I absolutely detest what passes for Mexican food in this country. When I think of how far the street-style and domestic Latin cuisine has fallen, I am reminded of what it would have been like if Chef Skinner had been successful launching his line of Gusteau’s Corn Puppies and amongst other processed abominations had Linguini not shown up.
When people think of a grabbing a Mexican, they are thinking, more often than not, about the Old El Paso fajita, taco and quesadilla kits you can buy at the super market. I cannot deny that I have sometimes given in to the temptation of a discounted kit at Tescos when especially poor, but I consider it akin to buying a Pot Noodle or a jar of Patak’s.
But the thing is, when people crave noodles or tikka masala, they do not think of the processed crap they find in the store, they want the actual food they can get at restaurant or can cook, following a good recipe, from the bare bones. This is not the case for Mexican food. Old El Paso seems to have sank their insidious roots into public consciousness as the norm and have morphed the perception of what Mexican cuisine is meant to taste like – which is crazy and makes me want to tear my hair out.
If people think fajita kits are as good as it gets for Mexican food, they are tragically missing out on some of the most delectable, comforting, and ineffably scrumptious soul-food ever conceived. It is why I always encourage friends and family to spend that extra money to visit a Mexican restaurant with a reputation for authenticity and experience the taste equivalent of putting on a pair of spectacles for the first time after years seeing leaves as green blobs.
I have never been to Mexico but in when visiting Los Angeles, when I was a about fifteen, I remember visiting a humble looking cantina on our way home from a tour. It was one of the only places open at the time, and it looked like the kind of establishment that usually had a few old guys lounging outside with a cigarette and a bottle of beer. They had a numbered menu on the wall, cafeteria style furniture and only two staff members working, of which none spoke a word of English.
The food was great, served with a warmth you only expect at home, and the same sort of carefree plating you’d expect. The tacos were warm and resilient, just off the stove, with fillings of meat from parts of pork I struggled to identify. These were escorted by bowls of hearty refried beans and tangy salsa that completed the quintessential late-night feast.
I had not initially planned to go to Nanna Mexico, but it was the familiarity of the aromatics to those of the aforementioned cantina, that beguiled me to enter while walking past one Friday. Maddy, a lover of Old El Paso kits and veggie burritos, and immune to my sighs and tuts of disgust whenever she assembles their contents, was surprised by my choosing Mexican for lunch but decided not to say anything lest I changed my mind.
The Nanna Mexico in Norwich had interiors that almost mimicked the kind of vibrant colorations that one would expect from one of their dishes. Abstract and pop art wallpapers, neon framed posters, patterned brick walls, and sterile tile installations were all strategically emphasised by the black paint the filled up the spaces and marked the open ceiling. It all came together well, though I must admit it seemed artificial in the way that the Turtle Bay Caribbean chain does with their exuberant paraphernalia. It still felt fresh and inviting, so I suppose the designer did his or her job in the end.
The restaurant followed a self-service arrangement where one asks for their meal at the counter and takes it to a table of their choice after paying the bill. Two stations are kept within Nanna Mexico where diners can get a glass of water, grab some napkins and cutlery, or may also dispose of their garbage and stack their dirty dishes. It didn’t feel odd at all, which is the most important thing, demonstrating their diligent ergonomics.
Hilariously, the first ingredient ladled onto Maddy’s vegetarian Nanna Mexico ‘Big-Ass Burrito’ was braised lamb. The look of panicked confusion she gave me as it was being done was priceless. After she awkwardly pointed it out to the lady behind the counter, she apologised profusely, shook her head with an embarrassed smile and wacked a facepalm before beginning the wrap all over again. Easily forgiven, and a mistake I’d love to watch happen to someone more militantly vegetarian.
Let’s not gloss over the fact the ridiculous name of the burrito. In the description, they describe it has a Chihuahua style burrito, which not only would be more stylish name for the dish, but it would also add the same sort of irony one experiences when encountering Little John in Robin Hood.
Our next order was for three tacos, each with a different meat filling: carnitas (slow-cooked pulled pork), braised pork belly, and grass-fed beef. I found it curious how their ‘fresh marinated chicken’ was suffixed with a parenthesized note about how the chicken is devoid of antibiotics, plumping starches, hormones and phosphates. It seems the new fad with a lot of the new restaurants that are catering to younger, more, god I hate the word, ‘millenial’ audiences. Everything needs to be grass-fed, homegrown, hand-plucked, not to forget rustic and artisan. Yes, hipster, but I refuse to use hipster and millennial in the same sentence – damn it.
I went straight for the Nanna Mexico carnitas taco, and as Maddy eagerly watched me take my first bite, I gave her the satisfaction of a vibrating thumbs up. The meat was titillating and flavourful with its unctuous juices trickling down my fingers and I lifted the taco from the tray. Eating a taco requires a certain head tilt, and a finger-holder formation allows for the perfect side-bite – I had it all down pat.
The salsa verde was beautiful. It had that concentrated green colour and consistency of a coriander chutney, and tasted more on the side of chimichurri. It was hot yet not overpowering, which is testament to a great salsa (a million times better than the crap you get in the fajita boxes).
With the condiments being constant, the other meat fillings at Nanna Mexico were underwhelming to say the least. While the braised lamb, the choice I was looking forward to the most, did taste good at first, I soon got frustrated with how chewy the meat was, especially the fat which was like nibbling on a pencil eraser. What it should have been was gorgeously rendered, and melting delightfully in my mouth. The braising juices that accompanied the lamb into the taco, made the tortilla wrap soggy, leading to it falling apart after my first bite. Very disappointing.
The beef taco was all piquancy without the seasoning. It had the kick, but no taste to carry it through. In the end, I had to incorporate crushed pieces of the tortilla chip garnish into the wrap to balance it. Turns out, the textural modifications that came from adding the chips made it taste pretty good. I was hungry, so I was not going to waste anything.
The big-ass burrito, as its name suggests, was massive and definitely got the better of us. I am usually quite sceptical when it comes to vegetarian wraps but the overall flavour profile of the vegetable mix that replaced the lamb definitely deserved the thumbs up. I was actually quite glad it was the vegetarian version, especially since the thought of having another bite of that lamb made me grimace.
We definitely walked out full and satisfied, despite some of the unsatisfactory food we were served. But in summation, the few good dishes at Nanna Mexico, the relaxed atmosphere and the £13 we were charged at the end made the experience an all-round positive one. I’d definitely visit again if I wanted a quick meal, but this time just for the carnitas and a tray of fresh tortilla chips.
23 White Lion St, Norwich NR2 1PX
Fillings £5.80-7; Extras £1-2; Sides £2-3.5