There was a time, not so very long ago, when the opening of a new Mexican ‘Cantina’ pretty much signalled an onslaught of persistent tequila girls, sub-Doritos starters and heavy-on-the-rice burritos drowned with inauthentic cheese.
Thankfully the cuisine has – finally – captured us Brits’ imagination, and a new breed of taco peddlers is mercifully catering to a more discerning audience.
With Camden Lock Market’s foodie credentials flying high off the back of the Night Markets, a new Mexican joint taking up residence in the loveliest part of the lockside area feels right on the money. But, to which side of the current Mexican fast/street/gourmet food triangle does it lie?
We took up their invitation to come and find out. So as rain squalled across our view of the canal through the full length window by our lunchtime table, we took seasonal solace by opening with a couple of Margaritas.
The signature Del Casa was punchy, sour and thoroughly moreish. A Hibiscus version looked ravishing in its ruby-hued glory, but didn’t actually taste discernibly different from the house variety.
As the tables around us swiftly filled up with a healthy mix of rendezvous-ing Camdenites, office workers and Market shoppers breaking from the elements, a simple but tasty Ensalada de Naranja, Queso y Pepitas arrived, balancing fruity orange sweetness with chilli kick for a lively salad starter.
A plate of tortilla chips and guacamole – so often the acid test for the quality of the meal to come – provided immediate assurance that this kitchen is paying attention to detail. Satisfyingly thick chips and a delicate, silky pale green guac, all served at room temperature was faultless.
Tacos come in many varieties here, and there is an £8 mixed plate of three choices (main pic) which gives just the excuse we were hoping for to graze a few different ones in a single sitting. The biggest hit was the crispy fish taco, a lightly battered specimen laid across a base of chipotle-tinged zesty salad.
Braised pork was strong on the sweet and clove flavours, while the flank steak taco came with the filling comprehensively frazzled which, particularly after the subtleties of the fish, meant both felt a little heavy. But the trio each offered something a little unexpected and highlighted just how one-dimensional the old days of bland burritos really were. Why on earth did it take so long for ‘real’ Mexican food to take off over here?
As we pondered that culinary conundrum, our well-sated stomachs were somewhat defeated by the Pastel de Tres Leches con Coco, a huge slab of spongy buttermilk cake piled high with coconut. Spiced Mexican coffee put us right again, recharged for the inevitable soaking coming up outside.
It felt like we’d only scraped the surface of the Café Chula menu despite feeling so full. The range of sandwiches looked excellent when peeped over the shoulders of the two girls comparing notes on their perennially single status at a neighbouring table. And Mexican breakfast seems like a great reason for return visit. The promise of decent Huevos Rancheros, as the Market comes to life and morning sun glitters over that view of the canal, is a fine prospect.