Review: Real Mexican food the Mexico way
A store turns into a restaurant for proper Mexican food, not stodgy tex-mex alter egos
- Dublin 2
- (01) 4792004
Lily Ramirez-Foran has some enchilada rage to get off her chest. The Mexican dish is not a wheat tortilla with laggy filling, acrid sauce and plastic cheese, she says. Mexican food seen through the stomach of the American food industry is very different, she explains. And you know by different she means crap. It’s the rant she typically opens with at the enchilada class in Picado, her small shop on Dublin’s South Richmond Street, Dublin.
We’re here for the vegetarian supper club and it happens to be May 5th. That’s another bone to be picked.
“Do you have extra stuff for Cinco de Mayo?” she was asked recently. “It’s Mexico’s independence day.” “Well no,” she said, “it isn’t.” Mexican independence is celebrated over two days starting September 15th. But she sells a lot more tortilla chips on May 5th, which happens to be today “so happy Cinco de Mayo”, she says with a glint and a grin.
We’re sitting on brightly painted folding chairs at a long narrow table in the middle of Lily’s shop. There’s a colourful oil cloth down the length of the table and you can see the brackets where the chairs hang high up on the white wall the rest of the week when the shop is a shop. Tonight the shop is a kitchen where food, like they eat at home in Mexico, will be served rather than any stodgy tex-mex alter egos.
The wheat tortilla thing was a personal heartbreak for Lily when she first opened Picado with her husband, Alan. As the great granddaughter of a tortilla maker she thought Irish eaters would love to taste real Mexican corn tortillas so she brought them in by the box. No one knew what they were and she had to throw them away. Now eight years later that has changed. Corn tortillas sell like hot cakes.
She remembers her grandfather getting up in the middle of the night to stir a pool-sized vat of corn, slowly cooking with lime (the alkaline powder not the citrus fruit) before the corn was milled to make tortillas. Cooking corn with lime (or nixtamalisation) unlocks nutrients and softens it so it can form dough or masa. It’s a Mexican food tradition dating back thousands of years.
Lily’s grandfather would rub a kernel between finger and thumb to know precisely when it was ready. The tortillas were made and finally wrapped in stacks to be brought home. As the top one was in contact with the brown paper wrapping no one wanted to eat it. Everyone lifted it and took the next one down. “You don’t want to be the top tortilla,” Lily’s grandmother used to tell her, “everyone touches it but no one eats it.”
This is the kind of food history you hear at Picado’s monthly supper clubs. Tonight only one of the seven of us is a vegetarian. It’s Lily’s first vegetarian Mexican evening and the veg-curious are in the vast majority. The lighting is shop bright and there is no music, which feels awkward at first but rapidly warms up with a combination of food, booze and stories. Lily and Alan are the cooks in a small kitchen behind the shop counter. Beer and wine, which the diners bring, is stashed in the fridge and a house lemonade is poured.
First up Oaxacan (pronounced wuh-ha-kan) vegetarian tamal wrapped in banana leaves. We “do not eat the banana leaf”, Lily warns, although they have been cured so they won’t do us any harm. They’re more of a sandwich wrap, nature’s wax paper. Inside the waxy leaf is a pressed green paste of courgette, carrot, spinach and corn with feta cheese inside. The gentler vegetable flavours and salty cheese are given jazz hands with a drizzle of salsa Roja, which is Irish-level fiery rather than head-meltingly hot. We’re off to a delicious start.
There’s a poblano pepper, green and leathery stuffed with a mix of squash and chewy tangy hibiscus flowers. The squash is a chayote, a pale green pear-shaped squash with a delicate flavour somewhere between kohl rabi and fennel. There’s a Oaxacan black bean sauce, with proper beany depth and a small chili sting. This all comes with white rice. But the rice, Lily tells us, is “Mexican rice” steamed and then finished with buckets of butter and freshly cooked corn kernels stirred through. It’s a take home idea for how all rice will be cooked from here on in.
Dessert is a chilli and chocolate torte that’s nailed everything including the amount of spice to team with a spoon-stickingly wonderful chocolate. Promised pomegranate seeds turned out to be raspberries (thanks to a mix up with the supplier) and a tequila and strawberry sorbet is more of a slushy thanks to some rare Mexican-style temperatures outside. But by this stage in the evening no one minds. We’ve gotten to know each other, our hosts and their food. It’s been a brilliant night, an encounter with an inspiring cook and storyteller whose love for real Mexican food makes for a delicious education. Dinner for two came to €100
Verdict: Learning, laughing and eating. What’s not to love?
Vegetarian options: That night – the only option
Food Provenance: None on the menu
Wheelchair access: Yes