Street food. That’s a thing. Street food! Isn’t it great? It reminds me of that time I was travelling in Guatemala, and some indigenous people were just, you know, making food in the street, and it was all, like, totally authentic. Except that never happened.
I’ve forced down slimy noodles in Tokyo; binned inedible grey slop in Moscow; spat out what may have been squid, or lard or a human eye in Korea and expelled in an altogether more unsavoury manner a watery curry from Malaysia. Street food in the UK consists of mulchy, cartilaginous burgers made from horsemeat and despair, sold to depressed builders on the outskirts of industrial estates in Leicester. Street food isn’t a joyous celebration of traditional cuisine; it’s a PR creation championed by idiots with moustaches and French bulldogs.
La Bodega Negra, which opened in Soho last year, claims to take its culinary cues from street food, despite, presumably, using modern restaurant facilities, which raises questions of semantics. It’s so cool it doesn’t have a frontage – you enter through a sex shop door with a pink neon sign reading: “come”. Nathan Barley would think it was “totally Mexico!”
Inside it looks like a subterranean brothel, with artfully peeling paint on the walls and gloomy banquettes. Its new Shoreditch sibling, La Casa Negra, is going for more of a jaunty sea-shack theme; the kind of place you might visit on Spring Break if you were American and very rich and awful. The bar, through which you enter, has brightly painted Sol beer signs and strings of coloured lights.
A smoking-hot front-desk girl was impressively, commandingly rude, peering down at us from six inch heels with a look that said: “I’m gonna let you in, but don’t go thinking that makes you in the slightest bit worthy of being here.” At least that’s what I thought it said. It might have said: “I’m bored and this isn’t how I dreamed I would be spending my evenings when I left Leicester.”
The dining room is murkier than the bar but keeps the sort-of-nautical theme, giving the impression it’s been boarded up to keep the sunlight out, like a quaint seaside squat. The aesthetic is part Mexican-hipster, part British punk from the “an-ar-chy in the you-kay” era. It has those red and white depth measurers on the walls next to Sex Pistols-inspired art and pictures of Frida Kahlo. The seating is all foldy-chairs, which I only realised when I fell through one, just as the front-desk girl walked past, shooting me an “I told you so” look.
I went on a Tuesday night and by 8pm it was full with people who work in social media essence extraction and post-advertising meta vlogging. It was pleasantly buzzy; an effect made nicer by some decent cocktails. Our waitress, Anna, was a striking half-Mexican girl wearing an eye-wateringly low-cut cat-suit (there is a pattern in La Casa Negra’s hiring policy). She put the front-desk girl to shame.
She told us to order a load of stuff and share it. The menu is made to look like a fanzine, printed on pink and yellow folded A4, featuring pictures of faux-trendy haircuts and a Chihuahua wearing a wig, which you have to flick through before you reach anything meaningful.
The mackerel ceviche arrived with a taco artlessly stuck on top, as if it had something to hide. It didn’t – it was full of whopping hunks of fish and a bucket load of habanero chilli, hot enough to kick you into next week, but tasty. The beef tongue tacos came highly recommended but had been cooked for so long and salted so much they could have been made from any cut of any four-legged animal you might find on a farm. The “street style” corn salad with cheese comes in a knickerbockerglory glass, which is presumably what any self-respecting Mexican street-food vendor serves his wares in. It was just as well: the corn came paddling in a watery sauce that my guest Andy ended up sipping like a cheesy virgin cocktail. He assured me it was nicer than it looked but I’m not convinced.
Anna recommended tequila between courses to cleanse the palate and, honestly, you can’t say no to her. She could have recommended running blindfolded into traffic before dessert to speed up my digestion and I’d have given it a go. The tequila comes by the tumbler; we had the Herradura. You should too, it’s fantastic.
The sea bass main followed the same red and green colour scheme as every other dish, with thick fillets stacked atop one another, skin nicely crisped, all laced with chilli. Very nice it was, too. Andy went for the fried poblano chilli, Chihuahua cheese and salsa. It’s gigantic: a deep fried pepper the size of a baby, incredible in its girth. Unfortunately it tasted rather bland, not to mention shudderingly unhealthy; like an overweight accountant having a heart attack in the sweltering Mexican sun.
A dessert of chocolate sorbet and pumpkin seed ice cream hit the spot, as did the obligatory glass of tequila we had for the road. When in Mexico… (come to think of it, Mexicans probably don’t – they probably just have a beer or a nice glass of Malbec like everyone else).
La Casa Negra’s food is as subtle as a migraine: loud, brash and colourful, without a jus or a foam or a reduction in sight. But it achieves what it sets out to: hearty, tasty Mexican grub. Anyway, you don’t go for the food – you go for the hair-cuts and the French bulldogs. You go to score a couple of East End cool-points. At any rate, it beats the hell out of street food.
First published in City A.M.