A Mexican restaurant of two halves
As my fellow restaurant blogger 31_75 pointed out recently, in his own inimitable style, there are very few good Mexican restaurants in London. The situation isn’t nearly as bad as it was two decades ago when all we had were horrid Tex-Mex dives like Chiquito, but it’s still far from perfect. La Bodega Negra is a new eatery in Soho that’s divided into two halves.
The first is a bar and taqueria (basically a diner) located on Moor Street. It’s a handsome place with tiled floors and old Mexican posters silkscreened onto the walls. Reservations aren’t taken though, so you might have to eat at the bar although that’s no hardship thanks to the friendly and helpful staff and a funky soundtrack of Queen, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Credence Clearwater Revival and Bob Marley.
If you want or need a reservation, or just have money to burn, then head to the restaurant with its larger and more expensive menu. Locating the restaurant’s entrance, located on Old Compton Street, can be tricky unless you know what to look for since it looks like a sex shop – it’s a bizarre decorating decision that might put off the more prudish gastronome, but it’s worth bearing with.
If you’re not put off by the black walls of the ground floor cloakroom, or the curio cabinet containing a violin with pubes for a chin rest, a stairwell descends into the main dining room. It’s been decorated to look like a rustic taverna complete with a stone archway, but it doesn’t feel cheesy or chintzy thanks to the dim, moody lighting and quirky design touches. Plus, there’s that same funky soundtrack. There’s nothing if not plenty of atmosphere.
I had the opportunity to eat at the taqueria on multiple occasions, as well as once in the restaurant, so this review will be divided into taqueria and restaurant sections instead of following my usual style of following the course of the individual meals themselves.
La Bodega Negra doesn’t have a huge number of interesting non-alcoholic drinks for those of us who don’t drink. There are a couple of non-alcholic cocktails such as the virgin mojito which tastes mostly of passion fruit that’s been given the sickly sweet treatment. The watermelon cooler tastes more of mint than it does of watermelon, but at least it’s refreshing. The simple lemonade is better than both of those cocktails. It’s sour and not excessively sweet, so it actually tastes of lemons.
Most of the dishes on the taqueria’s menu are small, tapas-sized portions designed for sharing. The duck pipian verde tostadita is a good a place as any to start. The dense meat has a tangy and herby flavour enhanced by the pickled vegetables.
Of course, for most people Mexican food means tacos and the taqueria has several to choose from. There are three tacos per portion, but sadly you can’t mix and match several tacos in the same portion. They’re served open so you can apply as much or as little of the optional sauces as you wish. More importantly, they all rest on small but perfectly formed tortillas made from distinctly nutty maize flour rather than the comparatively limp and lifeless wheat flour.
The pork tacos are dry, but subtly smoky with zesty, herby hints which are enhanced by a refreshing green salsa and a potent and fiery red salsa.
My favourite taco filling has to be the prawns. They’re plump, firm and quivering and are only just cooked so they’re a little raw on the inside. Don’t be afraid though – this not only preserves the delightful texture but the delicate freshness too. Superb stuff.
Inevitably, the other tacos couldn’t match the quality of the prawns. The strips of steak used in the steak tacos can’t match the best examples of steak available in London, but they are tender despite being cooked well-done and have a slightly smoky and nutty taste to them.
The mushroom tacos were surprisingly bland and unmemorable, despite being topped with kale. The chorizo and butternut squash tacos were far better. The sweet and starchy chunks of squash complimented the chorizo perfectly, although the sausage wasn’t quite as fatty and salty as I was hoping for.
There’s more to the savoury dishes at La Bodega Negra than just tacos and tostaditas though. Huevos rancheros is usually served as a breakfast dish, but it’s available all-day here. Although it is available at other eateries such as certain branches of The Breakfast Club and Giraffe, their versions are bland-tasting atrocities.
Thankfully, the version here is far superior. Although available with either bacon or steak, I opted for the plain and simple version – rich fried eggs served with dark, nutty and salty beans on a thin, slightly crispy corn tortilla. The moreishness of the beans is enhanced by the refreshing coriander-based sauce with even more sauces available served on the side, such as a spicy tomato sauce and a devilishly addictive yellow-green sauce blessed with several herby hints I couldn’t quite place. A simple dish, but one that hits the spot perfectly.
Quesadillas, tortillas filled and folded, are often drowned in pools of deeply average American cheese in Tex-Mex restaurants. Thankfully La Bodega Negra keeps the cheese inside their quesadillas where it belongs. Although it still doesn’t have much character, at least it’s not as sickly as some of the worst American cheese.
The ham and cheese quesadilla uses chunks of pork with a taste and texture that sits somewhere in between gammon and chorizo – dense, fibrous and a touch salty with the occasional strand of fat. It’s not bad, but it’s not going to set the world alight.
Huitlacoche is a pathogenic fungus that blights corn crops and doesn’t sound edible never mind delectable, but it’s apparently a common foodstuff in Mexico and this is the first time I’ve seen it served in London. Described by some as a ‘black corn truffle’, here it’s served with mushrooms inside a cheeseless quesadilla. It has a creamy richness to it that’s quite pleasing, although it’s not as intense or earthy as the subterranean mushroom-derived truffles we’re more familiar with in Europe. Not bad, but hardly a revelation.
Cowboy beans are available as an optional accompaniment with the tacos or as a separate side dish in their own right. The nutty beans are a little too soft for my liking, but are served in a tangy and moreish vegetable and meat stock broth with bits of carrot and chorizo providing some sweet and salty distractions. It’s almost large enough to be a meal in its own right.
If cowboy beans sounds like a recipe for cowboy farts that you’d rather avoid, there’s always the option of roast potatoes with mole negro. The potatoes are pleasingly fluffy, but the real star of this dish is the tangy and moreish sauce that I can’t quite place. Chocolate? Garlic? No matter, the potatoes are worth having just for the mole alone.
The desserts are generally British and European classics but with a slight Mexican twist. The warm banana bread has a dark, sugary, molasses-like character to it that makes it taste more like the sponge cake used in sticky toffee puddings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Also unexpected was the ‘cinnamon butter’ which turned out to be an icy cinnamon-flavoured sorbet. It was only mildly flavoured with cinnamon though and seemed out of place next to the hearty cake. The candied walnuts were a winner though – sweet, nutty and crunchy. I could eat them all day.
The chocolate soufflé has a puffy crust and gooey interior. The dark chocolate tastes somewhat generic and characterless, but the malty, molasses-esque, fine grained biscuit-like crumbs add some much needed personality. Alongside the soufflé is a mole ice cream which is very tart and creamy – so much so that it tastes like a cross between frozen yogurt and a cheddar cheese ice cream. The real star of this three-pronged dessert is the icy chocolate fondant. Although the chocolate taste, like the soufflé, isn’t anything to write home about, the thing is redeemed by the hot chilli aftertaste which is of course best cooled down with the ice cream. An interesting, if flawed dessert.
The vanilla panna cotta is firm and creamy, but the vanilla flavour is muted at best. What saves this dessert from tedium is the fragrant, herby hibiscus-infused berries.
While I had all of my meals at the taqueria all by my lonesome, for my dinner down in the restaurant I had the help of Kangaroo Face and his canoodling partner Sugar Lips.
For whatever reason the tacos in the restaurant are served in portions of one, rather than three, making it easier to mix and match. They are pricier though at £3 per taco compared to £6 for three upstairs. Some are essentially identical to tacos available upstairs in the taqueria, such as the steak version and the chorizo and roasted squash tacos, so these aren’t very good value.
Others are unique to the restaurant though, such as the veal tongue which is very tender and deliciously offally. I could eat these everyday and twice on Sundays.
They’re not all so successful though. The pineapple taco is more pork than pineapple and what fruit is present is lightly cooked and essentially used as a garnish. A more heavily roasted and caramelised version with less pork would have been far more interesting.
Similarly, the crab tostadita would’ve been far better if it had used a nice chunk of claw meat rather than just head meat although that would’ve pushed the price beyond the £4 charge. The creamy avocado and zesty dressing compliments the head meat well enough though.
The only person who loves oysters more than I do is Kangaroo Face given how often he orders them when dining out with me. Sadly, the oysters here, available as a dozen or half-dozen serving, are flat and limp so it’s just as well that they’re smothered in an inoffensively mild chilli sauce.
I was similarly disappointed with the red snapper ceviche. The tender chunks of raw fish benefit from the zesty dressing, but the latter isn’t as layered in its flavour as the tiger’s milk dressing at Ceviche. The fish is also outnumbered by the cooked prawns, so the dish ends up tasting more like a prawn cocktail than a ceviche. At least the freshly fried corn tortillas are crisp and addictively nutty.
Things picked up a bit with Sugar Lips’ main course of mixed seafood and rice cazuela, a paella-like dish but with broth. Although the mussels and shrimp were small and limp, the small grained rice was tangy, bold and moreish thanks to the stock-infused broth which bears a resemblance to the starchy broth found in Spanish-style chorizo and chickpea stews (sorry folks, no photo of this one).
A similar tomato-based broth is also served with the slow roasted lamb which Kangaroo Face and I divided up between us. Served on the bone, the lamb is very tender with some jelly-like tendons adding some variation in texture. The broth is sweeter and a little more viscous than the one used in the cazuela and provides a tangy backdrop to the meat.
Sugar Lips opted out of dessert, but Kangaroo Face went for the baked lemon cheesecake with caramelised lemons. He was unimpressed with the biscuit base, but appreciated the tartness of the dense, creamy cheese layer which was enhanced by the charred sweetness of the caramelised lemon zest.
There was only one dessert on the menu that interested me – churros, fried doughnut sticks found in both Mexico and Spain. Thankfully and remarkably unoily, the churros here has a delightfully crisp and sugary exterior that gives way to a soft and doughy interior. I couldn’t get enough of it, especially when dunked in the slightly bitter dark chocolate sauce. The bitter chocolate sauce is more satisfying than the dulce de leche sauce which is milky, but a bit flat, not quite sweet enough and a touch too thin.
While I was content to sip on sparkling mineral water, Kangaroo Face needed to lubricate his love joints. He thought the watermelon margarita wasn’t boozy enough, preferring the frozen pineapple margarita instead. His preferred tipple was the pisco sour with its sweet, bitter flavours (you don’t honestly expect a teetotaller to take photos of booze do you? Maybe next time).
There’s no doubt that La Bodega Negra is an atmospheric place to eat, especially the downstairs restaurant hidden behind its sex shop facade. The bar and taqueria is better value than the restaurant though – while both have the same friendly service, the taqueria not only has some of the better dishes shared with its more expensive sibling but has some gems of its own not shared with its downstairs counterpart. While the restaurant menu isn’t awful, it has one too many misses among all the hits and is only really worth bothering with if you need a reserved table.
Name: La Bodega Negra
Address: Restaurant – 9 Old Compton Street, London, W1D 5JF
Taqueria – 16 Moor Street, London, W1D 5NH
Phone: 0207 758 4100
Opening Hours: Restaurant – Monday-Saturday 18.00-01.00 and Sunday 18.00-23.30.
Taqueria – Monday-Saturday noon-01.00 and Sunday noon-23.30.
Reservations: not taken for the taqueria, essential for the restaurant.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: Restaurant – £50 approx. (£65-70 approx. including cocktails). Taqueria – £30-35 approx.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ (restaurant)