The Mexican wave is sadly all Tex-Mex
Dubai has had a flurry of new ‘Mexican’ restaurants popping up recently, and in my continuous quest for authentic Mexican cuisine (I am still searching by the way), I have decided to regale you with my musings on why Dubai cannot serve up the original fare but manages to churn out Tex-Mex nosh, in the odd case rather well I should add.
Maria la del Barrio,“Tex-Mex is an American adaptation of the basic items in a Mexican cookbook. It pivots around the tortilla (yellow corn or flour) but not on maize tortilla. It always comes with cheddar cheese and sour cream. Both the beans and salsas have a funny sweet taste, compared to our varieties of salsas (which are made of many different chillies and tomatoes, and can be very spicy at times but just enough to add flavour). If there’s a crispy taco, a fajita or a chimichanga on the menu, for sure it’s a Tex-Mex place.
The Tex-Mex dishes offer a full array of fajitas and minced beef, while Mexican cuisine has completely different cuts of meat (like cecina, arrachera, costillar, and yes also pork) but also loads of amazing seafood such as the dishes from the Pacific coast (aguachile, ceviche) or Veracruz. Some of our dishes are cochinita pibil, pozole, corunda, cactus, escamoles ants and even grasshoppers – not even close to a common taco! Some are unique ingredients, such as zucchini flowers or cuitlacoche, a maize mushroom. Our influence comes from prehistorical Meso-American, Spanish, African and Oriental cuisines, from which we’ve also borrowed a lot – but the four main ingredients are maize, beans, chilli and tomato (which is native of Mexico). True Mexican cuisine varies according to the region, state, and the chef’s imagination, so it might be challenging to replicate abroad.
Meanwhile, Ricardo Cárdenas, a Mexican national who works at Taqado Mexican Kitchen explains, “Mexican cuisine is the fusion between the traditional food from pre-Hispanic ingredients of chilli, corn and beans with the new ingredients and techniques of pork, beef, chicken, oil and frying from the old European immigrants. It’s about using the correct variety of avocado, serrano chilli and fresh tomatillo to make real flavours. Tex-Mex food has been created as a result of the influence from Texas and other countries, a lack of access to traditional Mexican ingredients outside of Mexico, and also the limited access to original recipes.
The only time I’ve tasted any of these Mexican ingredients was in Mexico City five years ago – the cactus and zucchini flowers in particular were aplenty – and also at Maya pre the revamp though. What Dubai dishes out is all Tex-Mex. Like with many travelling cuisines, Italian to name another, truly authentic Mexican has suffered from globalisation and lurks in the shadow of its more popular cousin Tex-Mex. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Tex-Mex cuisine if well-executed – after all if the palate of the Dubai diner demands the less complex Tex-Mex, and the import of native ingredients continues to challenge, then so be it. And those two reasons are in my opinion why Dubai cannot cook Mexican. Restaurants here should just brand themselves as Tex-Mex – don’t try fooling us foodies into thinking you’re serving true Mexican by including a handful of original dishes. It’s all about managing expectations.
Dave Reeder, Editorial Director of The Pro Chef Middle East always raves about one particular Mexican restaurant in London that I have yet to try, “Winner of MasterChef in 2005, in part through her bold use of flavours from time spent in Mexico, Thomasina Miers went on to open a Mexican street food restaurant in London, Wahaca. Now it’s a chain and that’s no surprise as the concept ticks virtually all of the boxes of modern urban dining: authentic dishes, great ingredients, slightly edgy style, friendly service, sharing plates and a full-on commitment to sustainability. Add to that flights of tequila, constantly updated specials and not a hint of Tex-Mex styling and it’s no wonder it’s rammed. The food is not sophisticated – it is, after all, prettied up street food – but it’s delicious and unusual. The Soho branch is on my ‘must’ list for every London visit, even though queues for tables often stretch out into the street. Authentic? Who else is serving up Hapulines fundido – that’s roasted grasshoppers served with melted cheese to you and me…”
Dubai has six licensed restaurants serving Tex-Mex, plus another so many non-boozed up eateries. Surely that’s enough for our small eating-out population? So I kindly ask all Dubai’s restaurateurs and hoteliers, if you’re looking to create a new Mexican concept, I beg you, please make sure it is indeed Mexican. If you can’t develop your own, try importing Wahaca perhaps. Or else come up with another cuisine – a home-grown Peruvian or pure Vietnamese concept would be rather nice if you’d like my opinion ;).
So in the meantime where can we find decent Tex-Mex in this town, preferably whilst sipping a margarita?
- According to Maria, “There are no authentic Mexican restaurants in Dubai. For me, Maria Bonita Taco Shop & Mexican Grill [unlicensed] is the closest to authentic, but they’ve gone crazy with prices lately. Fuego unfortunately is an overpriced version of Maria Bonita, and adds nothing new or exciting for the price. All others I avoid, as they taste definitely too American even though I’ve heard good reports on Rosa Mexicano at Dubai Mall and Mirdif City Centre.”
- And Ricardo, “It’s very difficult to say any restaurant here serves authentic Mexican – it’s more a case of the food being less Tex-Mex and more Mexican – Loca at Dubai Marine Beach Resort being in part a small example.”
So these restaurants aside, here’s FooDiva’s humble guide on our Tex-Mex dining scene:
Maya Modern Mexican Kitchen – in its previous incarnation, Maya was as close as you would get to authentic Mexican here in Dubai, but Richard Sandoval’s terraced outpost at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort was revamped earlier this year funking up the ambience – complete with tequila library. They have a great Saturday brunch with beach pass deal. Sadly the menu bears more similarities to Tex-Mex now. Read my review here.
Fuego – with a Mexican chef in situ (albeit reporting into concept Chef Anil who also runs Indian restaurant Memsaab at JLT), I had high hopes for this new upscale establishment at Souk Al Bahar when I dined there last week, but sadly whilst the elongated dining room with plush hues of terracotta impresses the food did not. From the rather lacklustre guacamole in the starter sampler platter and the limp Ranchero salad to the trio of ‘traditional’ stuffed dishes – tamal, a starchy corn dough; a chile relleno; and enchiladas poblanos, a soft corn tortilla – smothered in three different sauces of which we were only able to distinguish one flavour, the sharp taste of dark chocolate – right through to the tough not tender-as-they-should-be beef ribs marinated in a guava and tequila BBQ sauce. The saving grace of our meal, killer margaritas aside, were the delightful desserts – warm churros oozing with dark chocolate (originally Spanish I believe?) and the sopapilla, triangular slithers of fried pastry dipped into cajeta, a kind of caramelised milk and dulce de leche (pictured above). Oh and the mango and lemon sorbets infused with a strong kick of chipotle chilli which hits you almost as an after thought. I have to say despite the disappointing meal, I give Fuego credit for good service recovery. Our main courses returned to the kitchen hardly touched so the chef popped out to hear our feedback. We were not charged for our mains, whilst the sorbets were offered with his compliments. And no I wasn’t recognised. Expect to pay AED 250 per head for three courses without booze.
Cafe Habana – a New York import, this newbie sits just across from Fuego at Souk Al Bahar. This beautifully tiled restaurant with mirrored ceiling conjures up pictures of old Havana, but in fact the cuisine is Tex-Mex. Charming, atmospheric and raucous, it has a bar-like feel (with good margaritas) serving food rather than the reverse.
Taqado Mexican Kitchen – a food-court style joint but with a rather slick polish at Mall of the Emirates. The folks here (and there are six Mexicans in the team) are slowly creating food supply chains from Mexico, attempting to use traditional, authentic recipes, albeit slightly modified for the Dubai market. Their guacamole is so fresh and decadent, I often cheat and buy theirs instead of making my own.
Let’s not forget old expat hang-outs, Cactus Cantina at the Chelsea Plaza hotel (ex-Rydges) and Cactus Jack’s at the Millennium Airport hotel, but I’ve not been in yonks so would be unfair to judge. Have you?
So indulge me please…what are your thoughts on Dubai’s Mexican, or should I say Tex-Mex dining scene?