Back in the early 1990s, the Mexican restaurant scene in the UK was as bleak as the Chihuahan Desert. ‘Tex-Mex’ ruled the roost: tortillas were made only from wheatflour, not corn; beef – either minced and stewed with tomatoes and kidney beans, or grilled and sliced, for fajitas – was the predominant meat; and copious shots of dodgy tequila were dispensed by girls wearing sombreros, ammunition belts loaded with shot glasses, and little else, presumably to distract from the food.
No longer. At least not in London. Thanks to the Cool Chile Company (and their Taqueria restaurant, on Westbourne Grove), followed by Wahaca, Breddos, El Pastor and others, the capital now has a thriving and authentic Mexican food culture. Corn tortillas are now the norm, slow-cooked pork has supplanted chilli con carne as a favourite filling, and top-notch tequilas and mezcals are sipped appreciatively, not slammed with salt and lime. To underline the scale of this revolution, Mexican cheese is now being made (by Gringa Dairy) in a Peckham railway arch.
And there is also Santo Remedio, co-owned by chef Edson Diaz-Fuentes and his wife Natalie, who runs front-of-house. It delighted critics and customers alike when it opened in Shoreditch a couple of years ago, only to dismay them by closing a few months later, but is now back in the game, in spacious new premises on Tooley Street.
Tacos, of course, are a staple on the menu, filled variously with ox tongue, soft shell crab, slow-cooked beef short ribs, or pork belly. Diaz-Fuentes’s pork belly tacos differ from the classic carnitas in that the pork is stewed slowly in the oven, rather than made like a confit. “Our version is a bit lighter and healthier, and we cook the pork belly with the skin, so we get great chicharrón [crackling] as well,” he says.
“I use a Rational combi oven, but you can cook it in a normal oven – just ensure the liquid stays topped up so that the pork doesn’t dry out.”
A gentle, smoky heat comes from morita peppers – from the Mexican state of Chihuahua – while Coca-Cola adds sweetness and notes of spice, citrus and vanilla. Diaz-Fuentes pairs his pork belly with a salsa verde based on tomatillos: the tomatillo is a cousin of the tomato, with a papery husk like the physalis, and has a pleasantly sharp and fruity flavour, combining happily with the classic Mexican ingredients of onion, garlic, coriander, lime and chilli. “I like to keep some of the tomatillo in reserve, to chop and add to the puréed salsa at the end: it gives it a nice chunky texture.”
Fresh corn tortillas are easy to find these days – try www.coolchile.co.uk (they often stock fresh tomatillos, too) or www.mexika.co.uk – and can be heated in a dry pan, before being filled with the crisped pork, salsa, red onion, fresh coriander, lime juice and a scattering of crumbled chicharrón.
“All tacos,” says Diaz-Fuentes, “aim for a perfect balance: the taco itself gives carbohydrate, the filling gives protein, and the salsa and garnish adds acidity and freshness. The tomatillo salsa will keep for a couple of days in the fridge, but if you have leftovers, you can cook it, add the pork to it, then crumble the chicharrón over the top.”
For anyone who thought real Mexican food came from an Old El Paso fajita kit, the tacos at Santo Remedio are a revelation.
Pork belly tacos with chicharrón and tomatillo salsa
Ingredients for the pork
1 joint pork belly, with skin and bones (4-5kg)
1 tbsp light olive oil
Small handful of sea salt
4 medium tomatoes
2 medium red onions, peeled
4 fat cloves of garlic
100g morita chillis
Ingredients for the salsa
2 medium white onions,
skinned and coarsely chopped
10 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Large handful of coriander stalks
Juice of 2 limes
3 or 4 fresh serrano peppers or jalapeños, finely chopped
To serve (per portion)
3 corn tacos, warmed
1 tsp lard
40g pork belly, diced
½ tsp salt
3 tsp tomatillo salsa
3 tsp finely chopped red onion
Handful of fresh coriander, chopped
Squeeze of lime
1 tsp chicharrón
1. Prepare the pork. Using a Stanley knife, score the skin thoroughly, in lines about 1cm apart and 1cm deep, without cutting through to the flesh. Rub with the oil, then with the salt. Arrange the tomatoes and red onions in a gastro tray to form a trivet for the pork, put in the garlic cloves and chillis, then sit the pork belly on top, skin side up. Pour in the Coca-Cola, then top up with water to just below the level of the skin.
2. In a Rational oven, set it to the combi option, 2 fan, 45% humidity. Cook at 220°C for 20 minutes, then 180°C for two hours, then back to 220°C for another 20 minutes. Keep checking at this point: the skin should be golden, blistered and crisp.
3. Let the meat cool, then remove the skin, which should be very crisp, break it into chunks and store in a sealed tub until needed. Trim any big lumps of fat from the pork, remove the bones (they should slide out easily) and refrigerate until cold, before chopping into 0.5cm dice.
4. Make the salsa. Coarsely chop 400g of the tomatillos, then blend them with the rest of the ingredients until smooth. Finely chop the remaining tomatillos and stir into the salsa. Taste and add salt as necessary.
5. To serve, heat the pork belly in a small pan until crisp, add the salt and distribute the meat between the three tacos. Top each taco with 1 tsp each of the salsa and the red onion, squeeze lime over each, then finish with the coriander and a sprinkle of chicharrón, and serve immediately.