From barnstorming tacos to the ultimate steak pie – here’s what’s worth eating in Edinburgh…
Flying to Edinburgh from Cardiff is a discombobulating experience.
Not only does the flight leave at half past you’ve-got-to-be-bloody-kidding-me in the morning, but it’s so short that by the time you’ve buckled your seatbelt you’re being shoo-ed off the plane and onto a tram to Princes Street.
The only thing that’ll help you get your bearings is breakfast and a major caffeine hit.
We find both in Wellington Coffee’s cosy little basement bunker on George Street. The flat white is so immaculate it looks like something from a barista training manual, and the cheese and bacon scones are a filthy joy – especially with a bit of jam, as suggested by the staff with a conspiratorial nod and a wink before the morning rush arrives.
The fact that it’s still way too early for a drink doesn’t stop us from taking the superb value for money Edinburgh Gin Distillery tour, and by the time we’ve had a nosy round the stills and downed our complimentary G&T (try the Seaside Gin, it’s fantastic), it’s socially acceptable to go for a pint.
The beer selection is immense, and includes a fantastic Wylam/Van Moll DDH Rye IPA that’s probably one of the best beers I’ve drunk this year. Incidentally, @blysiaubach is the one to suggest trying it just as we’re reading some dickhead’s article about women only liking Blue Moon.
Of course there’s haggis on the menu, and given the clichés we’ve been collecting along the way like Caledonian Pokemon – lone bagpiper, someone drinking Irn Bru, big fuck-off thistle that looks like an angry triffid – it seems rude not to go for it.
It’s not yer Da’s haggis though. The epically named Scotty Too Hotty is a hotdog topped with a mound of the meaty stuff and lashings of sriracha hot sauce. The effect is not dissimilar to a chilli dog with a Scottish accent, and you could do significantly worse if you’re looking for something to soak up a few beers here.
An hour or so later we say our goodbyes to The Hanging Bat and the best pump handles I have ever seen, and venture back to the AirBNB. And that’s when the rain starts.
As a Welshman, I like to think I can handle a little rain. But Scotland doesn’t do ‘a little rain.’ It does All Of The Rain. Only faster. To paraphrase Tom Hardy’s mumbly Bat-villain, we merely adopted the rain. Our Northern cousins were born of it.
Thankfully, Edinburgh offers plenty of bolt-holes where you can ride out the deluge – places like The Salt Horse, where we shelter on the way to our first Fringe show*. It’s another craft beer bar with an impeccable beer list and (if you can get a table) epic homemade nuggs courtesy of pop-up Geordie interlopers Meat:Stack.
I wake up on day two pleased to see that the Scottish capital has neither dissolved nor floated away in the night. This is especially good news, because today is taco day.
I read once that you can take half a dozen standard Lego bricks, and put them together a whopping 900 million different ways. This still only makes Lego about half as versatile as the humble taco.
With the exception of soup, you can fill them with pretty much anything, giving a skilled chef the opportunity to play with flavours and textures to create two or three bites of perfect self-contained joy in each one. So when I knew I’d get the chance to visit the legendary El Cartel, tucked away on Edinburgh’s Thistle Street, I was a bit excited.
Overexcited might be more accurate – to the staff’s alarm we arrive at about two minutes past midday, just seconds after the Mexican flags have been hoisted over the doorway. But you can’t book a table, and I am not missing this.
We bag ourselves a window seat and start poring over the encouragingly short menu. The number of dishes is outnumbered by a comprehensive array of hot sauces – there are about nine of them, including a fantastic homemade concoction, and they all taste different. I know this because I try all of them.
Between the two of us we order the lion’s share of the taco menu, from standards like baja cod and pork pibil to the more maverick (for the UK) crispy ox tongue and confit duck.
The fish tacos are first out of the gate, and I’m instantly faced by the greedy idiot’s dilemma – I can bite into it immediately and leave the inside of my mouth looking like Freddy Krueger after five hours on an unattended sunbed, or I can wait a few minutes.
Once the smell of burning idiot tongue subsides, I take a second bite. The only thing lighter and more delicate than the batter is the fish, with the fresh radish and red cabbage providing a crunchy counterpoint. A drizzle of crema sauce pulls everything together, juicy pomegranate seeds pop on my tongue like fruity little hand grenades and for a minute I forget that I’ve just set fire to my mouth. Someone really knows what they’re doing here.
The duck appears moments later, and it’s a masterpiece of textures and tastes – pillowy taco contrasts with shards of crisp meat, while firey jalapeno collides with sweet pineapple and sets off a Cinco De Mayo fireworks display in your mouth.
After that we munch our way through both the buttery soft beef and the impressively zesty pork, and I decide that I could absolutely eat here every day for the rest of my life without getting bored.
A special mention also has to go to their guacamole, which they’ve jacked up with feta, pomegranate and spring onion. None of that nothingy green mush most of us grew up with here. Served with a mound of satisfyingly crispy totopos (little deep fried tortilla bits – yes, I had to look it up too), it’s easily one of the best things anyone’s ever done with an avocado.
As fantastic as everything we’ve eaten so far is, for our final day, we decide it’s time for something a bit more upmarket.
We don’t so much arrive at the Scran and Scallie as hurl ourselves bodily through the door to escape rain so torrential even a duck would describe it as ‘all a bit much, really’. It’s the second time in two days Edinburgh has tried to drown me, and I’m starting to take it personally.
Thankfully, Tom Kitchin’s high-end take on pub grub is about to make me feel a whole lot more welcome.
The place clearly has class but without feeling fussy – picture a classic country pub redecorated by someone with a Pinterest account and a few tins of Farrow and Ball knocking about. It’s tasteful without making you feel the need to take your shoes off.
The menu is pretty straightforward – there’s a column for their stalwart dishes, and one for the seasonal stuff.
My starter – girolles on toast with a hens egg – comes from the latter column. I’m tempted to be a smart-arse here and call it a posh mushroom toastie, but it’s so beautifully done I’d feel like a bit of a dick. The bread has been given a vigorous rub down with a garlic clove, and the whole thing is drizzled with a dark, violently savoury sauce that I’d happily have downed a half pint of.
Then The Pie arrives. From this point forward, I will be referring to it as The Pie, because it really is the one pie to rule them all. It arrives looking like something ripped straight from the pages of a Desperate Dan comic, with a huge bone chimney rising from the centre of it. Probably not a great look for the vegans among you, but you probably shouldn’t be ordering a beef pie anyway, lads.
First things first – just bloody look at it. It’s objectively beautiful, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie in the 90s (delete as applicable). You cannot stop looking at it.
Back to that chimney – it’s actually more of a holding pen, containing a glug of bone marrow marmalade. I’m told to pull out the bone when I’m ready to release it into the pie. I’m not 100% on why the marmalade needs to be kept away from the rest of the filling – I can only assume it’s trouble – but there’s a definite satisfaction to releasing it from its bony prison to wreak havoc.
My only slight quibble – that a pie without a bottom is technically a stew with a fancy hat on – evaporates with my first bite. We’ve all had beef before (well, unless you’re a Hindu or a lifelong veggie, in which case you’ll just have to trust me on this), but this really is something else. I mean, ‘melts in your mouth’, ‘intensely savoury’ etc as you’d expect, but nothing prepares you for just how… beefy this thing is.
It’s like this is the template for everything on earth that has ever claimed to be beef flavoured, but no-one has quite nailed it yet. No, not even those Brannigans crisps you used to be able to get at the corner shop.
And that bone marrow marmalade isn’t just for theatrics either. Once it’s released it oozes through the pie, amping up the meatiness even further and adding an extra sweet note to the mix.
We also need to talk about the mash. I made a schoolboy error here – I didn’t bother taking a picture of it because, to be totally honest, it looked a bit unremarkable.
Nothing like the lumpy school dinner horror shows of my youth, but not fancy enough to light up Instagram with little red hearts either. What a mistake. Great mash needs two things – the judicious application of butter and salt – and there are life-shortening amounts of both in play here. It’s bloody fantastic.
There’s no room for dessert, and we spend the rest of the day in a carb-drunk daze until we board our return flight to Cardiff. I swear the engines struggle just a tiny bit more for takeoff than they did on the way up.
Three days in Edinburgh was enough for me to learn three things; the unassuming looking art school kids flyering at the Fringe have the killer instinct of starving hyenas if you show the slightest hint of weakness, nothing on Earth can prepare you for the fury of Scottish rain, and there is so much good food and drink in this city it’s ridiculous. I’ll definitely be back.
Been to Edinburgh? Did I miss anywhere good? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @fuudblog.
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* A little note on the Fringe, which I conveniently sidestep above – it was sort of an accident that we ended up in Edinburgh during festival season; it just happened to coincide with our anniversary. We saw three fantastic and extremely funny shows (John Robins, Kiri Pritchard McClean and Lou Sanders), each with a lovely message about compassion and generally Not Being a Dick. There isn’t room to write about them here too, but go see them when they’re on tour because they were all brilliant.