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El Cartel has opened its third Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh, review - do good things come in threes?

The original branch of this Mexican eatery opened in 2015

Published: November 20, 2021
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My tastebuds are rallying against winter.

They’ve turned into mini Greta Thunbergs, unwilling to put up with the blah, blah, blah.

Except this isn’t as important as impending climate change. Instead, my palate is engaged in a silent protest against winter food.

I just don’t feel ready for cottage pie, soup, butternut squash and the other stodge that we’re supposed to crave at this time of year.

It may only be 11 sleeps until I get to crack open my advent calendar, but I’m Grinchy at the thought of turkey and pigs in blankets.

Instead, I’m in the mood for heat and colour. Food with soul. Thus, a visit to the third branch of El Cartel was on the cards.

I’ve already reviewed two generations of this Mexican restaurant - the first and most loved Thistle Street incarnation in 2015 and the younger one at Teviot in 2018. The Roxburgh branch is the grandchild of the Mexican chain, which is owned by The Bon Vivant Group, who also recently opened Luckenbooths, and have bars and restaurants Lady Libertine and The Devil’s Advocate, among other Edinburgh venues.

I might have been a bit more excited about this place, which launched a couple of months ago, if I’d known how cool it is inside.

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Although it looks small from the courtyard, where there’s also some outdoor seating, it’s the biggest of their restaurants by far, with pigeon’s eye views out back onto Cockburn Street. I could practically see the teenage me, shopping at Pie in the Sky.

The menu is pretty much the same as the other El Cartels, with signature tacos, frozen margaritas and antojitos, but this one also offers a Platos Especiales brunch list, available on Saturdays and Sundays, noon until 3pm. We tried a couple of these, including the chilaquiles verdes (£7), which might be mistaken for a soggy plateful of crisps. But, no, these fried tortilla chip triangles were soft and bubbly though still crunchy in parts, with chilli seeds and salsa verde plastered to their oxters. They were topped by a pair of perfect over easy fried eggs, crumbled sheep’s cheese, coriander and sour cream. We ate this along with their special cocktails - the elegantly smoky buena onda (£8.50, with mezcal, lime juice, pineapple oleo and prosecco) and a bright orange frozen tropical margarita (£7.50).

To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, eating and drinking this stuff made me feel as if I was raging against the dying of the daylight. It was like sitting under a SAD light, but in food form. I poked winter in the eye.

Our other brunch dish of egg taco (£7) was equally satisfying, especially since it featured a layer of melted stringy cheese under two pillowy fried eggs, tingly and tomato-y arbol salsa, soft shammies of tortilla and other creamy, piquant, oozy and lardy things that were heaped on top of each other.

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If anything will get me out of bed in November, it’s these two dishes.

We’d also ordered antojitos including a set of eight stumpy pork ribs (£10), which were basted with a sweet hot sauce and had milk tooth sized cubes of pineapple on the side. We imagined that the salmon ceviche (£8) might consist of a few delicate little slivers. Instead, we got a lively and chunky bowlful of cherry and green tomatoes, halved cucumber, lots of blood orange and lime cured fish, and habanero chilli, all corralled with salted plantain chips like ramparts.

It looks like we’d blundered straight into an overordering situation. Oops.

I’ve tried most of the tacos at El Cartel, though I don’t remember the langue de buey version, which contained a melty cuboid of crispy braised ox tongue (£7) to contrast against the crunch of radish, white onion and a heap of moss green salsa verde. We also ordered the mushroom one (£6), also with guajillo chillies, spinach, spring onion and pecan salsa, for a deep, feral and rich riff on fungi. However, those bouncy button mushies didn’t want to be imprisoned in the tacos. It was like carrying buttered balloons in a too small Tesco carrier bag. I’m sure they’ll find one of our escapees in a dark corner at closing time.

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Anyway, I am very much a fan of the newest El Cartel. It might even be my favourite branch.

As the days get shorter and darker, I know that their life-enhancing and stodge-banishing grub will help see me through.

1 Roxburgh’s Court

323 High Street

Edinburgh

(0131 220 5924, www.elcartelmexicana.co.uk)

Places to try Nearby

The Milkman, 7 Cockburn Street, Edinburgh (www.themilkman.coffee)

You can see this independent coffee shop from the back window of the new El Cartel. Head down there for a post taco cortado, and maybe even a cake or pastry. If there’s a queue, try their second branch at number 52.

Laila, 63 Cockburn Street, Edinburgh (0131 226 509, www.lailabrunchedinburgh.co.uk)

This Middle Eastern restaurant calls itself the “home of the Instagrammable brunch” and, indeed, there’s nothing beige about the food and drink, from unicorn lattes to their buttermilk pancakes and Aleppo eggs.

Luckenbooths, 329 High Street, Edinburgh (0131 230 0410, www.luckenboothsedinburgh.co.uk)

The all-day dining concept at this place includes a brunch menu with dishes including confit duck hash bowl and beetroot glazed Scottish smoked salmon royale.

Gaby Soutar is a lifestyle editor at The Scotsman. She has been reviewing restaurants for The Scotsman Magazine since 2007 and edits the weekly food pages.

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