The 1980s craze for themed nights out catapulted Mexican cuisine straight to our hearts. As long as punters could wear plastic sombreros, get plastered on cheap tequila and pretend they were outlaws in the Wild West, no one cared that "Mexican" food wasn't really Mexican at all.
As we all learnt, "Mexican" food in Europe was largely Tex-Mex, a creation of 1940s and 1950s America. Although much of it was born as a result of Mexican immigrants fusing their own peasant fare with southern American food, dishes such as fajitas and nachos never actually existed south of the border.
Fortunately, UK diners are a bit more savvy these days. An anglicised Indian is no longer good enough when you could concentrate on Keralan or Punjabi cuisine, so isn't it high time Tex-Mex met its more authentic match?
At Green and Red, a newish bar and restaurant in Shoreditch near the top of London's Brick Lane, it already has. The focus of the place is definitely on the 50-plus tequilas on offer (all the 100% agave variety), but - credit where credit's due - the owners (all card-carrying Mexicophiles) have designed a menu based on the regional cuisine of Jalisco, where tequila originated.
Huw Gott, one of the owners, travelled extensively around Jalisco for culinary inspiration, and back in England found a fan of Mexican food, Brazilian-born chef Renato Reinas, to put it into practice. What they discovered was a tradition of seafood and more slow-cooked, rustic cuisine from the highland, with plenty of celebratory dishes for family Sundays and feast days.
Typical is birria, a slow-cooked meat dish, usually lamb, goat or pork. At Green and Red, Reinas marinates lamb shanks in beer, cinnamon, cloves, sesame seeds and ancho chillies (£12). It's braised for five hours at 120°C. "It's a very common dish for families to share," says Reinas, "and is served with plenty of accompaniments. The sauce works beautifully as a soup."
Carnitas is another regional dish, like a sort of Mexican confit. Pork belly and ribs are rubbed with orange and garlic, then cooked in fat at just under 100°C (£11.50). The meat pieces are removed and allowed to cool and served with a pasilla chilli and orange salt garnish and two other house salsas.
For the orange salt garnish, orange skin is dried out and powdered, then mixed with sea salt and the pasilla chilli. One house salsa features fresh tomatoes mixed with chipotle chilli, which gives a mild, smoky flavour. The other uses green tomatillo (similar to tomato but a member of the gooseberry family) with green chillies.
The house salsas are served with every main alongside shredded cabbage, refried beans and corn tortillas (300 are made fresh each day).
As you would expect, chillies are very important to Mexican cooking, but both Gott and Reinas stress that authentic Mexican cooking is about subtle flavours, not fiery heat. The kitchen gets its supplies from the Cool Chilli Company and MX Food, as well as a few specialist ingredients sent from Jalisco such as annato seeds, a seed ground into a powder and rubbed into chicken.
The tortilla-grabbing, dish-sharing style definitely suits the bar, but the designated restaurant area on the ground floor, with about 45 seats, means three-course meals are also encouraged. At present the restaurant serves about 70 covers at the weekend, including a few customers for brunch.
With tequila sales expected to contribute significantly to Green and Red's turnover, the team are keen to teach punters that there's more to the famed spirit than slammers, slices of lemon and being sick. Waiting staff offer the anejo (aged) varieties with puddings - they're sweeter, with the ageing process mellowing some of the agave's bitterness. A glass of the Don Julio Real Extra Anejo will set you back £50 - the most expensive tequila on the standard list (there's also a private reserve list).
For savoury dishes, the younger tequilas are recommended, such as a Herradura (£5 per 50ml). With a more spicy flavour, these younger bottles hold up to the food better. "We want to educate people about real tequila," says Gott. "The staff have tried all the tequilas and we tell them not to let diners leave until they like it!"
So the punters may still be getting tipsy, but at least they won't be wearing sombreros.
What's on the Menu
- Caldo michi, shrimp broth with arbol chilli and coriander, £5.50
- Ceviche, citrus-cooked sea bass with pomegranate seeds, Serrano chilli and coriander, served with totopos, £6.50
- Chayote (crisp, green central American squash), grapefruit and coriander salad with toasted pumpkin seeds and jalapeño chilli, £4.50
- Corn-fed chicken roasted with achiote spices, served with a tomato and ancho chilli salsa, £10.50
- Whole sea bream baked in banana leaves with a tomato and ancho chilli salsa, £14.50
- Roast ironbark pumpkin with lentils, sweet potato and chayote, £9.50
- Churros with thick, spiced hot chocolate, £5.50.
- Baked vanilla custard with cinnamon and raw cane sugar, £4.50.
- Rice pudding with raisins soaked in Gran Centenario Reposado, £5
Green and Red, 51 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA.
Tel: 020 7749 9670