I’ve been banging on for ages that Mexican food should be The Next Big Thing. Could Cardiff’s latest latino pop-up kick off a revolución?
When I was a kid the most authentic latino food I’d ever tried was Old El Paso taco shells – horribly greasy, mince-filled fragmentation grenades served with a dollop of jam-sweet ready made salsa. Along with ‘chilli con carne’ out of a jar (read: spag bol with accidental kidney beans), I thought that was all there was to it.
By the time I visited the states last year, I was a little better informed; I’d had my share of burritos, and I could knock up a respectable chicken fajita from memory. But it took a trip to the hipster capital of the universe, Portland Oregon, to really open my eyes.
My first really earth-shattering experience of Mexican food (albeit through a Norteamericano lens) was at a tiny little hole-in-the-wall off West Burnside Street called Santeria. It was about the size of a garden shed, pitch black, and decked out in voodoo paraphenalia – think Baron Samedi from Live and Let Die‘s en-suite.
Surprisingly, it didn’t disappear in a puff of smoke and a maniacal laugh the moment I turned my back. Instead, and I must stress the sheer joy of this, our food was delivered to our table at the bar across the road.
After I’d gotten over the sheer joy of living in a world where tacos can be obtained in the same place as alcohol, I dug in to one of the finest plates of food I’ve ever eaten; a beautiful, multi-coloured riot on a plate, mixing earthiness and freshness, sweet and sour, spicy and creamy – a greatest hits playlist of all my favourite flavours.
Santeria was a gateway drug for me; everywhere else we went on that trip, I was like a taco-seeking Terminator, diligently scanning for more Mexican munchies. Everything I tried, whether from a food truck or a chain restaurant, was universally brilliant.
But holidays have to end. A couple of weeks later I came down to earth with a literal and metaphorical bump at that universal graveyard of happiness, Gatwick airport. Any residual holiday cheer was beaten out of me on a four hour journey home aboard a National Express cattle wagon, and the taco feast I enjoyed so much in Portland was a distant memory.
Ever since I got back I’ve been hoping that Mexican food would take off here, and recently Cardiff does seem to have sprouted a bumper crop of latin-themed eateries.
Wahaca are the big guys of course. There’s some fantastic stuff on their menu – the sweet potato and feta taquitos are so restorative they should be available on the NHS – but the place is weirdly lacking in personality. The sheer size makes it feel like one of those world-buffet mega-restaurants that you’d only really visit for someone at work’s leaving do.
The new kid on the block, Vivo Latino has some chops too, bolstering a solid line-up of Central and South American dishes (the Mole Poblano is a winner) with an excellent cocktail menu.
But if you want to try the best Mexican food in town, you have to find it first.
There’s a mild-mannered little cafe near Victoria Park that lives a double life. By day Parc Deli looks like a perfectly nice spot to grab a sarnie or a coffee before taking a stroll through Billy the Seal’s old stomping (splashing?) ground.
But Parc Deli has a secret identity. By night (or at least from Thursday to Saturday) it transforms, like some kind of latino Batman, into one of the city’s best Mexican restaurants – Mi Tierra.
It’s an unassuming little space – just four or five small tables located in an ideal people watching spot. Unlike its flashier counterparts it doesn’t feel the need to grab you by the lapels as you walk past and scream ‘HOLA AMIGO! LOOK HOW MEXICAN WE ARE!’ into your face. Instead owners Kris and Rhod are content to let the food speak for itself. Or more accurately, sing its bloody head off.
See, to me, Mexican food should taste like a party in your mouth that’s gotten slightly out of hand since someone found Cards Against Humanity and half a bottle of tequila at the back of the cupboard. It should make your lips tingle and your tongue sizzle, and that’s definitely the case with Mi Tierra.
The Amigo Sharer (£8.95) is the way to go for starters – a platter of empanadas, quesadillas, tortilla chips and cassava fries served with two types of homemade salsa (roasted and er… not) and guacamole.
The coal-black corn dough empanadas are a real treat, and the bright orange of the roasted squash inside makes them look like something that just burst out of a volcano – be warned, they’re as hot as they look, and they taste far too good for you to let them cool down.
Speaking of heat, if you’re a fan of spice you won’t be disappointed; the home made salsa is generously studded with green chilli along with tomato, onion and coriander, and the chicken in the quesadilla packs quite a punch too (Peter Griffin beware).
The table sauces, while imported rather than homemade, also deserve a mention. I’ve never tasted anything quite like the one with the black label – sweet, sour, tangy, smokey, fruity – basically add any adjective for a taste you can think of and it probably applies. It tastes like it fell to Earth on a bloody meteorite, and if I ever figure out where to get it from I’m going to buy it by the case.
On to the main course, and if you suffer from culinary FOMO like me, then the best way to try a little bit of everything is the Cow, Bird and Pig (£6.50) taco platter.
The carnitas pork is everything you want it to be – slow-cooked for about a decade, and spiked with a generous helping of orange zest to balance the rich meatiness of it. You may be able to get pulled pork everywhere from Wetherspoons to Iceland these days, but this is a whole different ball game.
Ditto for the beef – again, so tender it’s like they started cooking it before I was born, with the neat addition of some creamy feta and crisp sweet potato straws.
And then there’s the chicken. Usually, if you put the humble fowl up against big bruising flavours like pork and beef, it comes off the worst, but Mi Tierra’s tastes massive. It’s almost a bit reminiscent of jerk chicken. Add a blob of sour cream, sweet pink pickled onions and a dash of habanero hot sauce, and hey presto – a flavour bomb of thermonuclear proportions.
The only issue I have with the tacos, and this is an appallingly first-world problem, is that there’s actually a bit too much filling for the three mini-tortillas provided – a few pence more on the price and a couple more tortillas would fix that though.
Somehow we also managed the Mexican Sharer dessert platter (£8.95). Churros were off the night we visited, but that was fine, and @scruffyDuke (chairperson of the World Churros Appreciation Society, 2011-16) at no point fell to her knees and screamed “NOOOOOOOO!” to the turned face of an uncaring god.
Thankfully, the intriguingly named Impossible Cake was more than capable of making up for any churro related disappointment.
Often when I’m writing about desserts I feel the need to tell everyone how wonderfully light and airy they are. Not so with Impossible Cake. This stuff is unashamedly heavy. Black Sabbath playing guitars made of depleted uranium heavy. And it’s great – quicksand-thick gooey chocolate brownie-esque base topped with a crème brûlée (only without the brûlée part). You won’t be able to move after it, and you won’t care.
The chilli-infused chocolate tart is almost its polar opposite; crisp, lighter-than-air pastry filled with an almost Christmassy mix of fruit, nuts and spiced chocolate ganache.
Verdict: Viva la revolución!
The food at Mi Tierra is exactly what I’ve been waiting for in Cardiff; authentic and unpretentious latin flavours that unapologetically smack you around the gob and leave your tastebuds tingling – and all for a really sensible price. Better still, the service is super friendly, it’s BYOB (at least for the moment) and they do takeaway.