Mexican restaurants are like buses in Sunderland, it seems. The city has been taco-less for a number of years and now we have a trio of Mexican joints bringing a flavour of Latin American to Wearside.
First to dish up belly-busting burritos is El Nido in Frederick Street, with Tequila Tequila in Green Terrace and Mexico 70 in High Street West also due to take a bite out of the increasingly popular Mexican food market soon.
I have a love / hate affair with this type of food – I loved it when I ate it in its birthplace where, as you’d expect, it was exceptional for minimal pesos. But I’ve always disliked it in this country where chain restaurants have dominated the market, often serving up over-priced slop.
Despite the unassuming facade of El Nido, tucked away down a narrow set of steps in a basement in Frederick Street (something to consider if you have mobility problems), it has a more authentic flair for this type of food than the household name chains.
We were one of only a sprinkling of diners on a windy Wednesday night in January, but the welcome’s warm at this independent eatery which takes its terracotta colour palette from the hotter climes of Mexico. Other Mexican touches include vibrant tiles and flag-inspired bunting, while canteen-style seating, a graffiti mural and neon signage add an air of hipster.
The menu’s a concise affair, but is a welcome change to your usual Sunderland food offering with choices such as tostadas, tacos and burritos.
The drinks menu’s also authentically Mexican with fiery cocktails to knock your socks off, such as a Mezcal Mule (£6.90) and a Bloody Maria (£8) featuring tequila instead of the typical vodka base. The Paloma caught my eye but I was informed they didn’t have the necessary grapefruit juice for this tipple. Disappointing, but the Smokey Negroni with its mezcal (a similar spirit to tequila) and rich, smokey intensity was a great substitute. As an added bonus, Wednesday is 2-4-1 on cocktails which is friendly on the purse, if not on your liver – the cocktails are pretty lethal here!
I didn’t fare too well with my first food order of a chorizo tostada either, as they’d ran out of that too. It was another glitch from a menu that’s quite small anyway, but we thoroughly enjoyed our other options of black bean tostada (£4) and a fire chicken version (£4.50) drizzled with accompanying lime.
The tostadas, which are basically flat toasted bread loaded with ingredients, are designed for sharing and you get plenty for your pesos – as well as extra heat for your buck. Much like in Mexico, food is a fiery affair here so be prepared to glug back the water in between all that tequila.
We also ordered chilaquiles (£7 to share) which are served as a basket piled high with lightly-fried tortillas topped with cheese and chicken. It’s served with four kinds of salsa which are lined up in order of intensity. None of your shop-bought dips here, these salsas were quite unlike others I’d had before, ranging from a lip-tingling chilli-based number to a more mild, nutty flavour.
Next up, we ordered tacos at £3.50 each. You’re advised to order anything from one to five, depending on your hunger pangs.
Eyes bigger than our bellies, we ordered three each and struggled to polish them off - but it’s no problem to have your leftovers boxed up.
They were loaded with flavour. I especially enjoyed the frijoles refritos (one of the veggie options) which came piled high with moist refried beans, rice salsa, creamy guacamole and a light queso fresco.
It was the closest I’ve got to proper Mexican-tasting grub this side of the Atlantic.