First things first. Some things are bigger than food. El Pastor, the vibrant, fulfilling taqueria from the Hart Brothers (of Barrafina and Quo Vadis fame) was part of the tragic night of senseless violence in June of this year when terrorists rampaged through Borough Market. Re-opening less than two weeks after the attack, and full to the brim with diners on our visit, seemed testament to the resilience and strength of Londoners and the warm, generous welcome on offer at London’s finest new Mexican restaurant.
The Hart Brothers, who have pretty much perfected no reservations, counter-seating tapas bars with Barrafina, have recently opened El Pastor, a taqueria on the edge of Borough Market. The approach here is similar, and the result equally as fine. Fresh, vivacious food with all the hustle, bustle, chatter and cheer of their previous joints, make for one hell of a winning formula.
Housed on Stoney Street, just off central Borough Market, you’d have to be of poor eyesight to miss El Pastor. Bare brick walls painted with the colours of the Mexican flag as well as its most ubiquitous ingredients – tomatoes and fresh herbs – are indication you’re going to be transported across the Atlantic and south into taco country.
The rumble of people having a good time is tantamount to the feeling as you approach a football stadium. Get closer and the din gets louder, anticipation building in equal measure. Once at the threshold, the roar of the crowd, of people really enjoying themselves, could physically move you. Maybe it’s the mezcal, provided in all shapes, sizes and tastes, or the food, just as spirited and vital as the punters. Whatever it is, there is certainly brio and buzz here. There is a two-floored open kitchen (a first for us) overlooking the room and bringing that sense of theatre to proceedings.
The menu is primarily taco-led, although quesadillas and and a few sides also make an appearance. As a rule, one should order guacamole to size up the ambition and skill of a place like this. El Pastor’s rendition is excellent – super fresh, not too smooth and damn generous with the housemade chips. The ‘al pastor’, translated as ‘shepherd style’ and from which the restaurant takes it name, is a useful focal point. Pork which has been marinated for a day sits alongside its close companion pineapple, as well as guacamole and herbs. Tacos are made fresh here everyday, rarer than you might think of Mexican places in Britain, and it shows. They are sturdy enough to hold a sauce but also light and not too doughy, which would be in danger of overshadowing some of the more thoughtfully paired fillings. All in all, the food was knockout. Although some combinations rear up more than once, they serve different purposes in each dish, and by no means feel like the kitchen has run out of ideas. Dishes were uniformly flavourful and bright.
One dish stood out in a busy field of crowd-pleasers. The sharing short-rib, cooked until falling apart, served with some seriously nice seasoning mix of sugar, salt and spices, was one of our knockout dishes of the year. It’s a do-it-yourself affair, with 6 tacos appearing alongside it and a host of pokey, fitting sauces, dips and herbs for you to choose between. You’d be crazy not to add bone marrow for an extra three quid – it made a near perfect dish even better. It was one of those dishes that I was looking forward to eulogising over on the tube ride home while eating it.
Mezcal, tequila’s feistier, more esoteric cousin, is celebrated with vigour here. There are a host of different versions, to be drunk straight or in cocktail form, with useful tasting notes and advice from the bar to guide the more innocent drinker. If you’re loath to getting down and dirty with the spirits, there are also Mexican beers – light and crisp – as well as wine and considerately flavoured waters.
El Pastor is the full ticket. For a city of such great culinary diversity and choice, Mexico seems to be less than enthusiastically represented. The enthusiasm from staff and punter alike is boundless here. If you want food, drink and atmosphere which transports you to a happy place, one of energy and great verve, go here. Your ringing ears and sore head may not forgive you in the morning, but for a place this good, who cares?
Address: 6-7A Stoney St, London SE1 9AA