The Hart brothers are at it again. Having created London’s favourite tapas bar, Barrafina, they have now partnered with Sam’s old business partner, Crispin Somerville, to open the hottest Mexican joint (no, not the herbal type) in town: Tacos El Pastor. The name, of course, doesn’t leave room for confusion about what it specialises in. Without question, inspired by the ‘al pastor’ taco that’s ubiquitous on the streets of Mexico City, this taqueria is the best taco shop in town.
Like most new restaurants, there is a policy of no reservations. So, given the buzz about the place, the queue to get in can be mammoth, but they have introduced a system of texting when your table is free, so you can go off and enjoy the surrounding bars of Borough Market while you wait. The menu does include starters, a few side dishes and quesadillas but, of course, the main feature is the tacos, each attractively priced, originally at an average of £3 for one, but now two from £5.75 – £8. If you can manage it between you and another, order a plate of each.
Housed as it is in a railway arch, El Pastor’s vaulted ceilings and walls are bare brick. The narrow entrance opens up to a second room with seating and the open kitchen that’s over two floors, where the tortillas are made fresh every day from a variety of different corns. Given the narrow space, they have been clever with the seating arrangements. While there are tables and chairs in the second room, the narrow entrance doesn’t allow for them, so they’ve installed high tables and a padded bar along the wall to perch on, a not dissimilar set up to the ones you find at bus stops and some tube stations. As you’d expect from a street food centric restaurant, the food comes quickly and as soon as ready.
First to arrive was Pastor de Pescado – chargrilled stone bass topped with caramelised onions, la maya salsa, onion and coriander. This delicate balance of meaty fish on a handmade corn tortilla, mingling sweet and heat from onion and salsa, provided three bites of taco perfection.
Prawn al mojo de ajo, or prawn topped with avocado slices, onion and coriander, swiftly followed. Unfortunately, while each ingredient was perfectly cooked and fresh, the overwhelming flavour was coriander, with prawn only just breaking through occasionally and no chilli heat. The choripapa (potato and chorizo) tacos were another let down with mine having very little chorizo and no real flavour whatsoever.
Disappointment in the prawn and choripapa, did cause me sudden concern that the other tacos weren’t going to live up to the standards of the stonebass. But this fear was allayed by what has to be one of the best pieces of chicken you could hope to have. The chicken in the chicken taco is marinated in a chipotle-cumin adobo rub and then grilled to produce an astonishingly succulent piece of meat where the natural chicken flavour sings and is uplifted as it intermingles with the perfectly balanced spice of the rub and the charred flavour from the grill.
Given the Al Pastor taco sparked the idea for El Pastor, unsurprisingly it features as the lead taco on the menu. Filled with 24hr marinated pork shoulder, caramelized pineapple, guacamole taquero, white onion and coriander, one felt that, for a taco that is so central in Mexico and that spawned the concept for this taqueria, it was lacking compared to the flavour hit from the other tacos we ordered. That said, it is of course a must and, like all the tacos, the quality couldn’t be faulted even if the favour profile wasn’t quite there.
The Mushroom with its toasted pumpkin seeds, onion, coriander and chilli rub was the surprise of the meal. Both of us are fans of the mushroom taco at La Bodega Negra, but this was far superior. Despite its chilli heat, the flavour of these earthy mushrooms shined through and the toasted pumpkin seeds added a nuttiness that rounded it all off.
The Carnitas had been recommended by the waitress and was last to come. What came wasn’t a taco but a hot cast iron skillet filled with confit pork, a bowl of chopped onion, coriander and limes, a pot of salsa especial and, best of all, a pile of chicharron (or pork scratchings, as they are known to you and me) and six tortillas. This build your own taco wasn’t just great to eat but fun to-boot and, with the addition of a spoonful of the smoky salsa morita (an initial ‘on the house’ helping of this, along with salsa verde fresca and salsa mexicanan, is given to you at the start of the meal), makes for a simple yet elegant taco that I defy you not to enjoy.
Annoyingly, the tacos really are that good that the hype surrounding them and El Pastor is wholly justified. Washed down with a carafe of tequila – they have a nice selection including a smoky tasting golden tequila called Herradura Reposado – they make for a great meal, one full of atmosphere and, most importantly, clean fresh flavours and ingredients. The balance of flavours is almost always expertly achieved and with such finesse that it outstrips any other taco you are likely to find in London. While I’ll be avoiding the queues, I’ll definitely make a detour, even just for one taco, if I’m in the area.
London Lamppost Score – 4/5
Tacos El Pastor
6-7A Stoney St
London SE1 9AA
NO RESERVATIONS, WALK-INS ONLY