Good Mexican recipes don't have names – they’re simply “what your grandmother used to cook for you”, Barbara Nicauz, chef at new Russian Market eatery Alma Cafe, told me over an indulgent breakfast.
I learned to associate Tex Mex with a kind of pathetic tragedy early in life. It was a family trip to Disneyland Paris. I had stomped and refused my mother’s entreaties to take us into the city – home of the Louvre and Picasso. It was between Tex, Café Mickey and King Ludwick’s Castle. We chose gloopy sour cream and nachos sandwiched together with cheese as plastic as the Donald Duck keychain in my sweaty little fist.
And so the glowing neon Tex Mex sign hangs heavy over the culinary tradition of Mesoamerica. Cities the world over are packed with tacquierias touting a tepid assortment of dishes – none resembling what’s actually on the tables of Mexico City. (Disclaimer: I have never been, for all I know they could be happily munching on microwaved Chimmychangas in the ciudades perdidas – though Once Upon a Time in Mexico would suggest otherwise.)
Not so Alma, which specialises in hearty home-cooking. Sadly, the place doesn’t get its name from a fiery mamacita – the word means ‘soul’ in Spanish. Alma makes “Mexican soul food”, said charming mamacita stand-in Barbara (from Acapulco via New York City).
The place – barely a month old – is on the corner of a residential neighbourhood. A stick man in a multi-coloured cape and a mariachi hat stands guard at the entrance. There’s a teapot on the counter with little cardboard handlebar mustaches, handed out to each table at the end of the meal.
The whole setup exudes a sense of playful comfort. Like a golden retriever, or the Beatles. On the table next to us a baby in a highchair modeled one gleefully. Faint trumpheting could be heard from the mariachi on the stereo. An earnest-looking man wandered out of the kitchen, whisk in hand.
The staff are canny marketers. My appetite was initially whetted by the menu, which changes daily, and is posted to Facebook. The feed is a delight: colourful shots of plates, from glistening oxtail stew to dense Kahlua chocolate cake, accompanied by breathless commentary (“Tres leches cake for dessert today!!!!!”) and more mustached babies.
On a recent Monday afternoon we tried carnitas with sautéd vegetables ($5, including watermelon limeade). This was the pork of dreams: soft, fatty strips oozing juice with every bite and completed with soft, creamy bean. The filling was wrapped in a handmade flour tortilla, with a doughy consistency and as absorbent as an Indian roti, with fried peppers on the side. Then some chicken empanisado (breaded, tender on the inside with a satisfying crunchy coating) with salsa, and rice pilaf (also $5).
Dessert was vanilla bean sponge ($2) – delightfully moist, and served with strawberry puree and whipped cream. Real strawberries, with real strawberry tang – syrupy, fruity joy. Plus the kind of sugary thick whipped cream that sticks to the plate and invites furtive lapping. Like a summer picnic in England.
We turned up the next morning for breakfast. So did the baby in the highchair. This is the kind of place that will attract a regular clientele.
The breakfast burrito ($4) came with choritzo, egg and potato, plus chilis – one of the few ingredients imported from Mexico, according to Barbara. Smoky, spicy and pleasantly light on the egg. French toast ($3) was thick and fluffy, sprinkled with cinnamon and drenched in syrup.
It’s cheap, too: a morning main is served with juice and unlimited mugs of coffee and cream for $3-$5. Cheap enough to leave an extra dollar for the smiley paper mustache.
(Open daily for breakfast and lunch, with dinner plans pending. #43A, Street 123/454).