Disclosure: I contributed to Santo Remedio’s crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter with a modest donation in the region of £75-200.
Updated 25/02/19 – added details of 2019 revisits
Arrogant. Cocksure. Overconfident know-nothing. Snooty elitist. Those are just some of the epithets slung my way in the hatemail that I try to ignore (usually quite successfully). That doesn’t mean I don’t question my own judgment and experiences, though. Despite all the fact-checking, proofreading, introspection and the odd bit of navel-gazing that goes into all my reviews, there are times when I doubt and second-guess my verdicts. This review of the new Santo Remedio isn’t one of those times.
Santo Remedio has turned misfortune into opportunity. When forced to relocate from their old Shoreditch digs, a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign gave them the keys to the more centrally located London Bridge premises formerly occupied by the dearly missed Magdalen. The team at this revived Mexican restaurant have been very cautious in the roll-out of their new operation though, with a bigger menu and service on their second upper-floor dining room only coming a few months after throwing their doors open. The wait has been well worth it.
First things first
Tacos were actually one of the less successful things at the first incarnation of Santo Remedio and it’s clear the kitchen has worked hard to make them better. The tortillas used in this first batch of tacos suffered from flaws that would eventually be remedied in subsequent meals – reasonably nutty in taste, but nowhere near as fluffy and soft as they would eventually become.
Even so, nopal tacos were still a winner with the texture of the yieldingly firm cactus slices falling somewhere in between that of a ripe cantaloupe and a bell pepper. They acted as a conveyor not only for the tangy and musky sweet sauce, but also for the grated shreds of elastic cheese, shimmying their way into my mouth with a gentle earthy funk.
The crustacean in the soft shell crab tacos was a little muted, but it was still far from dull. The gently earthy crab meat came coated in a crispy, gently chewy and oil-free batter, with a sprightly, zingy and lightly creamy sauce cutting through it.
The octopus tikin xik, one of the best specials at the original Santo Remedio, makes a welcome return here as a permanent fixture on the menu. The firm, springy tentacle had a complex and deeply satisfying umami with aniseed-like hints. Of all the octopus dishes at London’s recent gaggle of grown-up Mexican restaurants, this is easily the most well-accomplished despite its relatively small portion size.
Despite the bigger menu, the churros is still the only dessert on offer at the new Santo Remedio. It was a corker though. The firm, springy exterior was almost more like a pie or pastry crust than deep-fried dough, while the interior was soft and fluffy. The dulche de leche dipping sauce shouldn’t be overlooked, not when its milkiness and concentrated brown sugary sweetness prove so complimentary to the churros.
Going back for seconds
Although the overhyped grasshoppers were never available across any of my visits to Santo Remedio, the ‘plain’ guacamole is still worth having – if only because it tasted of actual avocados rather than just tomatoes and lemon juice. Its charms didn’t end there though – thick, creamy and tinged with a light heat, all scooped up with crisp, light and oil-free tortilla chips.
The tortillas used in the tacos were much the same as they were the first time around. The beef tacos were by far the best of the meaty trio I tried with the aid of Gym Bunny. The moist and tender chunks of cow had a woody, smoky umami that easily won over the both of us. Chicken tacos saw moist and tender chook tinged with fruitiness. The pork tacos were an oddity, with the moist and light meat easily mistaken for chicken. They were still pleasing enough with a zesty, lightly tingly sauce helping things along. It’s just a shame they weren’t as accomplished as the beef variant.
The octopus was just as superlative as it had been the first time around.
Lamb cutlets were an unexpected delight. The meat had a deep umami, somewhat similar to the moreishness of the octopus, but with the addition of an earthy funk. Even more depth was added by the quivering rim of fat and connective tissue, that complimented the tender meat as well as contrasting with it.
The only true dud in this meal was the sweet potato flautas. These rolled and then deep-fried stuffed tortillas were too crunchy and stodgy for my liking. Although dense and tightly packed, the filling of sweet potato was curiously bland. The creamy and lightly fruity sauces were an underwhelming finish to a flawed dish.
Although the molluscs in the scallop aguachile were meaty and tender despite their thinness, they didn’t actually taste of much. This wasn’t as critical a flaw as I had first feared, as the scallops were used as a conveyor for a delightfully sprightly sauce, brimming with citrusy, zingy and lightly spicy flavours. So much so, that it almost resembled a Thai-style nam jim dipping sauce.
Airy, exquisitely tender ox tongue came in a mole of extraordinary depth. The sauce effortlessly transitioned from creamy and sweet to nutty with a light spicy heat. This was a meat-and-sauce pairing for the ages.
It would be best to avoid having the ox tongue and the plantain side dish together. Or, alternatively, to save the plantains and only have them after entirely devouring the tongue. The plantains were, in of themselves, profoundly delicious. Soft, starchy and eye-poppingly sweet with a caramelisation effect that, in a stroke of genius, was offset by a melted oozing of creamy, salty Oaxacan cheese. This potent combination of flavours was easily strong enough to overwhelm the ox tongue’s mole though. Some things really are best appreciated apart.
The grilled tortilla envelope in the chorizo quesadilla special was oddly leather and occasionally tough – a noticeably unpleasant flaw. The filling largely made up for this deficiency in technique though – fatty chorizo bits, fit to burst with paprika, had their richness enhanced further by the oozing creaminess of the salty Oaxacan cheese. The zingy, light heat of the chilli sauce, served on the side, effortlessly sliced through this double hit of richness.
The churros were just as good as they were before – if not a little better, with a milky smoothness now evident in the interior.
Santo Remedio’s flawed track record in tortillas finally came to an end in their tuna tostadas, a dish I’ve had little time for in the past. Although deep-fried, the tortilla was hearty without being stodgy. Its nuttiness and crunchiness didn’t overwhelm the tuna cubes perched on top, their meaty tang and umami glaze counterbalanced by a zingy, citrusy dressing. Santo Remedio’s tuna tostada puts every other version of this dish (that I’ve tried in London) to shame.
Although the meat in the chicken quesadilla wasn’t worth writing home about, the tortilla here also saw significant improvement which was far more important. It was far softer and more supple than the one that had graced the chorizo special. With the chicken relegated to supporting status, the rest of the filling to had pick up the slack and did so admirably. The creamy, elastic and salty Oaxacan-style cheese made a welcome repeat appearance, joined by sharp onions bolstered by an equally sharp sauce laced with zingy citrus notes. If London’s other quesadilla purveyors aren’t taking notes, then they really should be.
The yieldingly tender and melon-sweet curls of cactus in the nopal salad were outnumbered by filler cabbage and carrot, one of the very few instances of corner-cutting that I could find at Santo Remedio.
With the quality of Santo Remedio’s tortillas on the rise, I feared something else would take a hit and that something turned out to be the churros. The deep-fried pastry wasn’t as expertly crisp as it had been before, its harder, crunchier exterior turning out to be the shell for a disappointingly hollow interior. The still on-point dulce de leche was little consolation.
The mini-fad of using courgette flowers in dishes has subsided since its height a few years ago. That’s almost a shame given how delicately delicious the best courgette flower dishes can be. Here it had been used in a quesadilla, the blossom forming a small decorative crown perched atop the soft and supple tortilla. The stem segments were found stuffed inside, its crisp melon-like sweetness counterbalancing the salty creaminess of the Oaxacan-style cheese. The musky sweet heat of hot sauce, served on the side, was the proverbial cherry on top.
Santo Remedio’s rejuvenated tortillas continued. The ones used in the ox tongue tacos were impressive in their fluffy soft nuttiness. The ox tongue here wasn’t just a retread of the meat used in the earlier mole-coated main. Expertly crispified to emphasise its unctuous meatiness, its richness was then offset by sharp onions and a punchy, zesty sauce. If you’re looking for a taco boiled down to its most essential form, then this is a great example. A few ingredients, expertly executed.
That’s more than can be said for the tamal. Having the cornmeal as a charmless non-entity was almost a blessing given the Dead Sea levels of saltiness in the beans and the excessive, overpowering sweet umami in the pork. I’m usually all-in when it comes to bold, uncompromising flavours but almost everything here had been turned up to 11 and desperately needed to be dialled back and rethought.
Churros was almost back on form with the exception of the hollow interior still in place of the fluffy soft milkiness that I pine for. I didn’t let my salty tears spoil the dulce de leche, though. That really would be inexcusable.
The issue with naming a restaurant as the best at anything is that there’s the very real possibility that I’m wrong. Despite the thoroughness of my reviewing and research, there’s always the chance that my judgment or perspective was just a bit off. That’s why I keep tabs on the opinions of other reviewers – especially those I disagree with. So when I heard that a few of them had a disappointing time at Santo Remedio, a few repeat visits were clearly in order to survey the lay of the land.
Proceedings did not begin well with the octopus tikin xik, a dish I have previously raved about. It was unevenly cooked, verging on mushiness in some places while retaining a crisp bouncy springiness in others. This was hugely disappointed, but there was still joy to be had here. When the initial texture held firm, it gave way to reveal a curled fist of a tentacle which was an ideal conveyor for the fruity heat of the hot sauce and the crisp sweetness of the salad garnish.
The chipotle meatballs also proved to be a disappointment. The problem lay not in the meatballs themselves, which were moist with a reasonably coarse grind and a moderate beefy tang. The issue lay instead with the sauce. Its tart umami sweetness was pleasant enough in its own right, but its resemblance to chipotle was slight and was more reminiscent of an aspirational pasta sauce.
Hake came in a dashi that was too subtle for its own good, but the fish fillet itself was competently executed with crisp skin and pale meaty flakes. The highlights of this fish dish had to be the sweet, yielding slices of cactus and chayote with each vegetable neatly playing off each other. I would happily eat a big ol’ heap of the cactus and chayote alone.
Churros were oil-free, but their charms didn’t end there. Consistently golden and crunchy on the outside, while fluffy, milky and almost gooey on the inside. Scooping up the sticky, rich dipping caramel with each fried dough stick was a distinct pleasure.
A second revisit, this time with the aid of Crispy Rendang, saw us dive into the tamale specials. The pork tamal was all about the contrast between the delicately crisp pork crackling and the soft, fluffy, nutty corn masa. Although the portion size was a tad meagre, that could be forgiven when taking the well-crafted tamale with the nutty sweet and moreish mole on the side.
The huitlacoche tamal saw the corn masa wrapped in edible leaves rather than the usual corn husk. The creamy earthy umami and nuttiness of the combined corn masa and corn smut was greatly enhanced by the nuanced moreishness of the mole – so much so that it soon became difficult to distinguish one from the other. It all came together beautifully.
The tortillas were a far cry from the rough and ready ones that graced Santo Remedio’s tables when the restaurant first opened. Consistently smooth, soft and fluffy, they were perfect for conveying the woody earthiness of tender, sinewy beef into our mouthes.
The pork tacos were just as good as the beef, but in a suitably porcine fashion. The contrast between the crunchy crackling and the fatty unctuousness of the swine flesh, with both offset by a sharp zesty sauce, was nothing short of sensational.
I had always attempted to order the beef short rib during my initial visits to Santo Remedio, but always missed out. It’s certainly worth nabbing if you have the chance. The tender, sinewy strands of beef glided off the bone easier and faster than an overgreased pair of knickers slipping down my hips, while the connective tissue underneath was rendered to the very edge of gelatinousness.
The beef arguably had little character of its own beyond its yielding juiciness, leaning heavily on the mole. But what a mole it was – a lip-smacking salve rich in a mushroom-like umami that bore a partial resemblance to hoi sin sauce. It melded beautifully with the fleshy seductiveness of the beef. The accompanying tortillas had a citrusy undertone which arguably clashed with the richness of the mole, but this still was a highly enjoyable dish.
Airy and soft banana bread initially had the distinctive sweet tang of the tropical fruit, but it faded too quickly. Both it and the accompanying ice cream – a smooth and refreshing treat in its own right – were enjoyable enough, but seemed like oddly safe and unimaginative choices given the rich pantheon of Mexican desserts.
The sticky toffee tamal was an interesting attempt at mixing British and Mexican tradition, largely succeeding. I couldn’t tell by taste alone if the sponge was made from corn flour or not, but it was delicately sweet and exceptionally light – almost ethereally so. There was only just enough toffee to coat the sponge and no more, so it didn’t quite have that decadent gooeyness factor, but its profound caramel sweetness largely made up for this.
I acclaimed the original Santo Remedio as the best Mexican restaurant in London. This revived incarnation holds on to that title – no other Mexican restaurant in the capital comes as close to capturing the verve, precision and multifaceted abundance of Mexican cooking in each sumptuous mouthful. Although the wobble in the quality of the churros is concerning, the uptick in tortilla quality shows that the kitchen is more than capable of the quiet, iterative work that will go unheralded by many but which makes a real difference on the plate.
Even so, by rights, I should withhold a Five Star rating from the new Santo Remedio until this work is complete. But I can’t bring myself to do so – the octopus, ox tongue tacos, beef tacos and the various moles and sauces need to be savoured and enjoyed by everyone. And that goes double for anyone who has ever doubted the greatness of Mexico’s culinary bounty. The dank underdwellers in my hatemail will probably lob accusations of Kickstarter-hued bias. Let them. I’ll be studiously ignoring them with a Santo Remedio taco in my mouth.
Update 25/02/19 The question isn’t whether Santo Remedio is still the best Mexican restaurant in London as the answer is an unequivocal yes. The question is how it maintains and builds upon this status without any credible rival restaurants to keep it on its toes. This isn’t a purely hypothetical question given the worrying dip in quality of the octopus and the chaff-like nature of the chipotle meatballs. The answer, judging from the notable levelling-up of the tacos and tamales, appears to be the proprietor’s own sense of professional pride in his craft. For now, that’ll have to be enough.
What to order: Pork tacos; churros; beef tacos; lamb cutlets; tuna tostada; quesadillas; specials
What to skip: Flautas
Name: Santo Remedio
Address: 152 Tooley Street, London SE1 2TU
Phone: 0207 403 30 21
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday noon-15.00 and 17.30-22.45. Friday-Saturday noon-22.45. Sunday 10.00-16.00.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35-45 approx.