The latest Mexican offering served up to London comes in the form of Cantina Laredo, a newly opened restaurant on the fast-evolving ‘St Martins Courtyard’ strip of the West End. Amid promises of top quality ingredients and skilled authentic cookery courtesy of Chef Ruben Lozano, we head to Cantina Laredo to experience “The authentic taste of Mexico” for ourselves.
Staff are impeccably attired; sporting starched white shirts and black demi-aprons which remind me of a Gordon Ramsay establishment rather than a Mexican eatery. You can always tell when a restaurant is fairly new as the number of staff tends to outweigh the number of customers, which at 6pm can be a tad intimidating. Each table has a strategically positioned bowl containing an avocado and a lime; an ingenious but opportunistic sales ploy to promote the self-proclaimed ‘Top-Shelf’ Guacamole priced at an eye-watering £6.95.
The food here is definitely not cheap but if I thought it was just the food that was expensive, I balked when I clocked the price of the cocktails starting from £9.50 for a standard Margarita? Escalating to £14.50 if you opt for a Margarita made with Patron tequila. For that sort of money you could be sipping the finest cocktails in the bar of some ϋber-chic 5-star hotel in London.
The waiter recommends a Casa Rita Margarita for my guest and I go for a Mango Margarita. “You certainly get value for money” says my friend when the full punch of tequila hits her. I take a sip of my mango Margarita only to discover that I also got more than I’d bargained for when I spy a piece of red onion and some coriander floating past my eyes as I’m taking my first sip. I dread to think how this could happen when the bar is nowhere near the kitchen and therefore can only imagine that it has jumped from a dirty cloth that has been used to wipe a table, straight into my glass.
Tortillas are thrusted onto my table along with two mysterious bowls of sauce, no explanation as to what the differences are and in my experience one is spicier than the other. They both look the same so I guess I will have to experiment for myself as no one has bothered to give me the required explanation. The guacamole is good, but nothing special and it certainly had no element of piquancy whatsoever. The waiters’ recommendation of Queso Laredo arrives as a bowl of anaemic cheese liquid with a scattering of ground beef, not what I had expected at all and the flavour is bland and the consistency is gloopy and unpleasant.
The main courses are nothing short of atrocious and I wouldn’t be lying if I said we struggled to choose anything at all amongst the long list of tedious ‘Tex-Mex’ dishes. Having finally opted for the ‘Fiesta grill’ which is a platter of assorted grilled meats including steak, chicken, prawns and ribs. Ribs? Yes, ribs… not very Mexican at all. ‘Carne asada y camarones’ is our other choice, if only to see how on earth a steak could be wrapped around a pepper that is stuffed with cheese, mushrooms and prawns and still have a decent chance at tasting good. The steak arrives both grey and uninviting although well-marinated with a decent flavour but the mish-mash of peppers with cheese, mushrooms and prawns prove too torturous an experience for my palate.
The Fiesta platter is equally poor with overcooked hunks of flavourless chicken and steak and a whole spatchcocked quail that is so undercooked that I could probably revive it with a little CPR! Cutting into it, I reveal oozing bloodied organs that are completely raw and what is even worse is that upon clearing the heaped plate of barely eaten food, our waiter later approaches us and says “I hope you have enjoyed your food?” proving that little notice was taken of what we ate and although our waiter Andrew was very nice, I found the numerous approaches to the table from other staff asking me if everything was ok, a little too much to stomach.
At this point I have figured that the meal could only go uphill from here and so I thought I would be brave and order dessert. But where are the Churros? Shocked by the absence of my absolute favourite sugar and cinnamon dusted donuts, I decided to share a chocolate cake with my guest. What arrived came as no surprise, ready-made bought in chocolate fudge cake and bog standard vanilla ice cream, which I swapped for cinnamon ice cream instead. Still, at this stage I wasn’t expecting miracles and to be honest, I’m only glad that I was able to eat something.
I had expected greater things from Cantina Laredo, it has to be said. The food was not remotely authentic and not a single dish that we ordered seemed to have any hint of chilli in it, which was strange. In fact the meal reminded me more of the kind of fare that TGI Friday’s seem to ply to unsuspecting tourists, hoping people won’t know the difference. The problem is I do know the difference, most people these days know the difference. The difference between real Mexican food, which should be simple, fresh, clean in flavour and very reasonably priced versus this kind of mock-Mexican offerings of ‘Fiesta platters’ and the like. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it; Mexican cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in London with Wahaca leading the sweepstakes with 3 London restaurants and so many new ventures having followed suit, it is really difficult to see where Cantina Laredo will fit in.
I suppose the West End is full of these unauthentic tourist havens that people flock to for a quick-fix meal, as long as authenticity isn’t high on the agenda and so Cantina Laredo may fit the bill. But for people who know about food and expect quality and standards that match the steep prices that they are paying, I would give Cantina Laredo a miss.
Address: St Martin's Courtyard, 10 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9FB www.cantinalaredo.com