It was the summer of ‘95 and I was a 20 year-old medical student wannabe-beat-traveller journeying down Mexico way searching for soul, spirit, tequila, tortilla, dust, desert, nature, adventure, and the wild ol’ mariachi songs of love, tears, hope and death. But not a full-stop. Jack Kerouac didn’t do full-stops and, at that time of my life, the work of this 50’s Mexico-junkie beat-poet was my numero-uno travelling companion. On The Road and Lonesome Traveller: such stories fizzed with words that flowed off the pages like a roaring torrent of energy and life and the beat-spirit pummelled into my brain with force and power and off I went.
The journey started in Tijuana. In fact, I suspect lots of things start in Tijuana. An old border town that entices flocks of Californians looking for cheap goods, dentists, liqour and love, or some seedy combination thereof, possibly all in the same night. It’s a hot dusty intense place: brash, noisy and much loved and unloved. It’s exactly the sort of place where Breaking Bad cartel henchman would neck back tequila shots in a backroom bar before retiring to their black limos and a journey out of town to a lonely desert air-strip.
From Tijuana, I took a bus down south, the start of a 2000-mile road-trip across the spine of madre Mexico. Hours would fly as I gazed out of the window, the bus zig-zagging round tortuous hairpin bends, driving through cactus-spiked desert, copper-flecked canyons, and dusty one-bar towns with revolution-fomenting slogans graffitied across their walls. The journey took me through the deserts of Sonora, the old mining town of San Luis Potosi, colonnial Guanajuato and bustling Guadalajara, the metropolis of D.F. Mexico and the markets of graceful Oaxaca, and finally over misty cloud-forest hills before breaking out to the wild Pacific blue.
Whether it’s the ancient mysticism of the place, or just the nature of the road, Mexico threw up some surreal moments. Once, on a bus, an idle conversation with a friendly passenger swiftly led to finding myself all scrubbed up in hospital blues; before I could say ‘but I’m just a medical student’, I ended up assisting with gastro-intestinal surgery. In the same week, I found myself kerb-crawled by a police car – unnerving given the police’s reputation here – only for them to present me with a newspaper opened out to reveal an image of none-other-than myself staring back. For reasons which I still find somewhat mysterious, I’d been surreptitiously snapped in public and my photo published in a national paper.
Another time, after climbing the mythical pre-Columbian Teotihuacan pyramid, I gazed out atop this quiet and lonely peak, revelling in early morning serenity. Silence except for a deafening cry of “Yeah, man. I can really feel the power of the ancients…” Clambering up was a man with shoulder-length hair, psychedelic loose cotton pants, an open waistcoat revealing arms bursting with tattoos, huge Nike Air trainers, and a pair of blue-tinted Ozzy Osbourne glasses. Precisely because he was Ozzy Osbourne. Up a freakin’ pyramid! Years later, in a twist of fate, I’d also get to meet Sharon; the children’s ward surroundings were perhaps less surreal, but this time I was dressed up as a Christmas elf.
And now – realizing I’ve taken one long camino round the canyon – we come to the food. I’d never previously been to a place where the food was so fiercely embedded into the spirit, culture and history of a place. Corn’s the staple, as it had been for the ancient Aztecs who pounded the grain in stone bowls, revered it as sacred, and timed their festivals in conjunction with the corn cycle. And from maize came tamales, tejate and of course tortilla.
Tortilla is hard work. I know this after attending Cookery School’s Mexico workshop; dough was kneaded, pressed, shaped and baked into tortillas. It’s physically laborious and demands no little skill. I’ll appreciate that every time I tuck into a taco. Tortilla is the bedrock of Mexican food culture: onto its inviting surface, ingredients are poured, rolled, folded, scooped, layered or sandwiched. Flatbreads are found the world over, but to me what distinguishes the tortilla is… its smell. So characteristic and so ubiquitous it is around the country, for me it’s synonymous with Mexico.
And so to Shoreditch’s new Mexican joint Santo Remedio. Recently started up by the husband-wife team of Edson and Natalie, its mission is to share their love of Mexican food by serving just excellent Mexican food. They source their specialist produce from small family firms in Mexico, particularly important as Mexican cuisine hinges on ingredients that are otherwise difficult to find elsewhere.
An exception to this is queso fresco, which is lovingly handmade in the depths of Peckham, at the Gringa Dairy. The tortillas meanwhile are actually sourced from Tipperary. Of course they are. Okay, so it’s a long way there (as they say), but this may not seem the obvious tortilla-production destination. However before one vents hipster outrage about provenance, consider this: Blanco Niño is a specialist tortilla artisanal maker that makes nothing else. They put sustainably-grown corn through the ancient pre-Mayan process of ‘nixtamalization’, and then crush it using grinders carved from volcanic stone. It’s the real deal, and I know this as soon as the tortillas are about 150cm from my nose because the smell of Mexico hits my olfactory neuro-circuitry and my mind is immediately whisked twenty years ago and 5000 miles away.
My ‘dish para el camino’ are beef barbacoa tacos. Here the beef is slow-cooked for six hours, then pulled and stuffed tenderly into tortillas crafted into beautiful half-moons. It’s a dish originating from Northern Mexico, and I reflect back to those dusty deserts and verdant canyons of the region. The beef is rich and flavoursome with sweetness and smoke; the sweetness enhanced by the ancho chile, the rich smokiness by the pasilla chile. Atop is a salsa roja, its tang balancing the beef deliciously, whilst finely-chopped red onion provides some crunch against the otherwise soft pillowy backdrop. All three tacos were gone muy rapido.
Do save space though for the house churros. They were perfect: crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and leaving your lips with a powdery tickle of cinnamon sugar like a guilty kiss. The accompanying dulce de leche was equally seductive: so silky, creamy and unctuous that it demands its own fetishism. Okay, so churros are originally Spanish, but they are popular in Mexico; just one example of the historic two-way culinary traffic between the country and Europe. (Other examples include wheat-based tortillas, originating from Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, whilst conversely achiote paste, derived from a Yucatan shrub, is frequently used to colour Red Leicester.)
Like many London start-ups in recent years, Santo Remedio is a small cozy venue. Although I went alone, I found myself literally cheek-by-jowl with my neighbour on the adjacent table. This didn’t bother me in the slightest, especially since it happened to be Jay Rayner, who obviously loved the place. (Such an intimate venue as it is, I also discover he loves: underground bare-knuckle pugilism, looking after wounded squirrels, and morris dancing. Or I might’ve misheard, it did get noisy…)
The menu here may be street-food, but this is street-food originating from 2000 years ago, and there’s a reason it’s lasted so long. Santo Remedio captures this heritage, adds its own innovation, and turns it into something authentic and totally delicioso.
I have fond memories travelling around Mexico. To find out how I picked up the travelling bug in the first place, you may this other piece about ‘The Roving Cafe‘.
The surgical team at Hospital Rio Verde
My photo in El Nacional
Ozzy Osbourne. Up a pyramid.