El Cartel serves up flavour with all the joy of a Mariachi band, finds Louisa Finch

Beads of sweat have broken out across my brow. Is it the result of one too many chillies in the tacos at El Cartel, Edinburgh’s hippest Mexican street food gaff? No. The reason I’m coming over all peculiar is because I can’t see any wine on the menu. You want Mexican beers? You got ’em.

You want tequilas? You have eight pages packed with more agave concoctions than you ever knew existed (from the £3 everyday stuff to the £16.50-a-pop Tapatio Excelencia Extra Anejo, which apparently has hints of “toffee apple, sponge cake, cocoa, spice and tweed”).

“There aren’t starters and mains, just a free-flowing selection of dishes that arrive at your table as and when they’re ready”

I haven’t been able to face tequila since an ill-advised evening of shots back in the days when I could be found clad head to toe in vintage gear from Flip on Glasgow’s Queen Street. Twenty years on, the only thing I go looking for at the end of a long day at the office is a large glass of red. Ah well, you can’t have everything.

“Glass of ginger beer, please,” says I, while Mr Finch shows a shocking lack of solidarity by requesting then guzzling a Day of the Dead IPA.

But we’re not here for the drinks, we’re here for the food. I have some reservations, having bought a Thomasina Miers Mexican cookbook last year in pursuit of the ultimate salsa. Since then, my mini-chopper blades have been seared with fresh chilli, limes, coriander, onion and vine tomatoes (seeds removed for maximum impact).

My salsa kicks ass. Alongside this backdrop, Mr Finch once had some life-changing fish tacos in a café in Astoria, Oregon (where The Goonies was filmed) and has been trying (and failing) to find something half as good ever since.

The bar has been set high and I’m nervous for El Cartel. But this establishment isn’t lacking in self-confidence. For starters, it doesn’t take reservations. Having been forewarned, I turn up at 6pm, and just as well too, as everyone who arrives after us has to put their name on a list and wait for a call on their mobiles to tell them a table has become available.

The décor is street food chic: dark paint, a corrugated metal ceiling, rustic tiles and a light smattering of Mexican wrestling paraphernalia. Nine or ten little scaffolding board tables are squeezed in tighter than Spandex. The cramped surroundings and noise of customers chatting, cocktails shaking, food sizzling and the “order up” bell pinging creates a buzz that makes you feel that maybe, just maybe, you’ve finally caught on to a trend before it goes mainstream.

There aren’t starters and mains, just a free-flowing selection of dishes that arrive at your table as and when they’re ready. First up are the Bombers (£4) – crispy-coated balls of soft cheese filled with nuggets of jalapeño. It’s a good start.

Next are tacos (£6.50) with courgette, feta, butternut squash, kale and mole sauce. A dinky-sized pair, they arrive nestled in a little metal tray and I love them. Not everyone appreciates charred kale, but I’m the kind of girl who relishes a burnt brassica, especially when its bitter tang is complemented by a rich mole sauce.

Mr Finch tempts fate by ordering the Baja cod tacos, which have a crunchy batter, fresh radish salad and some superfluous pomegranate seeds. “I’m happy. It’s a solid dish,” he says, while musing that it could do with more fresh coriander and fresh chilli (this is his opinion on pretty much every meal, ever). Meanwhile the pork tacos are moist and marinated; the drunken beans (£3) are earthy and hot, and the red rice (£3) gets extra points for texture thanks to the pumpkin seeds that are dotted throughout.
My dish of the night is the Mexican slaw (£3), which takes red and white cabbage, raisins, coriander, Granny Smith apple and toasted peanuts, then dances the tango with a citrus dressing. The tartness of the Granny Smith is as satisfying as smashing a piñata and watching the sweets go flying in every direction.

Any complaints? Chilli aficionados might hanker for a bit more heat and you’ve already heard one diner’s request for more fresh herbs and fewer pomegranate seeds. The lids on the bottles of hot sauces need a date with some hot water to get rid of the dried-on smears. Looking at the website later it said they do have house wine, so maybe I should have asked.

But these are minor whinges. This restaurant is a world apart from the Mexican joints that dish up platters of nachos smothered in microwaved cheese. As Mr Finch noted, there was “none of the usual trinity of red, white and green slop”. Instead, El Cartel serves up flavour with all the joy of a Mariachi band, and a fat wedge of lime on the side.

El Cartel
64 Thistle Street
Edinburgh
Tel: 0131-226 7171
www.elcartelmexicana.co.uk

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