A strict adherence to authentic ingredients transports the flavours of Mexico City to Brighton. Andy Lynes reports.
The pandemic almost killed off Mexican restaurant Tlaloc before it had a chance to begin.
Launched in 2018 by Mexican-born entrepreneurs Daniel Corrales Arias and Joan Bufi Mengual and named after a Mexican rain god, Tlaloc's first incarnation, as a twice-weekly, evenings-only taco pop-up in a backstreet café in central Brighton, was ended by the first lockdown. A gig offering a short menu at the city's Golden Pineapple cocktail bar from a tiny kitchen was a victim of the winter lockdown.
But in January this year, salvation arrived with a call from the general manager of the Selina hotel on Brighton's seafront, who had eaten at the Golden Pineapple and was looking to make a change to the hotel's casual taco concept. One business proposal later, Tlaloc took on a three-year lease and started trading in May. The partners persuaded friend and chef Diego Ledezma (from Mexico City and a former sous at 64 Degrees, Michael Bremner's small plates restaurant in Brighton) to abandon plans to relocate to Germany and was brought on board as head chef.
"Customers say they've never had these flavours before, that they've never tried Mexican food like this in England, so we want to keep pushing and introducing our culture," says Ledezma. The chef heads up a brigade of four and, when The Caterer visits, was interviewing for two more chefs for the 48-cover restaurant.
Customers say they've never had these flavours before, that they've never tried Mexican food like this in England
The à la carte dinner menu, with five starters, five main courses and two desserts, has remained broadly the same since the restaurant's launch. Seasonal changes have been made when necessary, such as substituting rainbow chard for wasabina (mustard leaf) to accompany pressed pork belly mole ranchero (£13).
The restaurant has recently become a seven-day-a-week operation and now serves food all day, with a ‘Seaside' menu available from 9.30am-2.30pm that includes a cured salmon tostada with guajillo hollandaise (£11) and a ‘Happy Hour' menu from 3pm to 5pm, which includes two oysters and a glass of Ridgeview English sparkling wine for £15. The restaurant is already serving up to 120 covers a day and is targeting 60 in the daytime and 100 at night.
One of Tlaloc's best-selling dishes is an octopus taco (£12), a seafood take on the classic al pastor made with pork. Ledezma cooks a 4kg-5kg Spanish octopus in boiling water for 45 minutes, and then marinates it in a paste made with guajillo and ancho chillies (all the dried chillies are imported from Mexico), garlic and salt. The octopus is then portioned, chargrilled and served in homemade corn tortillas topped with pineapple butter, pineapple salsa, onion and coriander, with lime on the side.
Ledezma says his aim is to emulate "how we really eat in Mexico", but that doesn't necessarily mean using Mexican ingredients. For example, he refuses to use any tinned goods, and has developed an ingenious way of replicating the flavour of tomatillo, the green tomato-like fruit: "Fermenting green bell peppers for one week and mixing with jalapeño gives us a flavour close to a tomatillo. Now we are fermenting a lot of chillies to try and get close to other flavours."
There are also no avocados on Tlaloc's menus (partly due to the difficulty in obtaining ripe fruits and partly due to ethical issues surrounding the way they are grown) so instead of guacamole, Ledezma serves sikil p'ak (£8), a roasted pumpkin seed dip from Yucatan made with a guajillo chillies and ‘tatemada', or blistered tomatoes, red onion and garlic charred on a comal, a cast-iron Mexican flat griddle pan. The dip is served with tostadas (deep-fried tortillas).
Ledezma does, however, use imported avocado leaves in the aforementioned mole, along with arbol, guajillo, ancho, pasilla, chipotle and jalapeño chillies, sesame seeds and dark chocolate. Skinned and deboned pork belly is cooked for eight hours with the same chillies as those in the sauce, along with onion, thyme, black pepper and more avocado leaves. The pork is then served with the sauce, kujo negi (a Japanese spring onion supplied by Namayasai farm in nearby Lewes) and wasabina.
"We serve all our main dishes with tortillas," says Ledezma, "so you can feel free to make a taco or eat them however you want – there are no rules."
Tlaloc at the Old Pier, 135 Kings Road, Brighton BN1 2HX
From the menu
- Grilled tiger prawns, confit garlic, pasilla emulsion £11
- Aguachile of monkfish, cucumber, fermented chilli gel £9
- Tetela: roasted cauliflower, pinto bean cream, queso fresco, salsa borracha £9
- Birria: braised lamb with pickled red onions £14
- Mixiote: jalapeño and ancho braised duck legs, baby veg £15
- Acapulco dream: grilled fish fillet, ‘a la talla' marinade, onion purée £16
- Tres leches: three-ways milky vanilla sponge, mascarpone cream, strawberry sorbet £8
- Chocolate and coffee tamal, amaranth brittle, chocolate sorbet £8
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