Does Muchachas have to be a true Mexican cantina?

Muchachas - Dubai restaurants - FooDivaI had nearly given up on reviewing Muchachas, the new ‘Mexican cantina’ in Dubai by the Tom and Serg lads. Third time lucky (or unlucky perhaps), I scored a reservation. If I wasn’t reviewing, I wouldn’t have persisted. Not because it was full (or so the reservations chica claimed on my first two attempts) – but for her arrogant attitude. Perhaps asking customers whether they would like to book for another date wouldn’t go amiss – instead of hanging up. It’s not like Muchachas is a Michelin star restaurant. This isn’t the first time I have faced rude reservations behaviour with restaurants in Dubai. So, needless to say, when I did eventually dine at Muchachas, I was juggling sky high expectations and the prospect of a disappointing experience.

This new casual and licensed joint is located in the Holiday Inn Express in the middle of nowhere, sandwiched between Sheikh Zayed and Safa Park. Other than a breakfast restaurant in the hotel, there are no other F&B outlets in the vicinity, so remember that when planning your night out. On the plus side, the décor, in what is an intimate restaurant and bar is hugely welcoming and refreshing with a fun and playful tropical vibe in a candy colour theme – reflected in the quirky crockery design too. Unless you’re dining a deux, be prepared to share long trestle tables though.

Our waitress with her chirpy, can-do attitude and excellent menu knowledge is the highlight of our evening – along with the buzzing atmosphere and excellent playlist. One thing’s for sure, these guys know how to create novel concepts (even if not always consistently executed). They also know how to make a novel margarita – the avocado concoction is a genius idea – with only a hint of avocado detected, this cocktail is creamy and smooth. However the salting of the rims of both the avocado and the regular margaritas is messy. And for a pricey AED59 a pop they should be perfect.

Muchachas’ menu printed on simple pastel-coloured paper placemats is concise and claims to offer a contemporary take on Mexican cuisine, steering away from the more popular Tex-Mex dishes prevalent in Dubai. It’s divided into six easy-to-navigate sections – small plates; quesadillas and sopes; fresh seafood; tacos; large plates; and desserts.

Muchachas - guacamole - Dubai restaurants - FooDivaMuchachas - sopes - Dubai restaurants - FooDiva

Starting with the first ‘small plates’ section, Muchachas’ guacamole is one of the best I have tasted in a Dubai restaurant – chunky, zesty and fresh with a good dose of pico de gallo and jalapenos. However multi-coloured nachos are not really authentic Mexican, are they? The sopes from the next section of the menu are mini, round and dense corn flour (masa) tortillas (imagine the Mexican equivalent of a blini!). We choose a topping of marinated shredded chicken, fetta dotted with dried black lime, and pickled onions. A delicious, well balanced dish that turns out to be the favourite of the night. We could have eaten more than the four sopes presented to us.

Muchachas - salmon ceviche - Dubai restaurants - FooDivaMuchachas - confit lamb leg - Dubai restaurants - FooDiva

From the seafood section, I pick a salmon ceviche – clearly Peruvian though – and almost too pretty to eat with edible flowers for garnishing. Whilst I love the contrasting flavours of fennel and avocado, the salmon is cured to the point of being near-cooked. It should be a little pinker. A confit lamb leg dish from the large plates is a huge disappointment – tough and stringy – with no sign of any slow-cooked goodness. Had I not been reviewing, it would have been sent back to the kitchen. I order it for the savoury chocolate mole sauce sprinkled with ground sesame – a traditional Mexican side accompaniment – but I expect more than the portion served in a teeny bowl.

Muchachas - churros - Dubai restaurants - FooDivaThe menu only offers a limited choice of three desserts. The only option that appeals is the churros (strictly speaking Spanish) – but the descriptor states these are ‘liquorice sugared’. Neither of us is a fan of liquorice, but the waitress insists that the flavour is so mild we won’t detect it – and she is spot on. It’s actually the ingredient in the dark chocolate sauce. The churros are warm and freshly baked – topped with candy floss (hardly Mexican) but makes for an impressive presentation even if it hides the doughnuty delights. Generous dollops of velvety cream cheese custard turn this into a rich sweet ending. The edible flower theme continues here. I would order this dessert again in heartbeat – mind you doesn’t look like I have much choice!

Muchachas may strive to serve a modern take on Mexican cuisine, but from what we order and from comments on social media, along with feedback from Mexicans who have tried it, only our sopes are truly authentic. Now in my opinion (and also UK food critic Jay Rayner’s here), I have no issue with chefs putting a spin on traditional dishes if cleverly executed – otherwise creativity will die and we’ll be eating the same food generations later. How boring would life be. But the issue here, is much of the menu takes influence from outside Mexico, and also throws in Tex-Mex dishes. Where are the birria stews, Oaxacan cheeses and pan dulce desserts? So perhaps the guys should change the positioning to better manage expectations.

Expect to pay AED170 – 200 per person based on three courses each without alcohol, making Muchachas’ food well priced – so I am a little surprised to read comments on my Instagram post on how expensive it is. However, the cocktails are definitely overpriced for a casual restaurant in an odd location.

So how does Muchachas score? Well it’s nailed a casual concept that oozes atmosphere and slick service on the floor – however the telephone customer service needs addressing. The out-of-way location is far from convenient though. Bar the lamb dish that most definitely needs binning or revisiting, the food is well executed, even if not true to Mexican cuisine – and reasonably priced. But watch the cocktail bill. With all this in mind, here’s to an average 3 out of 5 FooDiva knife rating.

Have you tried and tasted Muchachas? Do you think the food has to be authentic Mexican?

A bientôt.

FooDiva. x

FooDiva Rating: Knife Rating: 3
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5 Responses to “Does Muchachas have to be a true Mexican cantina?”

  1. GeordieArmani October 10, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Nice review, the reservation stint is becoming all too popular in Dubai, its hardly New York with a celebrity Chef at the helm boasting an array of Michelin stars. A quick google at top licensed Mexican restaurants in central London reveals the price point to be very similar, you would expect to pay in the region of 30 – 40 pounds for a licensed restaurant in Kensington High Street, however you wouldn’t expect to pay it in a 4 star Holiday Inn Express in the middle of nowhere. If like us as a family we aren’t interested in the alcohol during lunch then the price point is definitely too high. When will restaurants realise that some people don’t want alcohol with their meal and don’t want to pay over the odds for the food just because alcohol is available? Thanks for persisting in getting a table.

    • FooDiva October 13, 2016 at 11:03 am

      The challenge here is comparing Dubai with London is not comparing like for like. Naturally here costs will be higher because of imported ingredients. But I do think some restaurants use this as an excuse to hike up margins when they could still make money by charging a little bit less. At least we have a growing cafe scene where alcohol is not served and therefore the price point is more reasonable. Appreciate your comment GA 🙂

  2. george papadopoulos October 13, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    We were there on the same night as the review in a group of 10 friends:
    Ended up paying 450 aed per person. This included the 225 / person “fiesta” menu for groups, which a) was actually more expensive than if you order the dishes individually and b) left even the dieting ladies in our group hungry, let alone the men. It also included a moderate amount of mojito pitchers. The dishes were, as usual in Dubai, hit and miss, with some better than others but nothing really bad but also nothing exceptional or worth returning for. The decor is admittedly refreshing and well executed. The group consensus at the end of the evening was that it was an “okay” experience but with the usual Dubai poor value for money and far too expensive given the location.

    • FooDiva October 14, 2016 at 12:33 pm

      I thought I recognised you but wasn’t sure George. It was only when Olga commented on IG that I realised! I have to say the set menu looked like a rip-off. Unacceptable for it to be priced more than if ordering the dishes individually. The majority of people who will frequent Muchachas once the hype has died down are not necessarily looking for great quality food, but something that fills their stomach along with a few cocktail pitchers in a vibrant spot. Story of Dubai sadly…

  3. Dominik MJ May 19, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    I am not sure, if it is fair, to criticize the price of a margarita. It really comes down to the ingredients:

    a) tequila (a 100% agave tequila cost min. 35% more than your average mixto
    b) the orange liqueur / triple sec curacao – a quality orange liqueur can cost double as much as your “Bols Triple Sec”.
    c) serving size.

    As a bar person, I know, that the Margarita is one of the least profitable cocktails around… Due to the 2 liquors (and quality differences) it can cost more than double as much as e.g. a Daiquiri. Given, that Dubai has extreme alcohol prices (due to 50% import tax, shipping fees and then a subsequent 30% “consumer tax”) AED 60 for a margarita is absolutely alright.

    There’s for sure a big difference between food (which is also more expensive here in Dubai – but not as crazy as booze) and alcoholic beverages… and I think it is worth to give outlets the benefit of a doubt!
    I feel, that a lot of outlets are jeopardizing their integrity due to the consistent price pressure – the result is worse quality, lack of staffing etc.

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