underwhelming until treated to the added kick of lime juice, serrano childs and fresh coriander in the green salsa which gave it a brighter, more authentic flavour.
Mains are in truth not necessary if tacos are ordered after the chips and dip, but are sufficiently generous, with their accompanying packet of warm fresh tortillas to share between as many as four. The short rib of grass-fed Angus beef (£28.50) is exceptional, and while it’s hard to share the optional roasted marrow bone it’s worth shelling an extra £4 on. There is a lot of regional homage going on in this section of the menu – cochinita pibil (£21) is the Yucatan favourite of slow-cooked pork shoulder, while grilled and salsa-marinated sea bream (£28) is inspired by Mexico City’s legendary Contramar seafood restaurant which has brought the capital all things fishy from Baja California. Spiced crispy duck, a new addition to the menu, seems like more of an homage to Chinatown than Mexico City.
Pudding is theoretically redundant after such a feast, but although it’s made from regular sweetcorn instead of the heritage variety, corn cake served with roasted corn ice cream is not to be missed. And however much or little you order, you will have fun and may well believe you were transported for a couple of hours to Mexico DF, with its wealth of restaurants El Pastor has so successfully cloned.
Tell Me More About El Pastor Soho
El Pastor Soho, 66-70 Brewer Street, London W1F 9UP
Book a table at tacoselpastor.co.uk