Picture this, dear reader: it’s mid-May and the sun is shining. We head out onto the streets of London like lemmings with a mission. It’s the fear of those rays disappearing that encourages the citizens of our fair city, and a good number of tourists, to seek gentle entertainment in the company of their families or those they actually like.
It was on such a day that we sought diversion in Santo on the Portabello Road. It’s a trendy and eclectic neighbourhood with a host of ethnic and arty shops as well as market stalls and antique stores. Crowds of people enjoying some warm weather and looking for some good food at a reasonable price. We, the lucky ones, found Santo.
This small restaurant attracts a mix of discerning locals and curious tourists. Tables outside offer perches for people-watchers, and rustic tables accommodate others inside. Brick walls and paper banners help to create the ambiance of old Mexico. Those who have travelled to that country will recognise those “papel picado” or paper doilies from restaurants, festivals and celebrations.
Santo lends a whole new meaning to the term “open kitchen”. Chef Fernando is right by the front door with his hob and work-station. The full kitchen at the back of the restaurant provides the slow-cooked ingredients but the assembly is in full view of the customers. It’s culinary theatre, and fascinating.
We settled ourselves and perused the drinks menu. Fernando has a good selection of Mexican favourites and the Margaritas are the most popular choice for the regulars here. I ordered the classic with a delicately salted rim. My companion chose a Flor de Jamaica which proved to be a rich red and fruity concoction which would encourage anyone of good taste to try just one more.
Our lunch started with a plate of lettuce garnished with scrolls of cheese, pickled peppers, tomato, black beans and Mexican rice. We didn’t have long to wait till the other dishes put in an appearance. It’s the nature of the Sunday brunch that various plates are delivered one at a time. This is an unhurried meal. One to relax over and talk of the events of the week.
The first of our array of dishes was a Torta Ahogada or “drowned sandwich”. It is a typical dish from the Mexican state of Jalisco and in particular the city of Guadalajara. This was the first time I had come across this dish even though I often eat Mexican food in London. It’s a spicy combination of crusty bread, pork as filling and lots of sauce. A messy business if one was to eat it by hand as istypical at Guadalajara football matches, but easily accomplished if one resorts to cutlery.
The next offering was a rolled and crispy taco filled with beef. It was attractively garnished with guacamole, red chilli sauce and sour cream. This one, I found, was easier eaten by hand. Very spicy and flavourful and fun to eat. The crispy cylinder was joined by some soft tortillas topped with Fernando’s signature dish of braised ox cheek. This is a must-try for any beef lover. The flavour is the very essence of beef with a gelatinous and soft texture. It’s becoming a fashionable cut of meat, in the same way that lamb shanks did a few years ago.
More soft tortillas next, but this time with a topping of shredded chicken. This was far less spicy than some of the previous dishes, with a delicate sweetness. The belly pork was another variety and was one of the best Mexican dishes I have tasted in a while, the meat being tender with a real flavour of the grill.
Our final dish was fish ceviche. This is a traditional preparation of white fish “cooked” in a marinade. The flesh becomes opaque when steeped in citrus juice. It needs to be left in the acid for only a short period or the texture will suffer. Fernando’s version was just right, with the seafood being served with diced tomatoes for colour.
Santo is a rustic charmer. The food is traditional, authentic and delicious. It’s already the usual Sunday haunt of residents of Notting Hill, but it’s worth a bus ride to enjoy a few convivial hours with food that’s a bit out of the ordinary.
Santo Mexican Restaurant
299 Portobello Road, London W10 5TD
Phone: 020 8968 4590
Visit Santo here
Tuesday – Thursday: 12.00 – 3pm / 6pm – 10pm
Friday – Saturday: 12.00 – 11pm
Sunday: 12.00 – 10pm
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018