Thursday, 16 September 2010
It's not my fault - I was lured into a false sense of security. The last two restaurants to open in Battersea were Mien Tay (excellent local Vietnamese) and the Draft House on Northcote Road (best selection of beers in the area, and decent British grub). I thought we'd turned a corner; I thought we'd finally come to our senses; I thought - I hoped - I prayed - that this would be a triumphant hat-trick of exciting new openings and I could finally hold my head up high and give a confident small handful of recommendations when someone asked me where was good to eat in the area. Alas, I should have known better. The Curse of Clapham Junction - that curious malady that seems to infect anywhere within walking distance of the station with frozen chips and Ranch Chicken and unchanging, laminated menus, has claimed its latest victim.
I've never gone from wilful optimism to pale-faced dread as quickly as when I sat down and read through the Tlalocan menu. BBQ chicken wings, Tex-Mex potato skins, three very uninspiring types of tacos, "sizzling fajitas", some suspiciously inexpensive steaks, a variation on the theme of burger, and a chicken and bacon burrito. It felt like a lazy, populist pub menu, the kind of thing you'd find in any chain bar in any high street in Britain, and hardly the level a new independent Mexican restaurant opening in 2010 should be aiming for. Nowhere deserves another Cantina Laredo, but surely firstly Wahaca and more recently Lupita (an inexpensive and I'm told pretty decent new place near the Strand) have done enough to prepare Londoners for the reality of proper fresh Mexican food? We can cope with more than a sweet margarita and a plate of nachos, can't we?
I started with a sweet margarita and a plate of nachos. Actually, the margarita was pretty good - freshly squeezed limes in a proper glass with not too much salt. It could have been colder (using a frozen glass is a good place to start) and without the couple of small chunks of ice floating in it, but still, not bad. Nachos were out of a packet and covered in horrible soggy sweet pickles, but the carnitas were tasty enough and there were plenty of them for your £5. My companion's calamari were fine, slightly soggy old oil but the batter was thin enough for that not to matter too much; the garlic mayonnaise they came with though was hugely, overpoweringly synthetic.
Mains were more depressing. I'm pretty sure these chicken wings and rack of ribs were pre-prepared - it all had that soggy, formless texture of something cooked a long time ago then reheated to order. They were soaked in an unbearably sweet packet "BBQ" sauce which brought to mind those little sachets from McDonald's. And the chips were appalling, previously frozen and tasting of oil. My friend's beef fajita was equally uninspiring - the beef had no flavour, the bread fell apart into dry clumps as soon as it had to do any work, and although the chicken pieces were kind of OK in an Old El Paso kind of way, it all felt like a lazy way to make £12.
We skipped dessert - and, in fact, a large proportion of the other dishes come to think of it - and got the bill, which came to £25 a head. It's not a fortune, I suppose, and at Cantina Laredo it would get you little more than a cheese-stuffed pepper and a brownie, but as I am wont to do, I couldn't help thinking of how much delicious fresh food you could get at Mien Tay up the road for that amount of money. The whole enterprise just reeked of a cynical, condescending attitude to the kind of food that people are expected to eat in London, and of a terrible lack of ambition. "£5 packet nachos, £12 reheated fajitas, they won't know or want any better, they'll be queuing out the door," they seem to be saying. "Familiarity, speed, chips. That's what the people want". I hope they're wrong - somebody here needs to keep faith in the restaurant going public, but... well, who really knows.
There was something very odd about the toilet arrangements at Tlalocan that at first I couldn't quite put my finger on. I opened the door from the main restaurant to the gents, and there they were, all present and correct, but it was only as I was doing my business that I realised with a start what was wrong; as a fellow diner left the room, there I was, in my rather compromised position, staring out over a good section of the restaurant and bar area. With no corner to turn or double doors to negotiate, these must be the least discreet toilets in London. You have to admire the irony though - I was able to watch Tlalocan take the piss, while they watched me take mine.