Mexican cuisine is always popular, and Jill Turton finds Lupe’s Cantina has plenty to trumpet about – even the grilled cactus.
I’m always wary when friends recommend to me their favourite ethnic neighbourhood restaurant to write it up for this column.
It usually goes something like: “We’ve found this great little backstreet tapas bar…. we know this really authentic Nepalese curry house and it’s really cheap… have you tried that Sicilian place, they make the best arancini.”
The trouble is, these finds may be cheap, delicious and authentic in their own way but they are still neighbourhood restaurants with local loyalties and may not be worth filling up the car and crossing England’s biggest county, only to find it’s rather like the one in your own back yard.
So it is with some trepidation that I commend to you the Mexican food at Lupe’s Cantina in the very studenty neighbourhood of Cardigan Road in Leeds.
If you do go ahead and cross the county you may be underwhelmed to arrive at a single-storey block which looks to be an overgrown shack and shares a car park with a builder’s yard. Don’t worry. Inside, there’s an immediately vivacious Mexican spirit, all bright yellows, mismatched tiles and gaudy art, and a bar that serves a range of Mexican bottled beer and better Margaritas than the one I drank in Mexico City where they first led me astray too many years ago.
Settling down for the food, there are all the enchiladas, tacos and tortillas you might expect but the rest of the menu, the street food and the specials list gets a whole lot more interesting. How about grilled cactus? It’s green and fleshy and tastes a bit like green pepper and it’s here in a salad with chopped tomatoes, onions, chillies, a lime dressing and finished with a crumble of queso fresco – Mexico’s feta-like cheese.
Then there’s ceviche camarones: raw prawns in a zingy lime and lemon salsa plated with heart of palm, jalapeno and epazote, a South American herb, the menu explains, used in Mexico for thousands of years in both cooking and medicine. We come across it again in a classy guacamole where the avocado has been laced with peppers, spring onions and toasted pumpkins seeds. Another ceviche puts sea bass alongside passion fruit, an unlikely combination, but it works. All of the dishes have clean, clear flavours with the freshness of raw fruit and veg, the zing of fresh lime, and none of them much above a fiver. Of the meat and fish dishes there is nothing over £11.95. Notably, in an era where restaurants cheerfully charge £20 and upwards for any old cut of steak, here was a fair sized and wonderfully tender grilled slab of sirloin with black beans, spring onions and a salsa made from tomatillo and fiery árbol chillies. Make that another-cold-beer-please fiery.
Equally good value is the special of ‘chicken barbacoa’ tender chicken pieces grilled and glazed with a guajillo chilli sauce and served with black beans which is tasty enough but needs another element for interest and texture. If I’d known better I would have ordered a side salad of tomato, red onion and coriander or a portion of guacamole.
Mashed potato seems out of place in a dish of lamb rump and mole sauce, but then potatoes originated in South America so why not? And mole, Mexico’s most revered sauce, served on celebration days to emperors and kings is best known because, strangely to us, it contains chocolate, though only a tiny amount of bitter, dark chocolate, hardly discernible among the cinnamon, cloves, garlic and chillies, herbs, spices, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Indeed, mole is so revered in Mexico that there’s a celebrity chef, Enrique Olvera, who nurtures a ‘1,000 day mole’, matured over years, constantly adding to it as it ages and ripens, and finally serves it as part of a $100 tasting menu, as a puddle, alone, unadorned on a plain white plate with nothing more than a warm tortilla to mop it up.
I doubt the same obsession went into our Cardigan Road mole, though it perfectly suits Mexico’s street food tradition which is honoured here by a street food section of the menu containing crispy tortillas with shredded chicken, black beans and sour cream; crispy rancheros with shredded beef, adobo sauce, avocado and queso fresco; three cheese fundido, with shrimps and pineapple and cheese-stuffed quesadillas.
So, Lupe ticks all the boxes for a cracking neighbourhood ethnic restaurant: fun, delicious, authentic and terrific value. Before setting the satnav, be warned that when it’s rocking on weekend nights, the acoustics can make it pretty deafening for tender generations – Mariachi trumpets and beered-up students are no longer my dream soundtrack. The service, while sweet and friendly had careless moments. But if you’re a fan of Mexican food, or in need of a reminder that there’s a whole lot more to it than tacos and tortilla, that journey might just be worthwhile. And thanks for the recommendation...
Lupe’s Cantina Mexicana, 204-206 Cardigan Road LS6 1LF; Tel 0113 345 3070; email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.lupescantinamexicana.co.uk
Open: Mon-Fri 12.00am-3.00pm & 5pm-9.30pm (10.30pm Fri); Sat 12.00am-10.30pm. Closed Sun.
Price: Dinner for two with bottle of wine and service, £65.