We have watched other cities around us haul in the flavours in Mexico like a kidnapped cactus. They dump the flaming, piquant flavours in their frosty cities, and the gringos slurp them up like they’ve never had a chilli with citrus in their life. And yet, here, in the middle of the desert, with a substantial sub-continetal demographic that probably had fire in their Farax, it’s taken an extra five years. Baffling.
We always had Maria Bonitas, I suppose. A gentle taco house with decent fish burritos and the old guacamole-made-at-the-table experience, a consistently broken air-conditioner and ancient mexican black and white comedies flickering on the tube in the corner. But now, we have a little class, and this ranges from a blend of traditional with Dubai tastes, to a Cuban/New York knock-off.
Fuego opened its doors a couple of months ago, but since the arrival of the liquor licence, have seen a surge in popularity in recent weeks. They have a superb range of drinks – long margaritas in enormous jars being my favourite, but also 35 tequilas, plus some extra Mezcal and tequila-based liqueurs, and some crazy additions like the “el Dr. Fuego” – a twist on the Michelada mentioned below. For those who think red wine and fruit juice is a winning combination, they also make a mean Sangria, which comes in gargantuan proportions.
Besides all that lovely booze, they are aiming at the traditional segment. You will find Fajitas, and some regional must-haves (like steak and ceviche) that have been kept within a Latin American style, but that’s as far as they stray. If you want some real Mexican food (like I mention below), this has become the go-to place in Dubai. Look out for the Jamaica, which compares to our own regional karkade hibiscus drink, and to eat, try chile relleno, pozole blanco, nopalitos salad, frijoles charroz and tamales. For dessert, have sopapilla or tres leches cake, or veer from the classics and try some mango sorbet with chilli – it’s silky, sweet, and has a secret kick that only arrives at the end of the mouthful.
The atmosphere is sleek and dark, with vibrant mood lighting. Waiters are quiet, friendly and moderately efficient. If you order the guacamole, it’s served Maria-Bonita style by tiny be-gloved waitresses carrying a two-tonne molcajete. Prices are reasonable considering its prestigious Souk al Bahar location. Also open for snacks and drinks if you’d prefer to perch at the bar.www.fuego.ae T: +971 4 4490977 Upper level, Souk al Bahar Downtown Dubai Mall Open every day, midday until late
If you are going for Tex Mex, then Cafe Habana is the opening for you. It’s a couple of months older than Fuego, and it’s just across the hall at Souk al Bahar. It’s almost the antithesis of Fuego, being an obvious deviation from tradition and an amalgam of the various Latin American things that New Yorkers think are cool. It’s a little confusing, with it’s Mexicali menu and Cuban name, and the Salsa on the airwaves and the massive portrait of Che over the DJ booth don’t help you find your bearings. It’s actually a franchise of the New York cafe, which was in fact a copy of a restaurant in Mexico City that used to have several dubious diners, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, who allegedly plotted the revolution over the tablecloth and a bowl of frijoles refritos.
Cafe Habana is pretty, with its faux-aged wooden bar, tesselated tile floor and bentwood chairs, but I just wish their service staff could get it together (at least they look good). It’s got potential, but only if you’re prepared to wait… And wait… And wait… just to get delivered someone else’s meal. But the food is decent, particularly the corn, which arrives street-food style, coated in delicious salty cottage cheese and flecks of charcoal off the grill. The rest of the food is pretty standard tex-mex, with little excitement. There’s a decent cucumber daiquiri on the cocktail menu and a couple of odd-ball Mexican beers, a depressing winelist and a lacklustre selection of mocktails compared to the non-alcoholic drinks next-door. Bar pricing is similar to Fuego, with drinks hovering around 50AED, and the food just marginally cheaper – snacks around 30AED, mains from 60.www.habana-dubai.com T: +971 4 422 2620 Upper level, Souk al Bahar Downtown Dubai Mall Open every day, midday until late
Other Mexican restaurants in dubai include:
- Cactus Cantina – been open for ages in the Chelsea Plaza in Satwa. Tex Mex, mixed reviews. Good 2-for-1 deal on Fridays
- Cactus Jack’s – Another old timer, at the Millenium Airport. Tex Mex, latino band and reasonably priced drinks means it gets some praise.
- Casa Maria – younger sister to Maria Bonita as mentioned above. Decent food. No booze.
- Loca – A couple of years old, and at the atmospheric DXB Marine Resort. Tex mex, high energy, fun. Food is hit and miss, but can be very good.
- Maya – has recently had a fit-out, and is now probably one of the better ambiances when it comes to Mexican dining. Some more authentic Mexican mixed into the standard favourites. Famous for churros, good looking staff and high prices.
There are some food court and American Chains that I have not included, but as you can see, Dubai has been screaming out for a little more Mexican. I’m sure we will see further openings. But who knows what vein they will be in. Mexican food has been embraced in other parts of the world in different ways. London loves the food cart, and eat-in-hand street-food style. Australia has chosen their trend – casual with a traditional twist. Our demographic may suggest something entirely different. Maybe gold plated and glitzy, or Indo-Aztec? Who knows? All I can say is that I want to see more of it, but please don’t give it to me all the same way.
And finally, your guide to Mexican food…
For those looking for a guide to Mexican dishes (because it seems every menu is printed in Spanish, and waiter translations can be less than perfect), these are some of the traditional goodies to look out for:
Bread that comes in various forms and folds:
- Taco – a folded tortilla. Can be soft, crisp-fried, wheat or corn.
- Burrito – similar to a taco, but rolled around shawarma or souvlaki style.
- Quesadilla – folded tortilla, lightly stuffed and then cooked so the cheese (queso) melts through
- Sincronizada – similar to a quesadilla, but two tortillas sandwiching a range of ingredients that must include ham and cheese.
- Faluta – a thin, rolled, flute-shaped taco – crisp-fried.
- Enchilada – rolled soft tortilla, filled with almost anything, and then coated in tomato sauce and sometimes cheese. Called enmoladas when served with mole.
- Guarache – like an open taco or a mexican pizza, with salsa, onions, beef or tongue, coriander, chilli and cheese.
Other bread-like dishes:
- Gordita – similar to pupusa, a corn cake stuffed with meat and cheese, sometimes beans, and then baked or deep fried.
- Tamal or tamale – a pie – usually steamed but sometimes baked, with a bread crust. Filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, chilies (or anything really)
- Pambazo – a soft and saucy white bread roll, usually filled with potatoes and chorizo and lettuce.
- Cemita – a sesame crusted soft white roll similar to brioche, again usually filled with meat and cheese, but sometimes prepared sweeter and eaten like a cake.
Meat and Cheese
Meat was traditionally difficult to obtain in Mexico, and beans were the protein provider. In some areas grasshoppers, turtle eggs and iguana were eaten. When the Spanish arrived however, they introduced the concept of livestock, and now pork has become the meat of choice. Livestock of course also brought cheese to the cuisine. And before you get excited, “mole” refers to a full flavoured sauce. If rodents are your thing, pop over to Peru for guinea pig on a stick.
- Chicharrón – fried pork rinds
- Barbacoa – South american barbecue, a slow-cooking process over hot coals. Meat very tender and pulls apart with the fingers.
- Pozole – a soupy stew with maize, usually made with pork, sometimes chicken. Legend has it that this soup originally contained human meat before cannabalism was banned. But don’t let that put you off…
Most popular cheeses
- Queso Fresco – a fresh crumbly cheese similar to feta
- Oaxaca – a state and a mozzerella-like cheese perfect for melting
- Queso seco, a cheese similar to parmesan, and great for topping most dishes.
The main vegetable used is beans, which is served either as the side or the protein component of a main meal. Side vegetables on a Mexican family dinner plate are usually of the squash family . Look on menus for:
- frijoles refritos – “well-cooked beans”, soft and mashed pinto, black or red beans, also known (incorrectly) as refried beans. And frijoles charroz – “cowboy beans”, served as a soupy stew with onions, spices and bacon.
- pico de gallo – or salsa fresca. Tomato, onion and chili. Can have other ingredients.
- guacamole – was invented by the Aztecs in the C16th. Only needs to contain avocado and salt, but most recipes now call for tomato, onion, garlic, lime juice, chili and coriander.
- huauzontle – a green leafy vegetable similar to a leggy broccoli
- Jícama – sweet potato/turnip-like root vegetable. Great as chips.
- Cactus – nopalito (prickly pear) is the main one, usually served cold in a pickled salad. Roasted Agave hearts were commonly eaten before corn was cultivated (1200BC), but it’s rare to find them on a menu now.
- Corn – apart from being nixtamalized and made into flour, it is also served as a vegetable, usually barbecued or steamed and flavoured with lime and salt.
Then of course, there is chilli (yes, chili is also a correct spelling). In the 16th century, Bartolomé de las Casas wrote that without chili peppers, the indigenous people did not think they were eating.
- chile relleno – stuffed mild chilli peppers – usually with meat, sometimes with tuna, cheese or maize (during lent when meat is avoided), and usually coated in an eggwash or cornmeal and fried. Served with tomato sauce.
kinds of chilli –
- Habaneros – cursingly hot. Fruity
- De Arbol – stinking hot, very little other flavour
- Serrano – very hot, herby
- Jalapeno -moderately hot, sweet and herby
- Chipotle – smoked jalapeno. Awesome.
- Morito – tiny jalapeno, often used for chipotle
- Guajillo – quite hot and sweet
- Chilaca – medium heat, full flavoured. When dried, called Pasilla chilli, which is the form you will more commonly find it in.
- Pasilla de Oaxaca – smoked chilaca used in mole negro, a superb black sauce.
- Poblano – large and mild chilli, often used for stuffing.
- Ancho – dried poblano
- Bizcochitos – a lard or butter biscuit flavoured with anise and cinnamon. Also look for Polvorón, which are crumbly, pecan flavoured biscuit balls.
- Sopapilla – a deep-fried puff pastry covered with sugar and drowned in sauce
- Cajeta – similar to dulce de leche, usually made with goats milk.
- Mexican Flan – basically a large creme caramel.
- Tres Leches cake – a sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk (evaporated, condensed and whole milk)
- Concha – sweet bread with a sugary crust inspired by the French in the 19thC.
- And then of course there’s fruit – look for papaya, sapote, mango, guava, coconut, custard apple (cherimoya) and banana.
- horchata – a rice milk often flavoured with almonds. Can be made with tiger-nuts.
- Jamaica – hibiscus syrup drink
- Aguas frescas – or fresh waters, are non-alcoholic cocktails of fruits, seeds and spices.
- Chocolate: xocoatl was traditionally a drink flavoured with chili, vanilla and achiote (similar to nutmeg). The Spanish were the ones to add sugar, and now you’ll more commonly find it with added cinnamon and without chilli.
- Atole – a hot porridgy corn-based drink, sweetened, and often spiced with cinnamon and/or chocolate
- Mezcal – Agave based distilled beverage. Tequila is a kind of mezcal, only made from the blue agave.
- Michelada – a beer and spice based cocktail with a salt rim. Traditionally served to the hung-over
- Margarita – a Mexican twist on the “daisy”, a brandy based Irish cocktail (Margarita is spanish for daisy), with tequila, lime and citrus liqueur. Always with salt around the rim of the glass. Can be served over the rocks, straight up or slushed.
This originated in Texas a couple of centuries ago, believed to have been created by the Tejano people (Texan Mexicans). This started to happen a couple of hundrd years ago as borders between Mexico and USA shifted. As with many travelling cuisines, it came about within both a desire to please the local palate, and an exposure to a different set of ingredients. The term Tex Mex has now loosely evolved to include what most would consider to be simple, fast-food in a Mexican style – almost anything with a Mexican flavour that has been developed to feed international tastes. It’s not necessarily sub-standard food, but if you spot more than a couple of these on a menu, that’s a giveaway that they are veering from tradition, and you’re less likely to find the more classic dishes as mentioned above.
- Fajitas – strips of meat served on or in a tortilla with cheese and spices.
- Chimichangas – translated from Spanish, this means “thingamajig” and is a deep fried burrito. Ugh.
- Chilli con carne – chilli, tomato, beans and meat. Usually served with rice.
- Nachos – tortilla chips (tostada) are traditional, but serving them with salsa and cheese isn’t particularly. They were invented in Mexico by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya in the 1940s, but close enough to the US border to run over some takeout. (Piedras Negras)
- Jalapeno poppers – similar to chile relleno, but usually with wheat breadcrumbs rather than cornmeal, orange plastic cheese, and without the sauce.