Tom is thrilled to track down authentic Mexican fare in the least likely of locations.
Jonathan Gold, the late and inarguably great restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times, once wrote that ‘the best choice is always the restaurant 15 minutes further than you are willing to go.’ As ever, he was right. Because A la Mexicana is a good hike for most Brummies, let alone this train-tied Londoner, situated in Bearwood, a western suburb that isn’t even technically part of Birmingham. But inspired by a rave review from the ever-reliable Meat and One Veg blog, my only real concern was how quickly I could be there for lunch.
A la Mexicana is not particularly smart, being little more than a small room – with an open kitchen and freestanding drinks fridge – wedged between large electrical showrooms, on an unlovely stretch of Midlands A-road. What it is, though, is good. Very good indeed. A television sits in one corner, blaring out Mexican travel shows, while bright papel picado (punched-paper banners) flutter from the ceiling. José Galindez, warm and gently garrulous, runs front of house while his wife, Patricia, cooks. At the moment, it’s BYO. But anywhere with ice-cold bottles of Mandarin Jarritos is fine by me.
Tortillas are made fresh each day. As are the salsas, five in total, ranging from mild, chunky pico de gallo through rich, smoky chipotle to a fierce little habañero number that melds fruit with fire. Guacamole is creamily luscious and sharp with lime. I eat chilaquiles – fresh fried tortilla chips slathered in a piquant tomato sauce, lavished with fresh cheese, sour cream and slim shards of radish. Two immaculately fried eggs sit on top. The art lies in that contrast between soggy and crisp, sharp and sweet. All bound together in the yolk’s concupiscent embrace.
Tacos al pastor – the pork crisp, charred and stained red with achiote – bring a small, greedy tear to my eye. Tiny chunks of pineapple add acidity, while raw onions provide essential crunch. Carnitas tacos are equally fine, soft strands of good pig, slow cooked in lard. The tortillas themselves, small and just chewy, are scented with masa and the Mexican street. All wear as many salsas as I can pile on, and dribble as they’re devoured.
A la Mexicana is the sort of home-style, family-owned place you’ll find all over Mexico. But to have somewhere this wonderful, in a distant Birmingham suburb, is nothing short of miraculous. Viva Mexico. Viva Bearwood. And viva la familia Galindez.
About £15 per head. A la Mexicana, 175 Sandon Road, Bearwood, Smethwick; alamexicana.info.
DRINKS: Olly’s mighty Malbecs
In this chilly season, the next best thing to a roaring fire is a glass of warming Malbec. Its fruit is always deep and dark – imagine a mulberry eloping with a stick of liquorice. In Argentina, which has claimed Malbec as its signature red grape, it’s a classic steak pairing, but brilliant too with smoky dishes and even rich umami glazes in Japanese recipes. And blue cheese with Malbec is a taste sensation.
WINE OF THE WEEK VIÑALBA MALBEC TOURIGA NACIONAL RESERVE 2019 (14.5%), £9.99, Majestic. A mighty blend: sumptuous, slick, fragrant and rich – the complete warming package.
SPECIALLY SELECTED MALBEC 2020 (14.5%), £5.79, Aldi. Sleek and bold as an inflatable plum, this Argentinian red is a steal for midweek sipping.
FAIRTRADE IRRESISTIBLE ORGANIC MALBEC 2019 (13%), £7.50, Co-op. There’s an exotic aroma and liquorice depth to this ace value Fairtrade gem. Seek it!
TILIMUQUI FAIRTRADE ORGANIC MALBEC 2020 (13%), £7.99, Waitrose. On offer (down from £11.99) until 2 November and a scented, splendid red to stock up on.
CATENA MALBEC 2019 (13.5%), £12.50, ndjohn.co.uk. Luxuriant red with fantastic concentration and richness. A full-throttle bottle.