I like to compare a good Mexican meal in London, to the Wizard who lives in Oz: probably a fantasy, but perhaps hidden away in some secret room, playing cards, sipping margaritas, and whittling away las horas.
Yes, Mexican food is a tricky, secretive thing in this town, and it’s no surprise that most Mexican restaurants (save the American-tourist hub Texas Embassy, which is actually Tex-Mex, and terribly overpriced, but whatever) succumb to the staunchly Indian-loving British palate, and close before they make a dent in the mainstream.
Enter Green & Red.
Voted the Evening Standard’s Bar of the Year in 2006, Green & Red is located amongst a plethora of warehouses on Bethnal Green Road, next door to the burgeoning Rich Mix cultural arts centre. And not much else. Shame about the location, really. We spent fifteen minutes combing the pavements for the building, and if it weren’t for my inbuilt Tequila radar, we might never have found it. Still, once inside we were literally hugged by our waitress, who scurried us to a warm, bare table and gabbled on about the menu.
It’s a simple menu – a one pager – with tapas-like starters, standard mains, and a handful of various sides, and I think here is where Green & Red succeeds. Gaby (the friendly gabbling waitress) explains that, while you can eat however you want, they’ve designed the menu to be served family-style: a main-course meat dish (around £15), a bunch of side dishes (at around £3, each), and a bowl of tortillas (around 50 pence). The concept works better with larger groups, but we were still willing to give it a go. And with no gloopy enchiladas slathered in cheese, and nothing ‘nacho’ – just lots of interesting mixes of veg and meat - the menu seemed promising.
Gaby brought us fresh tortilla chips to start, with the house salsas and guacamole, which were fresh but not too spicy. She also talked me into the signature ‘Mama’s Margarita’, which was a rather unique mix of blanco La Cava de don Agustin, lemon & lime juice, and agave syrup, which added a wonderful herby sweetness. Once we settled into our drinks & chips, along came our smorgasbord of tapas-like side dishes. We opted for a pretty standard pan-fried chorizo & potatoes, a citrusy ceviche, a fairly standard and slightly rubbery calamari, and most notably, the yam and cucumber salad, which was our favourite dish of the evening. It came with lime-drenched jicama yams and cucumbers, served with peanuts and a soft sheep’s milk cheese. This Thai-like salad showed the creative underbelly of Red & Green.
And, speaking of underbelly, Gaby soon strode out with a huge platter of pork belly & ribs, a bowl of smashed black beans with chorizo, and a case of warmed tortillas. And then came the real brilliance of the meal, which was scooping up the assorted bits of pork, beans, salsas and various sides, and making our job of dinner a concentrated, messy business. The only thing that could help smooth the busy process? Tequila, of course. And oh, the tequila.
Green & Red boasts 73 different tequilas on their main menu, and that doesn’t include their entirely different Private Reserve menu, which has, oh…hundreds more. I’m assuming there is a small man whose sole job is running around the basement, digging out dusty, obscure bottles of tequila from the cellar, and strapping them to his pet dog who scurries up a small tunnel to deliver them to the waiting bartender. Run, José, run!
But I digress.
There’s no mistaking that Green & Red is first, a drinking hole, and second, a restaurant. While everyone there was munching on food of some persuasion, it seemed peripheral to the exciting events happening at the bar: the shaking, swirling, clinking excitement of a bar man who knows his drink. I don’t mind this. In fact, more than anything, I think it takes all the pretentious, worry-some focus off the food, so, like a proper cantina, it can just be something enjoyed between friends. With a simple, interesting menu with quality staples and a few quirky greats, at least that ‘something between friends’ will be something rather delicious.
Family-style dinners run to around £40.00 for one large main dish, a couple of side dishes, and a few cocktails.
Green & Red Bar and Cantina: 51 Bethnal Green Road, London, E1.
Tel: 020 7749 9670
Reviewer: Megan Tidd