Our visit to Dundee’s vegan Mexican restaurant Loco Rita’s happened to coincide with World Vegan Day (November 1) and also celebrations marking the Mexican Day of the Dead.
However, events marking the progress of veganism or honouring departed souls with wild parties hadn’t quite reached Dundee on the rainy Monday night we ventured out – Loco Rita’s was pretty dead, but not in a celebratory way.
There was just one other table dining and the atmosphere was as far away from a carnival as you can imagine.
Despite the restaurant being empty we were shown to a small table against the wall and right next to the bar-kitchen, while much more attractive and spacious booths sat empty.
This is a bugbear of mine. If a restaurant is full, or is going to fill up later, then I fully respect that the best-biggest tables will be reserved for larger parties. That’s as it should be.
But when a place is empty why show the only new customers to the worst table in
On this occasion I think it genuinely hadn’t occurred to our genial waiter that the choice of table might enhance the dining experience. This is something basic to know.
Loco Rita’s is to be applauded for embracing veganism and for translating some Mexican “classics” into plant-based offerings. What they’re doing is an asset for Dundee, and I know many vegans will welcome the fact it exists. I do too.
However, I have to say this just wasn’t for me.
This isn’t because I don’t love vegetarian and vegan food. I do, and most of my cooking at home is from great cookbooks like Deborah Madison’s seminal The Greens Cookbook and The River Cafe Cookbook Green.
For Mexican food, the books by Thomasina Miers, inspired by her brilliant Wahaca restaurant chain, are never far from my grasp. All contain many great vegetarian recipes.
Like so many of us these days, I don’t need flesh on my plate to make me feel like I’ve eaten a balanced meal and, in fact, probably my favourite food ever is a very simple dal.
Thus, I really wanted to love Loco Rita’s, not least because I’m sure there might be simpler ways to make money than opening a vegan Mexican cantina in Dundee – even if the space does sit in prime student territory.
The outside of the restaurant is a festival of colour, dayglo animals and Basquiat type crowns.
I wish this spirited street art theme had continued on the inside but instead it’s mainly drab brown panelling, some naïve art on the walls, a bit of bunting and three sombreros rather lamely placed on a countertop as if a passing tourist had just forgotten them.
This might fit with the feel of the place – we were in and out in an hour as the food came fast and we didn’t feel like lingering – but it doesn’t really scream Mexico to me.
Had they been influenced more by Mexican architect Luis Barragan’s bold use of colour inside the whole experience would feel quite different, although of course I’m sure the joint is jumping on a Friday night.
But even amidst festivities for the Day of the Dead I have to say that the dead weren’t dancing much here, although the music pumping out over the space might have encouraged a few dads to.
I’ve eaten a lot of Mexican food this week, and not just because of this column.
Firstly, I had a very good box of food delivered from London’s El Pastor restaurant group, who aim 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 good Mexican feast.
Even the Margaritas were included. My favourites in the box were the delicious lamb barbacoa, the tuna tostadas, the cochinita pibil and the refritos. The herbed guacamole tasted remarkably fresh, considering it had travelled 500 miles to my door.
So far, so Mexican.
My next Mexican experience was from 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 favourite Mexican hit of the week though still came from the amazingly reliable Wahaca, the chain that has done more to bring remarkably genuine Mexican food to the mainstream than anyone else. Until they open on Tayside then I’m afraid you’ll have to go to Edinburgh for this fresh and flavour-packed taste of Mexico.
If you can’t get to the capital then any of the Wahaca cookbooks are perfect for creating this delicious food at home – my current favourite is Wahaca; Mexican Food at Home.
I worked with Wahaca’s founder Thomasina Miers in 2015 when she staged a Wahaca festival in London to celebrate the Day of the Dead and I can totally vouch for her commitment to bringing the authentic flavours of this special country to our shores.
I can also confirm that Savages and The Horrors make an excellent soundtrack to celebrate the dead and that Mexrrissey were indeed a Mexican supergroup united in their love of Morrissey
Their Latino reinterpretations of his back catalogue might once have convinced many carnivores that meat is indeed murder.
Back in Dundee, the menu at Loco Rita’s is at pains to make vegan Mexican food something that won’t scare the horses.
Much is made of the fact that this vegan food isn’t just for vegans, and dishes are often named after their nearest meat equivalents, which is both understandable but also a bit annoying.
I feel that one of the things holding vegetarian food back is the desire in some quarters to assure you that things taste like meat, so a Portobello mushroom is described as “meaty”, an Engevita yeast-enriched gravy is said to taste beefy and jackfruit allegedly tastes and feels like pork.
Here in Loco Rita’s the best thing we ate was, I believe, quite a new addition to a menu that included a “cheeseburger”, “chorizo” and elote ribs – our dish of crispy shrimpz (£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.
The crispy cauliflower wings (£6) are served with one of five sauces that get increasingly hot as you look down the menu. Our lime crema was milder but the issue is that the cauliflower didn’t taste of anything.
I mean, it didn’t even taste of cauliflower, and it was so under-seasoned that I had to go in search of some salt.
Our quesadilla (£6.50) was OK but a bit of a mushness, really – and hampered by the fact that everything we ordered came at the same time so it all became lukewarm as we attempted to try everything. The jackfruit birria (£6.50) was a pretty convincing meat substitute, should that be what you’re looking for.
We finished with churros and vegan ice cream (£6), the churros good and the ice cream tasting of sugar and water,
with no depth.
Service was fine and friendly, if a bit unbothered. We left without trace.
Funnily enough the whole experience reminded me of their sister restaurant Mas on Dundee’s Perth Road, which so many people love but I just didn’t connect with.
Mexican food is so much more than soggy, overstuffed burritos or greasy, unimaginative quesadillas.
It seems to me that a large percentage of the Mexican restaurants in the UK offer the bare basics of what people expect Mexican food to be – burritos, tacos, nachos, enchiladas, quesadillas and fajitas.
While it’s true that all these dishes are standard Mexican fare, often very little finesse or care goes into creating them.
Food is such an important part of the culture and traditions of Mexico, from molé to honour a special occasion to tamales at Christmas.
Sauces are an integral part of Mexican cuisine and they are used not to dress up a bland meal but to enhance the flavours of key ingredients. Many authentic
Mexican dishes are defined by their accompanying sauces.
Sometimes I just feel that so much of what passes for Mexican food in the UK is reductive.
For example, in many parts of the US and Mexico, when you order a burrito you can choose to have it either “wet” or “dry”.
“Wet” is a term used to describe a mildly spicy, enchilada-type sauce, poured over the burrito and then smothered in grated, melted cheese. This is far more delicious than throwing the burrito on the grill to crisp-up the flour tortilla wrap.
It’s true that finding authentic Mexican ingredients is often difficult in the UK and this is why many Mexican restaurants make substitutes which dramatically alter the taste and quality of the dish.
UK Mexican fare will usually involve a sad little pot of pico de gallo and most places will come up with a decent red salsa, but this is far from adequate for a cuisine which has suffered more than most from a reductive attitude.
The answer is to demand better. Loco Rita’s is aiming to provide something different, and that is to their huge credit.
The food was fine, with the vegan “shrimp” tasting pretty good, but I didn’t leave there thinking that vegan Mexican food was what I’d been searching for all my life.
I’ll keep looking but right now I feel that the best Mexican food I will get around here will be that which 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 while the search for a great Mexican continues.
Address: Loco Rita’s, 21/23 Old Hawkhill, Dundee, DD1 5EU
T: 01382 936387
Price: Main dishes from £5.50 (half price tacos on Tuesdays) Dessert from £5.50
- Food: 3/5
- Service: 3/5
- Surroundings: 2/5