Happy unbirthday to me.
I have an annual tradition of going to El Cartel on Thistle Street to celebrate my magical day. I’ll always get a frozen margarita (sometimes two) in the flavour du jour, a couple of tacos and their guacamole nationale.
This year, it didn’t happen, so I lined up some belated Annual Aging Day fun at their new gaff, which is six times the size of the original, but still doesn’t take reservations.
It’s situated on the newly dubbed (by me) casual eats quarter of Edinburgh, where you can find Saboteur, Ting Thai Caravan and Civerinos Slice, all within a minute’s radius.
There used to be the Central chipper as well, but salt and sauce has been replaced by guac and salsa.
And tequila. Their special drinks cabinet, with doors like Gothic stained glass windows, is a Papa Don’t Preach style prop for a church of mezcal – a place to worship the worm.
I kicked off with a sunshine yellow apricot frozen margarita (£7.50), which was billowing out of the glass like a science experiment. Fruity, though not quite as strong as I remember.
Come on, it’s my not birthday people, decant some more tequila into the slushie machine.
Tables are quite close together, and we were slotted beside a smart academic-looking man, eating solo.
While he neatly imbibed two tacos and was sated, we ordered ridiculous amounts for research purposes.
He cast his eyes across our obscene over-indulgence, without betraying a flicker of emotion.
I’m sure, internally, he was aghast, and I hope he talks of us in his forthcoming anthropology lecture.
As I’ve previously sampled the baja cod (£7) and cochinita pibil pork shoulder (£7) tacos, and can already vouch for them, I tried the duck carnitas (£7) instead.
Served in a metal taco holder, this set of two featured pumpkin seeds and toasted pecans, juicy tomato salsa, a splash of crema, coriander and crispy nibbly ducky shavings. Lots of good textures, and a blend of clean tasting freshness along with dirty undergrowth-like spit-and-sawdust naughty-ness.
We also tried the vegetarian taco de puerros (£6.50) duo, a thick layer of chopped chargrilled leeks, mint, crumbled soft cheese, lime and fried shallot, all folded into their sweet tortillas. This split the crowd. I do love a leek, so was fully supportive.
“But it tastes of leek and potato soup,” said my other half (an odd lad). There were no potatoes in it.
I really enjoyed the lengua de buey (£7) – aka crispy ribbons of lettuce topped with a slab of super savoury ox tongue, then radish petals and a layer of cud (actually a green tasting roasted tomatillo salsa verde).
This was more than enough – the academic knew it and so did we. However, we wanted to try a couple of the antojitos. The set of seven chamoy wings (£8.50) were nice enough – nibbly, calcified and crusty, so you had to set your incisors to work, with a mildly hot and very tangy apricot and tamarind gel-like sauce.
The cumin and garlic pork ribs (£10) were fine too – pinkie length and slopped in a sweet pineapple brown sauce. Our bone yard was also heaped with guacamole, coriander and onion, and came with a slaw that featured carrot, crushed cashews and red cabbage.
OK, but I wouldn’t bother deviating from the tacos, which are the best in town.
Puddings? They don’t really do proper ones, though you can have a scoop of sorbet or ice-cream (£3 each, we chose three). Our favourite was the plush cajeta – a sheep’s milk and caramel ice-cream.
Slightly more neglected was the raspberry and thyme sorbet, which was a bit freezer burnt, and there was a scoop of industrial mango and mezcal, which was stronger than my frozen margarita.
NOW we’re getting the party started.
It seems that boozy sorbet and corn wraps are the way to go if you want to really celebrate your unbirthday.
15-16 Teviot Place, Edinburgh
(0131-370 8189, www.elcartelmexicana.co.uk)