The Hart brothers are at it again. Having created London’s favourite tapas bar, Barrafina, they have now partnered with Sam’s old business partner, Crispin Somerville, to bring us the hottest new restaurant in town: Tacos El Pastor. The name doesn’t leave much room for confusion about what it specialises in. Inspired, without question, by the al pastor taco that’s ubiquitous on the streets of Mexico City where Sam Hart and Somerville once ran a nightclub, this taqueria is the best taco shop in town.
Like most new restaurants, there is a policy of no reservations, and given the buzz about the place, the queue can be mammoth. So when IGT’s co-founder Will and I were in Borough Market for a meeting a few evenings back and saw there wasn’t a queue, we naturally had to take advantage and pop in for a quick dinner.
Oh, and a carafe of tequila.
So determined were we to eat these tacos that, short on time and informed of a half-hour wait, we found a spot to stand at the bar and they agreed we could eat there. Thankfully, the people who had given in their name for the seats at the bar next to us didn’t then show up, and the places were ours in under ten minutes.
The menu does include starters, a few side dishes, and quesadillas; unsurprisingly, though, the main event is the tacos, each attractively priced at an average of £3. We ordered a selection to try and sat back to take in our surroundings. Housed in a railway arch, the vaulted ceilings and walls are bare brick. The narrow entrance opens up to a second room with seating and an open kitchen spread over two floors, where the tortillas are made fresh every day from a variety of different corns. Given the narrow space, they have been clever with the seating arrangements. While there are tables and chairs in the second room, the narrow entrance doesn’t allow for them, so they’ve installed high tables and a padded bar along the wall to perch on, rather reminiscent of the setup found at bus stops and some tube stations.
As you’d expect from a street-food-centric restaurant, the food comes quickly and as soon as it’s ready. Our first taste of the delights in store was the Pastor de Pescado – chargrilled stone bass topped with caramelised onions, la maya salsa, onion and coriander. This delicate balance of meaty fish on a handmade corn tortilla, mingling sweet and heat from onion and salsa, provided three bites of taco perfection.
Prawn al mojo de ajo, or prawn topped with avocado slices, onion and coriander, swiftly followed. Unfortunately, we both agreed that, while each ingredient was perfectly cooked and fresh, the overwhelming flavour was coriander, with prawn only just breaking through occasionally – and no chilli heat. Our disappointment in the prawn, and sudden concern that the other tacos weren’t going to live up to the standards of the bass, was allayed by what has to be one of the best pieces of chicken you could hope to have. The meat in the chicken taco is marinated in a chipotle-cumin adobo rub and then grilled to produce an astonishingly succulent piece of meat where the natural chicken flavour sings, uplifted as it intermingles with the balanced spice of the rub and the charred flavour from the grill.
Given the al pastor taco sparked the idea for the restaurant, it takes its rightful place as the lead taco on the menu. Filled with twenty-four hour marinated pork shoulder, caramelized pineapple, guacamole taquero, white onion and coriander, we both thought that, for a taco that is so central in Mexico and spawned the concept for this taqueria, it was lacking compared to the flavour hit from the other tacos we ordered. That said, it is of course a must and, like all the tacos, the quality couldn’t really be faulted even if the flavour profile wasn’t quite there.
The mushroom with its toasted pumpkin seeds, onion, coriander and chilli rub was the surprise of the meal. Both of us are fans of the mushroom taco at La Bodega Negra, but this was far superior. Despite its chilli heat, the flavour of these earthy mushrooms shone through, and the toasted pumpkin seeds added a nuttiness that rounded it all off.
The carnitas had been recommended by the waitress and was last to come. What came wasn’t a taco but a hot cast iron skillet filled with confit pork, a bowl of chopped onion, coriander and limes, a pot of salsa especial and, best of all, a pile of chicharron (pork scratchings, as they are known to you and me) and six tortillas. This build-your-own taco wasn’t just great to eat but fun to boot, and with the addition of a spoonful of the smoky salsa morita (an initial “on the house” helping of this, along with salsa verde fresca and salsa mexicana, is given to you at the start of the meal) makes for a simple yet elegant taco that I defy you not to enjoy.
Debunking hype is always quite a treat. Annoyingly, though, the tacos really are that good. The buzz around El Pastor is wholly justified. Washed down with a carafe of tequila – we shared the smoky, golden Herradura Reposado – it makes for a great meal, full of atmosphere and, most importantly, full of clean, fresh flavours and ingredients. The balance of flavours is almost always expertly achieved, with a finesse that outstrips any other taco you are likely to find in London. While I’ll be avoiding the queues, if I were in the area again, I’d definitely make a detour, even just for a single taco.
Tacos El Pastor 6-7A Stoney St, London SE1 9AA www.tacoselpastor.co.uk