Restaurant review: El Cartel

Restaurant review: El Cartel

El Cartel is back from the dead, following a disastrous kitchen fire and lengthy refurb

There’s something folkloric about the tale of El Cartel which perfectly suits this taqueria’s atmosphere. A young, vivacious upstart, cruelly cut down in its prime by fire and smoke. There were tears, sadness and mourning for a time, but then whispers began to circulate of a ghostly reappearance, briefly tempting the pining locals before disappearing once more into the mist. Then finally, after travails in the afterlife, back it came – full of life, music, tacos and tequila, welcoming back the ones who loved it and cementing its status in local legend.

From the team behind The Bon Vivant and The Devil’s Advocate, El Cartel gave the capital’s insipid Mexican scene a welcome shot in the arm when it opened in November 2014. In its dark and sexy Thistle Street bolthole, it shunned tired Tex-Mex clichés in favour of more traditional Mexican street-food flavours. But then came that kitchen fire of January 2015, which forced the place to close before it really got going. An occasional pop-up at sister venue Pep & Fodder kept keen followers sated while work took place on the fire-damaged restaurant, a lengthy process keenly monitored on social media networks, building anticipation rare in Edinburgh’s somewhat here-today-gone-tomorrow restaurant scene.

Happily, it has been worth the wait: El Cartel is everything you’d want and expect from a contemporary taqueria. Fresh, soft tacos are handmade from Mexican flour, formed into small tasty pockets that can be consumed in just a couple of bites – no cutlery required. This is messy food, best shared with a friend or four so you can work your way through the compact menu. A handful of starters include zingy salmon ceviche; sumptuous corn on the cob with crema and tangy cheese; and guacamole served with pomegranate seeds and plantain chips in place of the more familiar nachos. Then there’s the tacos, where specials span interesting and delicious choices such as ox tongue or monkfish, alongside stalwarts like cochinita pibil (sprightly, slow-roasted pork with red onion escabeche) and the equally fine fish tacos, lightly battered fillets with Mexican slaw.

The surroundings match the El Cartel spirit, where old-school hip-hop beats provide a bounce, the no-reservations policy gives a spontaneous vibe and the decor is dark and skeletal – thankfully with a Dia de Muertos, rather than gothic, vibe. When it comes to the drinks, page after page of tequila and mezcal form the backbone of the offer. There are token nods to beer and wine, but blue agave is the star of the show in all things from a tequila negroni to a wide choice of añejo tequila – to be sipped, of course, not shot.

Concise taco menu; expansive tequila list
- You can’t book – but you can always have a drink in The Bon Vivant while you wait

Average price of a two-course meal: £12 (lunch/dinner).

El Cartel New Town

64 Thistle Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1EN

Mexican street food with frozen cocktails and a long list of tequilas and mezcals. Walk-ins only.