Mexico 70 has ruined all other taco places for me.
I ate in a popular Mexican in King’s Cross recently and bemoaned to my friend “the tacos are ok, but they’re no Mexico 70.”
The London place may have a larger profit margin and a much bigger social media following, but it doesn’t have the personality or friendliness of Sunderland’s finest purveyors of Central American-inspired dishes. And it’s this cocktail of good food, top tunes and personable service that’s made Mexico 70 arguably one of the city’s best restaurants - and a tough act to follow.
Those expecting fine dining will be disappointed: this is a gloriously informal place where you can spend the night grazing on small plates, working your way through the cocktail and beer list and dancing like no one’s watching in the back bar or beer garden to an eclectic soundtrack of global sounds.
We rocked up on Saturday night - be warned, it doesn’t take reservations - and managed to get a table within 10 minutes after the Empire crowd had drifted across the road.
The decor has a subterranean Day of the Dead vibe. Think uneven stone walls, neon lights and skulls aplenty, giving it an atmosphere quite unlike any other bars and restaurants in the area.
The menu, available from 5pm each night, is equally as inventive with hand-pressed soft corn tacos topped with a melting pot of global flavours, from the jerk chicken staple of the Caribbean to Thai pulled beef and Korean pork belly, as well as a range of wings, nachos and fries. There’s not a soggy burrito in sight, this is as far from a soulless chain Mexican as you can get.
And for once, vegans and veggies don’t have to settle for a token number of dishes, with those with dietary requirements equally as catered for with choices such as jackfruit carnitas and Korean fried cauliflower.
Owner Neil wears many hats and is also part of the front of house, and his passion for his business is evident in every detailed explanation of the dishes, which are inspired by his travels across the world as a musician.
There’s often specials to try on top of the regulars and we ordered (at the bar, orders aren’t taken at the table) a side of sinfully good halloumi fries (£4) instead of the Lindisfarne oyster specials, which had just sold out, sadly. We also filled the table with bacon and chipotle guacamole (£6.50 to share), padron peppers (£4) and four tacos between us: Baja cod, Korean pork belly, Tequila steak and Caribbean goat curry. Prices for the tacos are fair at £3 - £3.50 each and if you order the recommended three each it means it’s basically a tenner for your main meal.
There’s knives and forks on the table, but they’re entirely optional. This is a place where you get stuck in and share.
The guacamole was mashed to perfection, its smoothness studded with crisp bacon pieces. I could have easily devoured it solo.
Hard to choose a favourite from the tacos. The Baja cod had just the right balance of fish and beer batter and was lifted, but not overpowered by, a light lime crema and salsa. Flying the flag for Mexican/Korean fusion fare, the pork belly gave more of a kick with the tender slab of pork dressed in Asian slaw, avocado puree and punchy sriracha.
Then there was the Tequila steak taco, flavoursome shreds of hanger steak dressed in tequila and lime with a hint of horseradish crema, beer onions and queso fresco. It was so good, it was gone in 60 seconds.
The lamb curry special wasn’t something I expected on a taco, but it worked: beautifully tender, non fatty, lamb. More of that please.
Also hoping the watermelon margarita specials (two for £10) become a regular fixture on the menu. They packed a really fruity punch and were so refreshing, liver permitting, I could have drank them by the jug full.
Read more: Review of spin off venture Mexico 73 which is serving up match day tacos in the shadow of the Stadium of Light.
Five Other City Centre Hot Spots
•Holmeside Coffee, Winter Gardens sit in and High Street West take out
One of the best coffees you’ll find in the city, Holmeside Coffee also offers great brunches as well as talks and events, all with a view of the Winter Gardens greenery. Make sure to try the new takeout shop in the old barbers next to Mexico 70.
•Tosca, Derwent Street
Thirty years and still going strong, Tosca has certainly lasted the distance in Sunderland. This isn’t a showy or trendy place, instead it relies on its authentic Italian dishes, fair prices and friendly service to keep diners coming back time and time again.
•Serendipity Tea & Trinkets, Frederick Street
Another independent business flying the flag for individuality, Serendipity is a quirky, retro-inspired spot for a proper cuppa and great afternoon teas. Its tea blends doff their cap to their locality with options such as Black Cat Special Brew and Mackem Mint.
•Asiana, West Wear Street
For spectacular views of the River Wear as it meanders out to sea, grab a window seat at this large, contemporary restaurant which is ideal for larger groups. Dishes are inspired by a host of Far East countries. Make sure to try the salt and pepper chips that will knock your socks off.
•Royale Thai, Mary Street
Thanks to its super friendly service and good portions, Royale Thai is fast becoming a favourite in the city centre. It’s housed in the former Royal Mail sorting office, hence the name.