The sight of a gently rotating al pastor spit may be synonymous with many a roadside taqueria found in Mexico City, but it’s maybe not the first thing you’d expect to find in a vegan equivalent located smack dab in the middle of London.
“I honestly think this could be a world first,” says Club Mexicana founder Meriel Armitage with a smile. We’re sat in the group’s first bricks and mortar site, which is located on the ground floor of Soho’s Kingly Court and opened earlier this month. The restaurant’s garish pink exterior, which gives way to a cool interior of neon-pink signage and bold colour-pop artwork, is certainly eye-catching. But it’s the al pastor that immediately grabs your attention as you walk through the door.
“I’ve seen plant-based meat served in a similar style before, but it always comes from a packet,” continues Armitage. “The builders thought we were absolutely mental, and kept on asking us why we were installing a kebab spit in a vegan restaurant.”
Whether or not Club Mexicana’s plant-based al pastor really is the first of its kind is moot – Noma in Copenhagen famously created a shawarma out of celeriac back in 2018, although it’s not a permanent fixture on the restaurant’s menu - but that hardly matters. What it reflects is the culmination of almost a year’s worth of trial and error on Armitage’s part.
The al pastor ‘meat’ in this case is homemade seitan shawarma slabs that have been marinated in a ‘secret’ mixture of chilli and spices; cooked in the oven; coated in a further marinade of chilli; and finally, roasted on the spit. It is then sliced and served on a corn tortilla topped with charred pineapple, chilli sauce, onions and coriander.
“The al pastor was the one thing I knew I wanted in the restaurant kitchen,” says Armitage. “When I used to live in Mexico City there were all these restaurants with a rotating spit piled high with meat, and I couldn’t eat any of it; so I wanted to make one where I could.”
This creative spirit is something that has driven Armitage ever since she first came up with the idea for Club Mexicana back in 2014. Two years earlier she had returned to London having spent time living abroad in America, Mexico and Australia respectively, and ever since had found herself frustrated by the lack of vegan eat out options in the capital.
“It was like the world had regressed by 20 years,” she says. “Living as a vegan in places like California and Melbourne was easy; there were always plenty of options. You could even go to fine-dining restaurants and find plant-based tasting menus. But in London, places usually only had one, often really bland vegan dish on the menu, seemingly put there out of a pressure to offer something; or, alternatively, they just had nothing.”
At that time, Armitage remembers the likes of Kerb and Street Feast starting to gain prominence in the capital. There she discovered an emerging hub of street food operators compelled by a creative determination to offer something new, and yet even then she found the vegan options to be lacking.
“It was such an exciting time for food in London, and those markets were emblematic of that. Yet no one seemed to be specialising in vegan food in the way that operators like Bleecker were with burgers, or Pizza Pilgrims were with pizzas. There were more and more vegan supper club concepts popping up, but they were still hard to find. It felt, to me, like there was this whole area of the market that was untapped, and I wanted a piece of it.”
In what she calls as ‘a fit of madness’, Armitage quit her current job in advertising and went to work in a local vegan café, where she set about planning her own business.
“Street food seemed like such a welcoming sector,” she says. “But I wanted to test the waters first. I’ve always been something of a self-proclaimed fangirl of Mexican food, so I started from there.”
Armitage’s vision wasn’t just driven by a desire to cook the food she loved; she was also determined to break down the barriers of veganism. She describes the café where she worked as having, at the time, an ‘isolationist attitude’: animal rights posters covered the walls; books on the benefits of veganism could be found the shelves; and woe betide anyone who walked in wearing any form of leather.
“The attitude from vegans often felt unwelcoming to those on the outside, but it was understandable as that was often how they were made to feel. People would roll their eyes when someone asked if there was a vegan option, and this sense of division had created a real us-and-them vibe.
“I wanted to take vegan food away from that more serious and aggressive place, to show people how delicious, inventive and accessible it could be.”
Having convinced her boss to allow her to put on a supper club on Saturday evenings after the café had closed, Armitage began to build her concept. The name Club Mexicana was born out of the Wham! song Club Tropicana, the video for which helped guide the aesthetic. The café’s animal rights posters were replaced with a pair of pink inflatable lilos, some neon lights, and tropical-themed paraphernalia. The menu was concise, featuring a range of jackfruit and seitan tacos.
The success of the supper club convinced Armitage to reach out to Kerb, and soon enough she was invited to the office of its founder Petra Barran in order to show her what Club Mexicana was all about. A week later, Armitage found herself running Club Mexicana’s first street food stall at Kerb’s King’s Cross market, and faced with a queue that stretched through Granary Square.
“That first week was a complete disaster in so many ways,” she says with a knowing chuckle. “But in other ways it was a roaring success. Learning in those conditions really gave us such a huge breadth and depth of experience. And the response we got from customers was so great. It was a surprise to people, and I got addicted to that feeling.”
A more permanent venture
Not long after joining the Kerb line-up, Club Mexicana also picked up a pitch with Street Feast. Since then the group has run several residencies; helped launch what it claims was London’s first fully-vegan pub; been part of Glastonbury’s F&B line-up two years running; and secured a prime spot with its own entrance at Kerb’s Seven Dials Market when it opened last year, having cemented her relationship with the street food collective.
Now, finally, Armitage has opened her own permanent restaurant. Moving the brand into a bricks and mortar site has taken around five years in total, but it was always her aim.
“Starting out on the street food circuit was great, but I wanted the space to offer a fuller experience, and that’s why my mind began to shift towards opening a proper restaurant. I was told by so many that the site was the most important thing, and had also been warned that people can be lured into signing for one without properly thinking about it.”
Armitage took her time, initially eschewing a central location and instead looking eastward, but she says the allure of Carnaby was ultimately too great.
“Soho has a very independent spirit, and I knew Kingly Court is what I wanted even before I even saw the site.”
Originally the plan was to open the restaurant in late March, but the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown of the hospitality sector put paid to those plans. Yet even in the darkest moments of stasis, Armitage says she was confident her restaurant would materialise.
“I never doubted that it would open eventually, but maybe I’m overly optimistic. The site was basically ready to open, and there was a comfort in that. Plus, we’ve been fortunate that as landlords, Shaftesbury have been very supportive.”
Club Mexicana’s menu
The enforced postponement of the launch allowed Armitage more time to continue tweaking dishes on Club Mexicana’s menu, including the recipe for the shawarma marinade.
“The best thing about having your own space is that it gives you a greater chance to experiment,” she says. “As our flagship restaurant, I want this site to showcase Club Mexicana’s greatest hits, but I also don’t want to be too precious about the food we serve.”
The menu features plenty of dishes that have become stalwarts of the Club Mexicana brand. There’s the Baja ‘tofish’ taco - tofu wrapped in seaweed that’s been breaded and deep-fried - that here is reimagined with a panko crust; and the barbecue jackfruit short rib taco that’s been smothered with hickory smoked BBQ sauce, topped with pickled cucumber, slaw and garlic mayo.
As well as the al pastor, new dishes include a loaded nacho plate topped with guacamole, vegan queso, plant-based mince marinated and cooked with chilli, onions and jalapeños; and a chick’n and avocado burrito filled with rice, fried chick’n, corn salsa, pink onions, and lashings of hot sauce.
Texture has always been key to Armitage when designing dishes. “So much of vegan cuisine in the eat out market used to be mushy, and I’ve always wanted to work to create a finely-balanced texture that’s as close to the real thing as possible. The jackfruit ribs, for example, are first roasted, then fried, and finally baked, so that they have the right finish.
“I often read more carnivorous cookbooks than vegan specific ones, to get a greater understanding of the different techniques chefs use to cook meat and fish. It’s that passion I want people to taste when they try the food at Club Mexicana.”
Learnings from the street
Despite the many challenges, Armitage reflects on her years working the street food markets fondly.
“Working in street food doesn’t get enough praise for the experience and grounding it can give people. When you train in a restaurant, you find yourself stuck on sections and slowly progressing; but with street food you have to be the chef, the business owner, the KP, the floor manager, customer service, advertising and design.
“Around you is a community of people who own rival business, but all support each other to make sure everyone succeeds.”
What’s more, with the impact of the pandemic having decimated the restaurant landscape, street food continues to be a bastion for offering fledgling operators a viable route into the trade.
“It’s funny, for quite a few years people have talked about how hard it is to get into street food and how much of a saturated market it has become. But I’m always amazed at how many great new traders are coming up through the ranks. Particularly in the vegan space, where we’re seeing so much innovation and creativity.
“That evolution has come out of the space Kerb and Street Feast created, which itself was born out of an economic crisis. And now we’re entering a similar time, and again I think street food will offer a low barrier to entry that gives chefs and those who love the industry the opportunity to get out there and do their own thing.”
Armitage rules out offering a prediction about where the wider restaurant sector is heading as a result of the crisis caused by the pandemic. But one thing’s for sure, while the onset of Covid-19 may have delayed the launch of her first restaurant, it won’t dampen her plans to open more in the future.
“I’m really ambitious, and I suppose I’m always looking to push myself further,” she says.
“Club Mexicana is about making vegan food inclusive to as many people as possible. That’s why I love doing festival pitches, where I can serve thousands of people who might not usually get to try what we offer.”
In terms of expansion, the capital will always be her focus, she says. “I would love to see one in the centre, and then other sites in north, south, east and west London. But, as I was before, I’m going to be really picky about where I choose to open, and I’m going to take my time.
“We’re a small, dynamic business, and that really suits me. People talk of that dream of making it big, but if the last six months has shown us anything, it’s that there’s an advantage to staying small, nimble and adaptable.”