El Cartel, Edinburgh, restaurant review: Mexican flavours with definite street cred

Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.
El Cartel, Edinburgh - Luxurious guacamole with plantain chips.

El Cartel, Edinburgh review - "Akin to how things would probably be served from a market still in Guadalajara, food is prepared to order.  So first up was Guacamole National.  Now you are probably thinking 'mashed avocado, garlic and lime juice'. Well yes, but this was also wonderfully topped with a rich sheep-milk cheese, the sweet-acid of pomegranate seeds, and peppery scallions.  A combination that was deliciously liberated from the serving bowl with the aid of crispy plantain chips."


If you consider yourself as a bit of a ‘foodie’ you almost certainly like to keep up with what’s currently ‘on trend’ in terms of eating and drinking.  Yet food fashions can quickly ebb and flow, like waves crashing on the white sands of a Baja Californian beach.  A particular dish or cuisine can be all the rage one day, only to disappear up the extractor fan of fickleness the next.  Anyone out there still hysterically searching for a cronut? No, thought not...

I do, however, like a food trend that makes an appearance on the scene and exhibits some staying power courtesy of the fact that it has something genuinely interesting and engaging to offer.  A case in point is the ascendancy of the street food scene in the UK over recent years. And by street food I'm not talking about a dilapidated burger van in a lay-by off the A1. Instead I refer to the diverse and flavoursome morsels of the sort that can be purchased from street vendors from Bangkok to Berlin, and Delhi to Durban. So enamoured have Brits become with this culturally diverse and convenient dining style that it now even has its own trade association and award scheme.

Frozen margarita.
Fabulous frozen margarita.
It's probably true to say that practically every culture or country will have its own particular take on food that is prepared and served on the street.  Yet it would appear that Mexican street food in particular has captured the imagination and appetite of Edinburghers of late, with a gaggle of restaurants - including Wahaca and Topolabamba -  purveying this cuisine having opened branches in the Scottish capital in the last few months. But stealing a march on these new arrivals - having been set up in 2014 by the people behind Le Bon Vivant - is Thistle Street's El Cartel.  Being only an (avocado) stone's throw from JML's work, it was apparent that we had put off for too long sampling El Cartel's "own take on freshly-made, authentic Mexican street food", so the other week these two hungry hombres dropped by this particular cantina Mexicana.

I'm glad to say that we had decided to dine early, as the interior of El Cartel is relatively compact, meaning you can be on fairly intimate terms with your fellow diners, and the restaurant doesn't take reservations, so if the place is full, front of house will take your mobile number and call when a table becomes available.  Having bagged a spot for two with no trouble, we took in the trendy, charcoal-hued interior bedecked in Dia de los Muertos paraphernalia, as our server arrived with a jug of water and the food and drinks menus.  And whilst on the subject of drinks, although modest in size El Cartel serves over 80 types of tequilas, mescals and agaves as well as some enticing cocktails.  The house frozen Margarita is a thing of both deliciousness and beauty, to the point that my over-enthusiastic supping resulted in a moment of brain freeze...

Baja fish tacos - El Cartel.
Baja fish tacos.
This being a venue focused on street food, as our server explained, the dishes are not huge so it's recommend each diner choose two or three plates of what they fancy, scoff, then see if they are ready for more.  The culinary offering basically falls into two categories: soft tacos - hand pressed in house from Masa Harina maize flour, and filled with a range of alluring ingredients; and antojitos - literally "little cravings" in Mexican Spanish, referring to street food such as quesadillas, barbecued corn on the cob, and other such delights. Six dishes were duly ordered between us.

Hearty spring eating - Spanish-inspired stew with lamb heart, chickpeas, peppers and olives

Spanish-inspired stew with lamb hearts, peppers, chickpeas and olives.
Spanish-inspired stew with lamb heart and chickpeas.
The transition from late winter to early spring can be a bit of a disorientating time of year.  In terms of weather - and I speak here as a Scot - one minute clear blue skies and bright sunshine hint of a glorious summer that is, hopefully, to come. Yet within an hour or two the wind changes direction, leaving the populace shivering in horizontal sleet.

Cooking and eating at this time of year can be equally hit and miss, especially when trying to use seasonal ingredients. On one hand there can be a longing to dine on fresh, green produce, but it's usually still too early in the season in late February or early March for many spring crops to be making any sort of meaningful appearance. On the other hand, days are still quite short and nights can sometimes be frosty, perpetuating winter-time yearnings for hearty meals.

At a time when fresh, local ingredients can be limited, it's sensible to make best use of what is available. And if you are a meat eater one thing that is synonymous with spring is lamb. Make mention of cooking with this delicious meat and most people automatically think of a roast leg, slow cooked shoulder, or grilled chops. Smashing as all these joints may be, my northern English heritage possibly makes me a wee bit more adventurous.  After all, as a child I was no stranger to the delights of cheap, cheerful and flavoursome cuts such as tripe, chitterlings and trotters.

I remain an adventurous omnivore to this day, even though JML and I are attempting to cut down on our meat consumption for a number of ethical and environmental reasons.  And I heartily agree with the ethos of Fergus Henderson - chef, restaurateur, and author of Nose to Tail Eating - that if we are going to kill an animal for food, we should make use of as much of it as possible. Basically, as Fergus maintains, "You should be nice to your offal".  All of which leads me to this recipe for a Spanish-inspired stew featuring chickpeas, olives, peppers, and lamb hearts.

I actually can't remember how the original recipe for this Hispanic-influenced casserole came to my attention, but it's a dish I have been regularly cooking, and refining, for years. It's straightforward, economical, and - most importantly - very tasty, combining the earthy flavours of chickpeas and cumin, sweetness of red peppers, fried onions and tomato, umami notes provided by mushrooms and olives, and subtle spiciness originating from smoked pimentón (paprika), thyme and a pinch of dried chilli.  Left to feature just the above ingredients it's a hearty vegan dish.  Sometimes however I like to add chunks of chicken thigh or pork shoulder to give things a meatier twist. So why not lamb hearts as well?