Nairobi is bang on point with the global Mexican food trend and if Susan Wong has anything to do with it, we aren’t turning back any time soon.
It’s been a while since Nairobi has had Mexican. If your idea of Mexican or even Tex-Mex cuisine, a fusion from America, is from guacamole or the refried beans in your breakfast combo or at the former Mexican restaurant at Parklands Plaza, then it’s time to revisit and explore the global food trend a little bit more.
Globally, Mexican food is having its moment right now, just like how Peruvian did. Additionally, diners are embracing the global food trend of street food-inspired dishes, and Mexican cuisine features many creations that fit perfectly into that category. Taquerias have been popping-up everywhere, featuring high-end tacos, for a long time. I’m just happy that Mexican is back in Nairobi, and hopefully is here to stay.
At Mercado Mexican Kitchen and Bar, there are no sombreros hanging on the walls or a cliché Mariachi band walking around, serenading guests. Instead, contemporary songs rooted in Mexican influence feature Nairobi is bang on point with the global Mexican food trend and if Susan Wong has anything to do with it, we aren’t turning back any time soon. an electric guitar here, a jazzy sax there, and an expressive trumpet confidently in solo. The music is an eclectic mix that complements the chic, sleek, modern and moody interiors – a melting pot just like Mexican culture itself. The expansive restaurant gazes out onto the busy centre of the Westlands neighbourhood by way of a terrace. Interesting light fixtures create a soft ambiance and are the genesis of many conversations, just like how the indoor swinging benches inspire a few laughs and giggles.
Mexican cuisine is beyond quick preparation items like guacamole. In fact, it’s quite complex and features many traditional culinary practices that take time. From grinding chilies, preparing mole or making in-house corn tortillas, at Nairobi’s new-kid-on-the-block, preparation often begins the day before.
The menu features food from different regions of Mexico with a modern twist through a selection of small plates that are perfect for sharing. There are tacos, tamales, tostadas, quesadillas, tortas and burritos for the adventurous. Also featured are salads, soups and a collection of familiar entrees for meat lovers and vegetarians.
Our polite and knowledgeable waiter first delivers some homemade salsas for the table. If you love your heat, then perhaps you’ll finally meet your match with the Habanero Salsa that features a simmering burn that lingers all over your tongue and finishes with a smoky kick just in case you had forgotten what you were eating. Tread lightly with this one.
We begin with a granite mortar of Guacamole served with crispy homemade nacho chips. The ripe avocados were creamy and the dip was well seasoned and balanced. Next to arrive was my favourite of the evening, Shrimp Mexicana Tostadas. The Chipotle Mayo pulled together the avocado, coriander, tomatoes and perfectly seared shrimp. The crispy corn tortillas had a lovely corn flavour and remained crunchy, despite being loaded with toppings. Then there were soft corn tortilla tacos filled with juicy pulled pork, refried beans, and pickled onions, inspired by the popular tacos in Yucatan.
The refried beans were savoury and earthy, with a beautiful texture that wasn’t completed pureed. The Fried Fish Ajo Quesadillas were a miss for me. The filling of fresh fish seasoned with olives, garlic, and parsley was dry and stringy. The beautifully folded parcels of steamed corn dough in banana leaves, Tamales, had chicken and cheese throughout. The soft texture and moist dough were comforting, and together with the Red Mole Sauce made with 25 different ingredients that include a touch of dark chocolate and vegetarian broth, was something out of a delicious dream.
I was reminded why I loved to eat tamales: slightly sweet and savoury, they have a comforting texture of silken tofu or cheese curd.
Dessert was to follow, but I’ll be honest, at this point, we were stuffed. Just like Ugali, homemade corn tortillas have a way of catching up with your appetite. When Chef Raúl Martínez Ramírez from Mexico City, told me they were making their tortillas by hand, the image of someone working a tortilla press diligently – portioning, shaping and pressing – in the kitchen came to mind. The in-house chips and tortillas had a beautiful flavour of a deep corn muskiness that only could come from the most incredible masa harina.
Mercado is a good place to get an introductory experience on culinary traditions of Mexico. Contemporary and sleek, the menu offers familiar items that first-time diners won’t feel intimidated by, and if you are, just ask one of the knowledgeable servers for some suggestions.
We’re sitting on the terrace and it’s a beautiful evening, surrounded by families, couples and friends catching up on their week. It is a busy evening, the conversations hum steadily in the background. Just like a bustling market, there’s a constant buzz at Mercado. And, being only a few weeks young, that’s a very good sign.