Monday, 21 February 2011
Lupita, Charing Cross
It has become an accepted fact, repeated almost to the point of cliché, that London does not do good Mexican food. And this is very strange, because not only are there a huge number of Mexican restaurants in the capital - at least 80 according to London Eating - but not all of them are terrible. Admittedly, most of them are; it must say something that two of the worst meals I had last year, at the trashy and way too expensive Cantina Laredo and the utterly diabolical Tlalocan were both at Mexican restaurants, and I can't honestly say I'm dying to try out the Leicester Square branch of Chiquito or, based on the reviews, spend an evening in Desperados in Greenwich. But I enjoyed my meal at Wahaca far more than the sub-£15 a head price tag would suggest, and I'm also very partial to a loose-meat beef taco from Daddy Donkey's stall on Leather Lane. I would hesitate to dismiss the idea of any high-end or "gourmet" Mexican, as I'd like to think every world cuisine deserves a chance to get "poshed up", but perhaps the secret of Mexican food in London is to keep it simple.
Into this hardly saturated marketplace, then, steps Lupita. Tucked away around the back of Charing Cross station, it's a tastefully if minimalistically decorated restaurant hung heavy with the smell of charcoal-grilled meat. And being the world's biggest fan of the smell of charcoal-grilled meat, I was therefore put in exactly the right frame of mind to enjoy what had been billed as a Mexican "with a difference". No Tex-Mex rubbish, this, I was promised, but fresh and unusual (for here at least) ingredients and interesting dishes that showcased just the kind of food that us poor deprived Londoners had been missing out on all of these years. I was hungry, and excited. And then - barely a minute or two after we'd ordered it - the food arrived.
Worried at first we'd ordered too many dishes, it was relief touched with a note of disappointment to discover just how small some of them were. And that they were small wouldn't itself have been too much of an issue had many of them tasted of much. We had three different types of tacos, a sweet and surprisingly bland one for something containing both pork and bacon; a lukewarm underseasoned vegetarian one that contained slithery slugs of nopales (cactus); and one consisting of small chunks of bland beef which was billed as having been marinated in "our own special recipe" but didn't taste of anything much more than plain grilled beef. Expecting a bit more fire and zing and wondering whether we were just expected to provide our own seasoning with the supplied sauces, it was even more disappointing to discover that even the 'hot chilli' sauce that our waitress had gone so far as to warn us about ("it's very hot, be careful") was so bland we could quite easily eat big oily spoonfuls of it on its own. Also, I'll give Lupita the benefit of the doubt and assume that the fragile and overwhelmingly powerful (that masa flour really has an extraordinary strong flavour) taco casings are authentically Mexican, but it doesn't mean I have to like them.
Huitlacoche quesadilla was reasonably interesting - mushroomy and thick and black like vegetarian squid ink. But it again was underseasoned and I think describing it as the "Mexican truffle" is overstating it somewhat - it was, all said, a mushroom quesadilla, not unpleasant but hardly earth-shattering. And chiles y vegetales was just cold, slimy vegetables, resembling old ratatouille, topped with pickled jalapenos. In fairness, the jalapenos were nice and, unlike everything else on the table, surprisingly fiery, so at least we got our chilli hit from somewhere.
I did, thank God, enjoy two of the dishes. Chicharron was a huge sheet of baked cheese which you break chunks off to scoop up the excellent Guacamole underneath, and was enormous fun. The salty, crispy cheese made a perfect accompanyment to the soft rich guacamole, and although you'd hope to enjoy it for £7, it was - unlike most of the other courses - interesting, tasty and generous in proportion. Excellent too was tostada ceviche, which contained marvellously moist and flavoursome chunks of white fish, a delicately crusty base and a good fresh dressing. It was barely a mouthful of food for over £5, although I'm sure a lot of effort went into its construction.
With a (nice enough) margarita each the bill came to £46 for two, and although this isn't a fortune by London standards, it is quite a lot considering we left if not hungry then not full, and hardly impressed by much of what we ate. I can see what Lupita are trying to do, and certainly somewhere attempting to produce anything Mexican other than cheddar nachos and burritos needs to be encouraged, but I got the impression that a lot of these dishes held a promise of tasty food that hadn't, for whatever reason, quite been allowed to make good. If I'm in this part of town again with a craving for tacos, I'll head for Wahaca - it's not perfect, but it's just that bit better, and cheaper, than Lupita. And in a town with quite so many terrible Mexican restaurants as London, that, for now, is good enough.