London is a good place to eat. One of the best, even. Despite the outdated stereotype entertained by Americans, many of whom imagine the city to be some kind of Dickensian horror show of jellied eels and grisly pies, it’s home to fleets of excellent restaurants, and capable of satisfying most whims and hungers.
But, Christ—you can’t even get a damn bagel in this town.
Locals will try to point you to the Brick Lane Beigel Bake; ignore them. Its only advantage seems to be that it’s open all hours, and you do have to be drunk to enjoy the bagels in question, which are soft enough to cater to the toothless, wedged full of “salt beef,” and dressed with sinus-incinerating mustard. Every time I walk by, I’m filled with a fearsome nostalgia for the heavyweight bagels I used to eat on weekend afternoons in Brooklyn, hungover and broke and happy. The kind that would erupt in cream cheese when bitten. The kind that would leave me picking toasted garlic flecks out of my teeth for hours afterwards.
When I first moved here six-and-a-half years ago, those bagels were one of my principal obsessions. The other was tacos (plus the other Mexican dishes I could no longer find overseas). I missed going to the tortilla factory in Bushwick and watching as the little moons of masa went by on the assembly line. I missed ordering atole from the truck that always parked at 96th and Broadway, and I missed the fried avocado-and-jalapeño tacos at Güeros. Here, the grocery stores just sold Old El Paso, and the only Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood was a nightmare of sombrero kitsch.
Things are better today. Many more restaurants have opened since, and there is now an extremely well-stocked grocery store near my home that sells dozens of jars of mole and homemade, frozen tamales. But in the meantime, I figured that, if I wanted to eat chicken tinga or posole or salsa verde, I’d have to make it myself. And so I did: haphazardly, inauthentically, full of substitutions—feta in place of queso fresco, tinned tomatillos instead of fresh ones—but just near enough to quiet those old cravings.
London may seem ill-suited to the summertime ritual of the taco party; it rains unexpectedly and rarely gets hot enough to feel festive in the right way. But a motley group of us assorted nostalgists (all of whom have visited Mexico or the U.S. at some point, and who have come back wanting to recreate the dishes we could not so readily get at home) decided to do it anyway.
My friends Phill and Steph lent us their kitchen and grill, Zef made tortillas, Felicia ably disassembled an entire pineapple, Josh made sweet potato tacos, and we all joined in the prep. In a testament to the group’s enthusiasm, we ended up with a feast of such proportions that this article had to be broken into two parts. Below, you’ll find recipes for homemade tortillas and salsas and elotes and vegetarian-friendly sweet-potato tacos. Tomorrow, you’ll find several more tacos, and an eyebrow-raising dessert.
[Update: Find Part 2 Here]
It isn’t a taco party without beer—to even suggest such a thing!—and so Josh, who also doubles as an award-winning homebrewer, made two beers for the occasion: a watermelon Gose, amply salted and dosed with tequila (effectively a Margarita without the salt-rim) and a Michelada Gose, electric orange with tomato juice, lime zest, and hot sauce.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have a brewer friend to supply you with bespoke kegs, you can invest in whichever Mexican Lager has earned your loyalty, or another fruited Gose, or a watermelon beer of your choice (I had a can of 21st Amendment’s Hell or High Watermelon to hand, which worked capably). Settle on a few all-rounders, and don’t fret about one-to-one food-and-beer pairings: it goes against the laissez-faire spirit of the summer taco party.
Makes 12 small tortillas
9oz (255g) masa harina
Approximately 1 ½ cups (350ml) tepid water
1. Place the masa in a bowl. Add the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and mix with a butter knife as you go. Stop adding water when the dough is just smooth enough to bring together into a ball. Let it rest under a damp paper towel for 10 minutes to keep it from drying out.
2. When ready to make your tortillas, place a large, non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Pull off a ping-pong-ball-sized piece of dough and roll between your palms until it is a smooth sphere.
3. Line your taco press with a cut-open, plastic sandwich bag to prevent the dough sticking. Place the dough between the plastic layers and press firmly until evenly flattened.
4. Place the tortilla directly into one open palm and gently peel the plastic away before transferring to the pan. Cook for approximately 30 seconds per side, using a spatula to flip, until the tortilla is slightly puffed up and beginning to char in spots. Transfer to a bowl or basket lined with a clean tea towel and loosely cover to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining dough.
4–5 plum tomatoes
1 white onion, peeled and cut into wedges
5 cloves garlic, kept in their peels
2 chipotle chiles in adobo, plus additional sauce
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1. Heat your oven’s broiler (grill) setting to high. Place the whole tomatoes, onion wedges, and garlic on a foil-lined baking sheet.
2. Broil (grill) for approximately 15–20 minutes. Check every five minutes or so to ensure they aren’t blackening excessively, and flip with a pair of tongs. When ready they should be softened and just starting to char.
3. Transfer the tomatoes and onion wedges to a blender. Remove the garlic from their peels and add the cloves. Add the chipotle chiles and additional adobo sauce to taste. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt.
4. Blend for several minutes on high speed until uniform and mostly smooth. Taste and add more salt (or adobo) if you prefer.
1 ¼ lbs (570g) tomatillos, husks removed
5–6 poblano peppers, stems and seeds removed and halved
2 jalapeño or serrano chiles, stems and seeds removed and halved
1 white onion, peeled and cut into wedges
3 garlic cloves, kept in their peels
1 large handful cilantro (coriander)
Juice of 1 lime
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1. Heat your oven’s broiler (grill) to high. On a foil-lined baking sheet, arrange the tomatillos, poblano pepper halves, jalapeño (or serrano) halves, white onion wedges, and garlic cloves.
2. Broil (grill) for 15–20 minutes. Check every five minutes or so to ensure none of the ingredients are blackening excessively, and flip with a pair of tongs. When ready the tomatillos and peppers should be softened and just starting to char.
3. Remove from the oven. Transfer the tomatillos and onions to a blender; remove the garlic from their peels and add. Once cool enough to handle, peel the skin off the peppers (optional) and add to the blender, along with the cilantro (coriander), lime juice, and salt.
4. Blend for several minutes on high speed until uniform and mostly smooth. Taste and add more salt if you prefer.
Quick-Pickled Red Onions
1 large red onion
⅓ cup (75ml) apple cider vinegar
⅓ cup (75ml) rice vinegar
Scant ¼ cup (50ml) water
½ tablespoon sugar
½ tablespoon fine sea salt
2 bay leaves, fresh or dried
1 ½ teaspoons white peppercorns
1 ½ teaspoons cumin seeds
1 ½ teaspoons Mexican oregano
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1. Peel and halve the red onion, and slice thinly. Set aside.
2. Place all the remaining ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Meanwhile, add the onion slices to a large, sterilized glass jar with a tight-sealing lid.
3. As soon as the mixture is boiling, remove from the heat. Carefully pour the pickling mixture over the onions. Let sit on the counter until the jar reaches room temperature, then seal and chill for at least 2 hours, and preferably overnight, before using.
8 ears sweet corn, shucked
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
1 3.5-oz (100g) block queso fresco (or feta), crumbled
Freshly grated queso cotija (or Parmigiano Reggiano)
Ancho chile powder
8 lime wedges
1. Prepare your grill. Light a chimney of charcoal; once lit, set up direct and indirect zones. Cook the corn for roughly 10 minutes on indirect heat, turning frequently. Transfer to direct heat and cook for an additional 4–5 minutes, or until lightly charred all over.
2. While the corn is grilling, mix the mayonnaise and sour cream together in a bowl. Add in the crumbled queso fresco or feta, and stir to mix.
3. When the corn is done, slather the mayonnaise mixture over each ear. Sprinkle evenly with queso cotija (or Parmigiano Reggiano) and chile powder. Squeeze over a lime wedge just before eating.
Josh’s Sweet Potato Tacos with Cashew Salsa and Quail Eggs
For the sweet potatoes:
2 medium sweet potatoes
1–2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus additional
For the cashew salsa (adapted from Breddos Tacos: The Cookbook):
7oz (200g) salted cashews
4 tablespoons chipotle salsa
4 tablespoons water
Juice of 1–2 limes, to taste
Fine sea salt, to taste (optional)
6 quail eggs
Fine sea salt
Queso fresco or feta
Pickled onions (optional)
2 limes, quartered (optional)
1. First, roast the sweet potatoes. Preheat the oven to 395° Fahrenheit (200° Celsius). Leave the potatoes whole and unpeeled, but poke all over with a fork to help them steam. Transfer to a foil-lined baking sheet and roast for approximately 40–45 minutes, or until softened. Remove from the oven and leave until cool enough to handle.
2. Meanwhile, make the cashew salsa. Add the cashews to a dry frying pan and place over medium-high heat. Cook for approximately 2 minutes, until aromatic and lightly toasted. Transfer to a food processor, along with the remaining ingredients, and pulse until the salsa is rough and has the consistency of wholegrain mustard. Add more lime juice or salt if necessary. Set aside.
3. When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skin and cut into roughly ½-inch-thick, 1-inch-long pieces. Add the vegetable oil to your saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the sweet potatoes. Cook for approximately 8–10 minutes, turning regularly, or until golden brown and slightly crisp on all sides. (Alternatively, if the grill is ready, cook for 3–5 minutes over indirect heat until golden-brown).
4. Transfer the sweet potatoes to a plate. Return the frying pan to the heat, and add an additional glug of oil, if necessary. Once hot, crack the quail eggs into the pan and season with a pinch of salt. Fry for 2–3 minutes, or until the edges are well crisped but the yolk is still soft. Remove from the heat.
5. To assemble the tacos, take a warm tortilla and spread a dollop of cashew salsa as a base layer. Top with sweet potato pieces and a fried quail egg. Finish with a drizzle of chipotle salsa, and crumbled cheese, pickled onions, and a squeeze of lime juice, if you prefer.