The Mexican wave is sadly all Tex-Mex

Sopapilla at Fuego Dubai

Sopapilla – photo credit to Fuego

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.

Firstly what’s the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine? Well here’s what a couple of Mexican foodies living in Dubai say:

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.”
Maya Modern Mexican Kitchen

Maya Modern Mexican Kitchen – Dubai

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 - Dubai

Photo credit to Cafe Habana – Dubai

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?

A bientôt.

FooDiva. x

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36 Responses to “The Mexican wave is sadly all Tex-Mex”

  1. dave reeder August 22, 2013 at 9:34 am

    This seems a fair summary though I believe Maya was best in its first incarnation – it’s now on the third! I think Fuego scores from not going the full-on Tex-Mex decor and they do seem to be trying – cactus is on the menu, as many ingredients as possible are sourced from Mexico and there are two (rather than one) Mexican chefs on the team. I suspect it’s in settle down mode though it’s fair to say I didn’t eat there, but was given samples. Salsas are bright and home made and there are many dishes on the menu I haven’t seen elsewhere in Dubai. However, I suspect that food regulations mean that we won’t see grasshoppers any time soon!

    Should also note that Fuego team are very careful not to call it ‘authentic’ but rather ‘contemporary’…

    Sorry, I made a typo in my comment. Sentence two should have read: Now it’s a chain…

    And word on the grapevine is that Wahaca is being looked at carefully by one of our hotel chains as either a license or a concept to follow.

    • FooDiva August 22, 2013 at 6:52 pm

      Cactus on the Fuego menu? I must be blind as I didn’t notice it and just double checked too…my point is that Fuego and others call themselves Mexican whereas most of their menu is Tex-Mex. So surely call it contemporary Tex-Mex instead of contemporary Mexican? Admittedly out of all the restaurants here Fuego is trying to be more inventive with its dishes but sadly I didn’t experience the quality. Have corrected your typo 😉 Great news re. Wahaca! And many thanks for contributing as always 🙂

      • OB August 22, 2013 at 11:26 pm

        I ate at Fuego when it first opened and it was a serious disappointment. Quality, like you said Foodiva, is seriously lacking (they should cut the menu in half and focus on better ingredients – but then you could say that about most restaurants ANYWHERE and you would be right). The lamb dish that the server recommended was great on presentation (and I have some wonderful shots to prove it) but was so bland – and this error in an Arabic country where Levantines pride themselves on cooking lamb (just try it at a Levantine home and you will see what I am talking about), and I was sat there pondering the senselessness of the dish. Meat should melt and be flavoursome!!!!!!!! As for desserts, there were no churros on my visit (though they were on the menu (I think)) and every single dessert that I ordered (I had the entire dessert menu as always) was bathed in Hershey’s syrup – are they expecting school-children to visit their licensed establishment – I was naturally incensed 😉 To be fair, their Tres Leches Cake was moist and tasty and slightly redeeming but I still left thinking never again. As for Kanpai, well let’s leave that gem for another post, eh 😉

  2. GA August 22, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Just this week I visited the new Cactus Cantina outlet at Wafi but we left after perusing the menu only find that the pricing had gone crazy compared to their outlet at The Chelsea Plaza Hotel. Up until about 5 years ago we were regulars at the Satwa branch but things seemed to slip and we didn’t bother for quite some time. The last time we were there which was about 18 months ago I didn’t even bother to write about it. Maria Bonita is terrible another one I didn’t bother to write about. Taqado is my regular little haunt, love the food, love the staff, the freshness is key and as you say the guacamole is fabulous 🙂 great round-up Foo x

    • FooDiva August 22, 2013 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks GA. Whereabouts is Cactus Cantina at Wafi? I was there recently and didn’t see it. Licensed? x

      • GA August 23, 2013 at 9:39 am

        It’s behind Thai Chai you have to search a bit for it and yes it is Licensed 🙂

  3. Jonathan Castle August 22, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Great summary, thanks! I have once tasted cuitlacoche here, at a branch of Maria Bonita’s that opened briefly in one of the Beach Road malls. Sadly, it didn’t last.

    As for Cactus Cantina, get there fast. Its days are numbered, along with Billy Blues’, so for a taste of old Dubai, head for Rydges as was, before it gets all poshified!

    • FooDiva August 22, 2013 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks Jonathan 🙂 There was also a teeny Maria Bonita’s in the Rotana at Media City ‘souk’ but that appears to have closed down. What’s the story on the Chelsea hotel – are they pulling it down or rebranding the restaurants?

      • GA August 23, 2013 at 9:42 am

        Billy Blues is closing on 30th of August, they were given an eviction notice. I am guessing the hotel are taking back the outlets for their own use. No longer renting them to Rudi.

  4. Areeb August 22, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Hi! Great article! I have been a regular at Maria Bonita per-the terrible face lift, the food was good but more tex mex than authentic Mexican. Now I don’t know wat it is, it seems they are tryin to save up on just buying terrible ingredients, and it all lacks flavor altogether.

    As for Rosa Mexicana, the guacamole was bland, and I have the salmon dish, the only flavorful thing on my dish was the grilled pineapple garnish! I was so disappointed! I also tried the fajita but the tortilla tasted like plastic, maybe that’s due to the fact that they store it in a plastic box without any paper to cover, or maybe it’s just not a good tortilla. When we addressed the manager, he simply said we never had any1 complain about our tortillas or food all together!

    • FooDiva August 22, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      Thanks Areeb. Appreciate the feedback on Rosa Mexicano, well it’s an American import so am not surprised at the lack of authenticity. Saves me a trip there!

  5. John Samuels August 22, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    The basic problem with Tex-Mex food in Dubai is that it seldom involves corn tortillas and no one has tamales, both essential ingredients to Tex Mex food.

    • FooDiva August 22, 2013 at 7:03 pm

      Hi John. Fuego has tamales (see my review above) but frankly they were so bland I wouldn’t order them again.

      • Keren Bobker August 23, 2013 at 12:42 am

        I think Loca has tamales on their menu, or they certainly used to.

  6. dave reeder August 22, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    Yes, cactus is there, rather strangely listed as an ingredient called ‘cactus bits’, which apparently means just diced.

  7. Marta's Kitchen August 22, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    Once again i fully agree with you Sam 🙂
    Funny how when i read the title of your post i thought “Maya used to be quite authentic…” I was really looking forward to the re-opening, as Maya used to be one of my favorites (I celebrated my 30th birthday there even!) Unfortunately it is now becoming more and more tex-mex and very “Dubai” (music, decoration…)but it seems this is what people want, because it used to be quite empty before and it seems to be full now! (or at least it was the only time i went after the revamp)

    • FooDiva August 23, 2013 at 9:13 am

      Morning Marta 🙂 Maya certainly needed a refurb as it was looking very tired but it’s a shame they changed the menu so drastically to Tex-Mex flavours. I can understand they are only doing what the market demands, but the part I don’t get is why is the Dubai palate so un-adventurous given how multi-cultural this city is? If anyone can answer that question it warrants another post! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  8. Sarah August 23, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Great reviews Sam! I visited Loca 2 weeks ago for the first time and found the lack of interest if you weren’t drinking (!) to be annoying. Took ages to be served and then the food was average tex-mex fare. The nachos served with the guacamole (prepared at the table) were so greasy they put me off my fajitas which were overcooked. Won’t be going back there again. Visited Rosa Mexicano yesterday with the boys, great service, the kids loved it as my younger son was asked to help make the guacamole. Served up with a smoked chipotle sauce on the side and a habanero sauce as well. The boys meals were American – crumbed chicken breasts with sweet potato fries that were over salted but they enjoyed them. They also got a choice of nice vanilla bean icecream and mango sorbet which they polished off. Whenever we can, we go to Taqado – the older son loves that you can choose your meats and sauces. ????????

    • FooDiva August 23, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      Thanks for such detailed feedback Sarah. I find Loca hit and miss really on the food-front. Good to know about Rosa Mexicano, I presume you went to the Mirdif City Centre outlet but they both seem to have inconsistent reviews. Perhaps we should persuade the Taqado team to expand into a licensed location – imagine a slick street-food market style Mexican 🙂

  9. Serene August 23, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    After getting to taste amazing Peruvian cuisine at Coya in London, I definitely can’t wait for that food “trend” to hit our shores… Is someone bringing it yet? I expect the LPM team might have a hand in bringing it if so (sneaky suspicion!)

    On another note, I just finished lunch at Loca and terribly disappointed that the most interesting menu items have been removed off the menu (on Wednesday to be precise!) so now it reads like a Taco Bell menu unfortunately… Tacos, burritos and fajitas. While very tex-mex, I used to enjoy the more interesting main courses such as the shrimps in jalapeño butter.

    I was told that the reason for this is that said menu items were not “moving” as much – perhaps it speaks to the tastes of Dubai diners… Definitely a shame! (And quite surprising from founders who really know their food!)

    (P.S. I really enjoyed cafe Havana, only ate there once but I the Cuban sandwiches we had were super – is the menu also considered tex-mex and not Cuban?)

    • FooDiva August 24, 2013 at 10:09 am

      Well you’ll be pleased to hear Serene that Coya is opening at the new Four Seasons on Jumeirah beach next year, and yes it’s the same owners as LPM and Zuma 🙂 What a shame about Loca, and even sadder is that the Dubai palate is demanding subdued flavours. Cafe Habana’s food is primarily Tex-Mex with the odd Mexican and Cuban dish thrown in. Bizarre given the name! Thanks so much for dropping by with such generous feedback 🙂

  10. Taqado August 24, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Thanks all the positive feedback.

    Sam we are looking always at options and there’s nothing to say licensed at some point may or may not happen. The next phase of our development is too keep chipping away into the continuing supply chain issues here and to get our next three locations running and to continue our Mex-Tex, Mexican Street Food development.

    As a small UAE start up every little development with improving the food, providing pur unique Mexican Madness and keeping it our business growing is an enjoyable fight against the norm here – we like to think of it as a plane journey to Mexico, slow, challenging and in some cases difficult but when you get there the experience and the people make up for the journey.

    – Mucho Amor

    El Euipo Taqado – The Taqado Team

    • FooDiva August 26, 2013 at 9:28 pm

      So glad to hear you’re growing organically. Love the Mexican flight analogy 😉 So other than DIFC where else are you opening? Keep up the good work 🙂

      • Taqado August 28, 2013 at 7:10 pm

        Muchas Gracias, openings before the end of the year are Barclays Building- Emaar Square, City Tower – Sheikh Zayed Road and in Abu Dhabi at Sowwah Square.

        Hablemos Espanol y Mexicano También 😉

  11. Dominik MJ August 26, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    Since I found a source of Masa Harina, my place [at home] sometimes converts to a Mexican place 🙂
    Only a couple of dishes a time.

    Still didn’t had the “huevos” to tell my fiancee, that the delishes Mexican meat stew was based on beef tongue, though…

    • FooDiva August 26, 2013 at 9:30 pm

      Ha ha Dominik – don’t tell her. Some secrets are worth keeping 😉

  12. george August 26, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    can someone tell me the recipe of making the dish displayed in the pic ?

    if it is secret then no problem… hehe

  13. Tyler August 27, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Dom where did you find masa harina?

  14. Ben McBride October 15, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Hey Guys
    We did run run a traditional mexican tasting menu promotion for over 6 months at Loca (noches mexicana) with mezcals and tequila included, but all the requests were for tamales, burritos and enchiladas.

    At the end of the day you really have to cater for what people ask for, and we are lucky at Loca to have a Mexican chef who trained in both Los Angeles and Mexico city who can provide both cuisines equally as good.

    Plus we are happy to do our best to create whatever the guest asks for, whether on the menu or not

    Ben (Loca Manager)

    • FooDiva October 16, 2013 at 11:03 am

      I hear what you’re saying Ben. The customer is king and if they demand Tex-Mex so be it. The issue though is why do restaurants here, Loca included, claim to serve authentic Mexican? I quote from your website ‘All Loca’s dishes are a far cry from the Tex-Mex counterparts that have graced Dubai’s social scene for far too long’. Would love to hear your feedback. Thanks for dropping by with a comment 🙂

  15. Ben McBride October 16, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Im not sure what is classed as traditional mexican, we have items such as sopas, tamales, huervos rancheros, menudo, pozoles, flautas, ceviche etc items you would not find in a tex mex restaurant. Yes, we also include tacos, burritos and quesidillas but these are all dishes you would find in a mexican restaurant also.

    I guess i classify tex mex as burgers, ribs, and combo dishes of enchiladas, chimichangas, fajitas all piled high with sour cream, monterey, refried beans etc.. I do think Loca is a little more refined.

    Anyways be sure to say hi next time you are in Loca and thanks for your feedback, tostaditas on me 🙂

    Ben

    • FooDiva October 17, 2013 at 11:03 am

      Thanks Ben. I’ll give you another try sometime 🙂

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