Globe, Multiculture, Our People, United Kingdom

The Mexican food revolution

What is it about this culture that is inspiring the British public to ditch their biryanis for burritos in such droves?

Laura Cronk

The UK’s latest passion for Mexican street food style eating has been described as the most influential shake up of the culinary landscape since Indian cuisine made its inroads in the 1960s.

More Mexican restaurants have opened in the UK this year than any other type of cuisine. Chains such as Benito’s hat, Chilango and Chipotle are fast becoming as familiar a sight on London’s streets as Prêt a Manger and Pizza Express.

These chains capitalise on the new idea of Mexican food as healthy, sociable, fun and environmentally-friendly.

The idea of consumer choice, with ‘build your own’ burrito options, is also a draw. Authenticity is the shared manifesto of all: Benito’s Hat describes its food as ‘inspired in the heart of Mexico’; Chilango’s mission is to ‘bring real-deal Mexican food to London’.

But are these popular chains as authentic as they would have us believe? Benito’s Hat was founded by London city lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Ben Fordham.

The Chilango franchise was established by Chicago University graduate Eric Partaker along with the Cambridge educated Dan Houghton. The number one U.S. Tex-Mex chain Chipotle, a recent arrival to British shores, was started up by Indianapolis born Steve Ells.

The fusion of authentic ingredients and Mexican lifestyle they claim is perhaps more a canny blend of high investment and astute marketing to a rather ‘blue-eyed’ Western public.

Of course, the key ingredients are Mexican; with fresh guacamole, salsas, frijoles and carnitas forming the key elements of the menus. But the chains would have us believe that Mexican food begins and ends with burritos, fajitas and tacos, something a visit to any genuine Mexican-run restaurant, such as Lupita by Charing Cross, would set you straight on immediately.

The reality is that these hugely successful Mexican chains are not authentically Mexican but a rehash of the Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex tradition so popular in the USA. Expanding UK chain ‘The Mission’ takes its name from the Mission district of San Francisco. The founders of both Chilango and Chipotle are US natives, who gained their passion for Mexican foods in the Latin quarters of Chicago and Los Angeles.

Yet beyond the food, a deeper element of the Mexican eating experience is feeding Britain’s growing addiction. Mexican restaurants are known for their sociable, speedy and no-fuss attitude.

Sharing plates of nachos and tacos, dips for the table and pitchers of drinks all encourage a convivial atmosphere which is lacking in many European style restaurants; one plate per person and ‘pre-booking essential, please’. Knives and forks are not required, tacos are ordered until satiation point is reached; general sticky clamour is the main appeal.

For these reasons and more, the pace of the Mexican food revolution shows no signs of abating. U.S chains La Cantina Lareda and Chipotle are opening several restaurants apiece here this year, and trailer burrito chain Freebird is set to open in five more London locations. When asked about the threat other restaurants pose to his franchise, Freebird owner Johnny is undaunted.

The market grows with the restaurant expansions rather than being divided. Freebird was the first of what are now five different Mexican chains in a 200 yard radius of Goodge Street, but instead of being driven out, burrito business is flourishing, and Johnny now also markets his products to other restaurants.

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