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El Cartel, Edinburgh, restaurant review

El Cartel makes waves in the ocean of Thistle Street eateries, writes Gaby Soutar

Published: June 27, 2015

This new Mexican street food restaurant is the pilot fish, and its sister bar, The Bon Vivant is the whale. They have a symbiotic relationship (hence, I guess, the name, El Cartel).

People, like me, turn up at tiny little El Cartel, formerly Tex Mex, where they don’t take bookings. Usually, with around eight little tables, this place is choca, so you’re instructed to bide your time at The Bon Vivant, just across the road, where someone will come and find you when they have space. And, thus, both thrive in the ocean of Thistle Street.

Waiting can be very annoying, but the staff here are so winning that you won’t mind. I didn't.

And, the fact this place had a nasty fire, which shut them down for a few months until they re-opened in April, will make the limits of your patience all malleable and stretchy.
We only had to loiter for 25 minutes before our table was ready.

To drink, there are smart cocktails, and an agave connoisseur’s list of mescal and tequila, plus Mexican beers. Our group of three tried two of the special frozen margaritas – white peach and black cherry (£7 each) which were churning away in Slush Puppy machines beside the till. Both were as pretty as they were lethal, with a disc of dehydrated lemon on the top.

From the list of antojitos (little cravings), we chose five things to share, each of which was delivered when ready. Our trio of bombers (£4) were friendlier (at first) than they sounded, with squashy cushions of cornmeal-coated pulped white cheese. It was the finely chopped green jalapeno ingredient that provided the TNT. Naughty, double-crossing bombers.

The guacamole national (£4.50) was a beast of a portion, with a huge pot of roughly pulped avocado laced with crumbled sheep’s cheese, spring onions, pomegranate seeds and lime, which was teamed with a massive stack of addictively salty plantain chips.

We also liked the pork ribs (£8.50), which were tarry, glutinous and crusty in all the right places. I didn’t really get the hibiscus ingredient, but the rosemary and pomegranate glaze gave them a pleasing herbal sweetness.

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Our Mexican slaw (£4) consisted of a shredded heap of cabbage and carrot, with radish petals, a limey cream dressing, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, the ubiquitous pomegranate seeds and coriander sprigs on top. Perfect for assuaging the rib guilt. As did our light salmon ceviche (£6.50), which was unexpectedly lacking in acidic kick and the billed soy sauce. It was more like sashimi accompanied by a pretty salad of cucumber and radish. Good though.

On to tacos. If you hadn’t had antojitos, you could easily scoff two versions of these sets of two per person, but we only needed one each.
Mine was conchinita pibil (£6.50), aka two soft and coaster sized corn tacos, served in a metal taco holder, and cupping dollops of shredded orangey pork, with a topping of bright pink and chilli hot escabeche onions.

The vegetarian option (£6.50) had lots of textural interest, thanks to the squidgy sweet potato, roasted onions, crumbled white cheese and pumpkin seeds, while the carne asada version (£6.50) featured slices of peppered and smoky flat iron steak, avocado chunks, blistered cherry tomatoes and a scoop of arbol salsa.
All very good, though I think the antojitos win.

Their puddings are all ice-cream based (£3) – a milky chocolate chilli version, mango sorbet and a velvety rice pudding concoction with coconut, cinnamon and
raisins. Scoffed all three, loved all three.

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The fact that I found myself back in here the day after my visit says a lot. A margarita – pear flavour this time – called me, like a siren, so maybe this place is the whale and I’m the codependent pilot fish. Whatever, it’s worth the wait.

El Cartel
64 Thistle Street
0131 227 7171

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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