ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Monday, April 22, 2013

Fajita of Contentment

Stop the world, I want to get the fuck off!

Actually, that would result in floating indefinitely through space, but the infinite-voidy stuff would probably be quite peaceful once you got used to it.

Sorta like El Chico's. I'll explain presently.

In a couple of days I shall be 36. That means I'm closer to 50 than to 20! What the aged fuck?!?

El Chico's
Another sobering thought is that a few days ago I lost another grandparent - that's three dead in the space of 18 months - and as that generation rapidly disappears from my life I feel not only a sense of enforced having-to-grow-up, but also of rapid, irreversible, tragic change.

Fortunately in this ever-changing world, there are some things that pretty much stay the same. And sometimes you just need familiar creature comforts like that.

I can cling to the fact that the denouement of the new Scooby-Doo movie will probably involve a janitor or sheriff revealed inside an apparition costume. I can enjoy listening to Queen and the Beatles knowing that I know their entire catalogue and there won't be any unpleasant surprises from here on in.

It's a hot comfortable bath of reassurance.

And on Thursday I'll be going to the Tower of London to witness the Ceremony of the Keys - and while this is a new experience for me, I take comfort from the fact that I'll be witnessing something that has been exactly the same, every single night, for about literally hundreds of years.

I think the last time they changed the format for the ceremony was round about the last time El Chico's  changed their menu!

Ah, the old ones are the oldest...


Wastin' away in Margaritaville


I'm not sure exactly when El Chicos 'Mexican Cantina and Cocktail bar' first opened on Streatham High Road, but if I'm honest, I can easily remember the time before it was there, and on that basis I'd hazard that it's been there around 20 years now.

But for every one of those 20 years, it's been exactly the same. No, really. Trust me, it really has.

I look the family there for lunch the other day, having not been in for at least a couple of years, and absolutely nothing has changed. Same menu. Same cocktail list. Same sombreros and gaudy murals.

Same salsa. Same sour cream. Same guacamole.

These nachos have been the same for centuries!
The same 'Latin hits' compilation was playing - I suspect they only own the one CD - and I'd be surprised if the waiter wasn't wearing the same pair of trousers.

It's that sort of place.

And that sort of place is probably exactly what I need, right now. It's familiar. And familiar is comforting. 


(I guess they probably snuck in some price increases at strategic junctures, otherwise everything would be silly-cheap, obviously, but otherwise the experience seems identical to what it was when we went there for lunch when I was 18.)

It's your standard Tex-Mex stuff, executed very well (they've had many years to practice getting it right, after all) and served in generous portions, and - crucially - they're not stingy with the spices either.

Starter for Ben


The vast range of Mexican starters is one of El Chico's major plus points - there are various combinations of nachos available, and this time we tucked into a BBQ chicken and blue cheese version, truly a mess of deliciousness on a plate.
 
A refried and tested formula
The refried bean and cheese tacos were a favourite of mine years ago and because the menu never ever changes I was able to enjoy them again. Sometimes Mexican starters can be too sloppy, but the combination of crunchy tacos and mushy beans is always a winner.

Other starters include classic garlic mushrooms and calamari rings with chilli mayonnaise - the sort of stuff you might find in an American brewpub, although unfortunately the best you'll do for beer here is a cold bottle of Sol with a wedge of lime in the neck.

The extensive cocktail range includes colourful, slushy frozen margaritas in an almost unlimited range of flavours and an equally vast range of potent 'Iced teas', making El Chicos an ideal party venue, though you'd have to be in a certain kind of mood.

The stars of the show


While you can choose soft, rice-filled jumbo Burritos or crispy fried Chimichangas for your main course (I'm never completely sure exactly what's what in the Mexican lexicon!) I usually like to 'roll my own'.
 
Combo Fajitas
The sizzling fajitas are available with steak, chicken or king prawn (or a combination thereof) or a veggie option.

Veggie wouldn't be too bad - you might not miss really the meat when you see and smell the onions and peppers sizzling away in their salty, spicy glory, but the piquant chicken in particular adds another dimension in my view.

As is usual with fajitas you get salsa and cheese and gubbins on a side plate, so you can put what you like in, though let's face it, I wasn't going to leave any of that lovely stuff on my plate.

If it all gets mixed up into a salsary, cheesy, guacamoley goop, I'll just dip some fries or onion rings in it, frankly.

On the 'Tex' side, the flagship main dish is the Three Amigos Combination grill ('for the saddle-tired, hungry amigo') which gives you BBQ ribs, chicken and pork chops, all of which are available separately too.

The dish became something of a running joke in our family. My Uncle would always scan the menu from top to bottom, before ordering the Three Amigos. He had it again this time.

It's always been there on the menu, and it's always said the same guff about the saddle-tired amigo too. Since. The. Year. Dot. As far as I'm concerned.

How many Amigos did you say it was again?
Legendary status aside, what's it actually like?

Well, it's a big old plate of stuff, which is a good start, but by no means everything.
 
The sauce is sweet and sticky while the meat always lovely and tender, and as you'd expect it comes up with a mountain of fries and a little spot of salad (the same salad garnish that comes with most of the starters and has done since the days of Bede!)

Strangely, in a world that seemingly never changes, I did find the fries to be somewhat thicker than I remembered this time. 'Tis a small point really, but in a monolithically unchanging institution like the Three Amigos Combination Grill at El Chico's, it's a positively reality-shattering change.

There are also steaks and burgers (neither of which are anything particularly special - the steak with tobacco onions is perhaps the best of the bunch) and a rather decent chilli made with beer. But if you're in a BBQ mood, I'd always go with the Amigos. It's uncomplicated but satisfying. And, of course, timeless.

Desserts aren't really their strongest suit and tend to be of the 'out of the freezer and served with squirty cream' variety but if you want something beyond ice cream they do a nutella chimichanga - though it sadly wasn't available this time.

Par-tay

In the evening the place becomes fairly lively with local office parties and the occasional hen night. They turn up the volume of the Latin Hits compilation. Raucous groups trying to turn back the clock guzzle B52s and Blow Jobs and other shooters, then somebody drinks too much frozen pineapple margarita and gets that pain behind their eye.

But during the daytime it's far more subdued and food oriented with impressively fast service.

I've seen both sides of El Chico's, and each has it's place. 

If you have two courses with a couple of Mexican beers it'll cost you about £20-25 a head. If you're up for an evening of cocktails and shooters you can easily spend a lot more, obviously. It's about what you'd expect to pay for Tex-Mex in London.

It might be another year before I'm back at El Chico's, it might be another three years, but I hope to God it never changes because it's been an unchanging haven

So, stop the world again. I'll hop back on, head to El Chico's and party like it's 1995.


Where to find it

El Chico's Mexican Cantina and cocktail bar
62 Streatham High Rd
Streatham
SW16 1DA (map)
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