Places that claim to serve Mexican cuisine in Delhi seem like metaphors for a city that rarely means what it says—much like the parking personnel in Khan Market who passive aggressively request tips whilst wearing shirts with “free parking” embroidered on their backs.
Eight or ten years ago, Rodeo in Connaught Place was considered the only respectable place for a plate of tortillas and salsa that could please even the most austere tourists from Oaxaca. In more recent times, its shine dulled as the kitchen stopped taking itself seriously. Even long after old timers at Rodeo—who were mainly fans of the tortilla soup—have begun to be replaced by pot-bellied men drinking beer over raucous conversation, the city has failed to see another Mexican restaurant that could be considered a “go-to” for quesadilla cravings.
Must a restaurant throw familiar yet unrelated flavours into an otherwise adventurous menu in order to be successful?
Maquina opened in Hauz Khas Village a couple of years ago, and although it makes an effort with its nachos and burritos, later additions to the menu, like “Thai veggie spring rolls” and cottage cheese kebabs give away the restaurant’s lack of faith in its own concept (must a restaurant throw familiar yet unrelated flavours into an otherwise adventurous menu in order to be successful?). It also doesn’t help that Maquina decided to design itself more as a bar than a restaurant, which has only made it easier for the place to become lost among the Social and My Bar buzz.
The most recent addition to Delhi’s nearly non-existent Mexican dining scene, Arriba, falters just as well. Although extensive, the menu is more style and less substance. It fails to pass the most basic test that qualifies a Mexican restaurant as noteworthy—good guacamole and salsa. The guacamole at Arriba looks and tastes like it spent the weekend mourning the end of avocado season, and the many varieties of salsa are made with flavour combinations best reserved for the imagination (watermelon and feta is usually a winning match, but the version we ate was merely chunks of watermelon swimming in watery cheese). Even the margaritas we tasted didn’t seem to have enough tequila despite having requested the bartender to add more to what seemed like well-presented fruit juice.
Arriba does have a certain clientele, who, I believe, visit more for the posh Sunday brunch factor than they do for genuinely good food. As the Delhi stylebook says: if it’s expensive, it’s the place to be seen at. The fact that the place fails to justify its price point (Rs 8,000 for a meal for two) is a matter ignored by the masses and left to the critics, most of whom are likely to be bashed for not singing praises of the restaurant.
Not too long ago, I received some severe backlash for an honest-to-god review of La Bodega in Khan Market. I thought their taco filling tasted like stir-fry mixed with spices from an Indian kitchen, instead of the paprika-dusted mix of ingredients—with a slight creaminess from avocado—that it should have been. I thought it was severely misleading for people in Delhi who might previously have not had the chance to taste Mexican food. My review, which had been published in a fortnightly magazine, stated my distaste for the place and its food with abandon.
Although I had my fair share of supporters, a non-connoisseur himself threw the most peculiar rebuff at me: if I hadn’t eaten Mexican food in Mexico, I had no right to critique Mexican food anywhere else in the world. The logic behind the backlash registered as nothing more than the bruised egos of a few people who thought the world of the place, claiming it was the best Mexican food they had eaten in their lives. Most of these turned out to be friends of the owner, of course.
The hilarious debate that ensued for two days over a public forum had been filed away in my memory as an argument I didn’t care to be a part of, until recently, when I had an enriching conversation with the head chef at one of London’s most successful Mexican restaurants.
Taqueria is always abuzz with diners at mealtimes, sometimes even with a queue. It earned four Time Out London stars, and continues to be thronged with West Londoners looking for a post-work margarita or a weekend tostada. The restaurant values quality and understands the power of consistency. Ingredients are always fresh, and the margaritas strong enough to generate a buzz that could last several hours (provided loud, incoherent singing from neighbourhood pubs doesn't ruin it).
Head chef Adam Pawlak has cooked in the Taqueria kitchen for seven years. He’s originally from Poland and went to culinary school there. “One does not need to be Mexican to create a good taco, and I think I’m a good example,” he said, when I asked him about the one aspect of Mexican cuisine he admired the most. This confidence is clearly reflected in his cooking, too, which is careful and precise. The soft shell crab and beef tostadas at Taqueria are the only ones of their kind that I have eaten so far. “Avocado”, the restaurant’s signature guacamole (which is actually guacamole at its purest) is a fresh, peasant-style side of chopped avocado topped with white onion, lime and coriander. It's hard to stop at ordering one portion. The churros, with their dark chocolate dipping sauce, are among the best that can be found in London.
Neither London nor Delhi have notable Mexican influence, but both cities do have active food scenes with some excellent international cuisine. Even so, I'm often at a loss for words when someone asks where they could find seriously good Mexican food in the capital. If a Polish chef in London can nail a menu to impress palates accustomed to Mexican flavours, a non-Mexican chef in Delhi could certainly give the city what it lacks. We’ll only have to wait until a fearless, well-versed restaurateur decides to show them how it’s done.