Restaurant review

Mexican joint Loco Rita’s in Dundee misses the point

Our visit to Dundee’s vegan Mexican restaurant, Loco Rita, coincided with World Vegan Day (November 1) as well as celebrations marking Mexican Day of the Dead.

However, events marking the progress of veganism or honoring deceased souls with wild parties hadn’t quite reached Dundee on the rainy Monday evening we ventured into – Loco Rita was rather dead, but not in a celebratory way.

There was only one other dining table and the atmosphere was as far from a carnival as you can imagine.

Although the restaurant was empty, we were shown a small table against the wall and right next to the kitchen bar, while much more attractive and spacious booths were empty.

It’s one of my pet peeves. If a restaurant is full or will fill up later, I fully respect that the best larger tables will be reserved for larger parties. It is as it should be.

At Loco Rita.

But when a place is empty, why only show new customers the worst table in
the House?

On this occasion, I think it really hadn’t occurred to our brilliant waiter that the choice of table could enhance the dining experience. This is something fundamental to know.

We have moved.

Loco Rita’s should be applauded for embracing veganism and for translating some Mexican “classics” into plant-based products. What they do is an asset to Dundee, and I know many vegans will appreciate the fact that it exists. Me too.

However, I have to say it just wasn’t for me.

Seating inside the restaurant.

It’s not because I don’t like vegetarian and vegan food. I do, and most of my cooking at home comes from great cookbooks like The Greens Cookbook by Deborah Madison and The River Cafe Cookbook Green.

For Mexican cuisine, the books of Thomasina Miers, inspired by her brilliant restaurant chain Wahaca, are never far from my reach. All contain many excellent vegetarian recipes.

Like many of us these days, I don’t need meat on my plate to feel like I’ve eaten a balanced meal, and in fact my favorite dish is probably a very simple dal.

So, I really wanted to like Loco Rita’s, not least because I’m sure there could be easier ways to make money than opening a vegan Mexican canteen in Dundee – even though the space is in a student territory of choice.

Outside the restaurant.

The exterior of the restaurant is a festival of colors, dayglo animals and Basquiat-like crowns.

I wish this lively street art theme had continued inside, but instead it’s mostly drab brown paneling, naive art on the walls, a bit of streamers and three rather awkwardly placed sombreros on a counter as if a passing tourist had just forgotten about them.

It might fit the vibe of the place – we were in and out in an hour as the food came quickly and we didn’t feel like lingering – but that doesn’t really scream Mexico to me.

Had they been more influenced by Mexican architect Luis Barragan’s bold use of color on the interior, the whole experience would have been quite different, although I’m sure the joint pops on a Friday night.

But even in the midst of the Day of the Dead festivities, I have to say the dead didn’t dance much here, though the music echoing through space might have encouraged a few dads to do so.

I ate a lot of Mexican food this week, and not just because of this column.

First, I had a really good box of food delivered by London’s El Pastor restaurant group, which aims to bring a slice of Mexico to London (and now across the country with these boxes).

I received their Taco Party box (from £22) which had everything needed to assemble and cook a great Mexican feast.

Even Margaritas were included. My favorites from the box were the delicious lamb barbacoa, tuna tostadas, cochinita pibil and refritos. The herb guacamole tasted remarkably fresh, considering it had traveled 500 miles to my doorstep.

So far, so Mexican.

My next Mexican experience was the excellent Taco Libre in Edinburgh where the fish tacos (£8) were exemplary and the chilli relleno (£6) was a delicious vegetarian addition to my order.

My favorite Mexican hit of the week, however, still comes from the surprisingly reliable Wahaca, the chain that has done more than anyone to bring remarkably authentic Mexican cuisine to the mainstream. Until they open on Tayside I’m afraid you’ll have to head to Edinburgh for that fresh, tasty taste of Mexico.

If you can’t make it to the capital, any of the Wahaca cookbooks are perfect for creating this delicious dish at home – my current favorite is Wahaca; Mexican food at home.

I worked with Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers in 2015 when she hosted a Wahaca festival in London to celebrate the Day of the Dead and I can totally attest to her commitment to bringing the authentic flavors of this special country to our ribs.

I can also confirm that Savages and The Horrors make a great soundtrack to celebrate the dead and that Mexrrissey was indeed a Mexican supergroup united in their love of Morrissey
from Manchester.

Their Latino reinterpretations of its earlier catalog might have convinced many carnivores that meat is indeed murder.

Back in Dundee, the menu at Loco Rita’s strives to make vegan Mexican food something that won’t scare off horses.

There’s a lot of talk about the fact that this vegan food isn’t just for vegans, and dishes are often named after their closest meat counterparts, which is both understandable but also a bit annoying.

I think one of the things that holds vegetarian food back is some people’s desire to make sure things taste like meat so a Portobello mushroom is described as “meaty” an Engevita yeast enriched sauce would have a beef and jackfruit taste would taste and feel like pork.


The food

Here at Loco Rita the best thing we ate was, I believe, a brand new addition to a menu which included a ‘cheeseburger’, ‘chorizo’ and ribs – our crispy prawn dish (£6, 50) was a not unconvincing shrimp substitute that came with a chipotle marie rose sauce and pickled cucumber.

It would have been excellent served in a bun too.

Crispy shrimp tacos.

Crispy cauliflower wings (£6) are served with one of five sauces that get hotter the longer you look at the menu. Our lime cream was sweeter, but the problem was that the cauliflower had no taste.

I mean, it didn’t even taste like cauliflower, and it was so under-seasoned that I had to go get some salt.

Our quesadilla (£6.50) was ok but a little boiled, really – and annoyed that everything we ordered arrived at the same time so everything went lukewarm as we tried to try everything. The jackfruit birria (£6.50) was a pretty compelling meat substitute, if that’s what you’re looking for.

The quesadilla.

We ended up with churros and vegan ice cream (£6), the good churros and sugar and water tasting ice cream,
without depth.

The service was good and friendly, if a bit indifferent. We left without a trace.

Funnily enough the whole experience reminded me of their sister restaurant Mas on Dundee’s Perth Road which so many people love but which I just haven’t connected with.
Mexican food is so much more than soggy, stuffed burritos or greasy, unimaginative quesadillas.

It seems to me that a large percentage of Mexican restaurants in the UK offer the basics of what people expect from Mexican food – burritos, tacos, nachos, enchiladas, quesadillas and fajitas.

A selection of dishes.

While it’s true that all of these dishes are standard Mexican dishes, creating them often requires very little finesse or care.

Food is such an important part of Mexico’s culture and traditions, from molé to honor a special occasion to tamales at Christmas.

Sauces are an integral part of Mexican cuisine and they are not used to dress up a bland meal but to enhance the flavors of key ingredients. Lots of authentic

Mexican dishes are defined by the sauces that accompany them.

Jackfruit birria.

Sometimes I just feel like a lot of what passes for Mexican food in the UK is reductive.

For example, in many parts of the United States and Mexico, when ordering a burrito, you can choose to have it “wet” or “dry”.

“Wet” is a term used to describe a mildly spiced enchilada-like sauce poured over the burrito and then smothered in shredded, melted cheese. It’s way more delicious than throwing the burrito on the grill to crisp the flour tortilla.

Neon signage indoors.

It is true that finding authentic Mexican ingredients is often difficult in the UK and that is why many Mexican restaurants make substitutes which significantly alter the taste and quality of the dish.

British Mexican dishes usually involve a sad little pot of pico de gallo and most places offer a decent red salsa, but that’s nowhere near enough for a cuisine that has suffered more than most from a cut-off attitude.


The verdict

The answer is to demand better. Loco Rita’s aims to offer something different, and it’s to its credit.

The food was good, with the vegan “shrimp” looking pretty good, but I didn’t leave feeling that vegan Mexican food was what I had been looking for all my life.

I’ll keep looking, but for now I think the best Mexican food I’ll find here will be the one I create myself using ingredients ordered online.

My own kitchen, Wahaca in Edinburgh, and box deliveries from El Pastor (via dishpatch.co.uk) will help as the search for a great Mexican continues.


Information

Address: Loco Rita’s, 21/23 Old Hawkhill, Dundee, DD1 5EU

P: 01382 936387
W: www.locoritas.com

Price: Main courses from £5.50 (half price tacos on Tuesdays) Dessert from £5.50

Scoring:

  • Food: 3/5
  • Performance: 3/5
  • Surroundings: 2/5

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