Wednesday, 10 September 2014

El Capo - Manchester

El Capo originally opened in summer just as a Mexican themed bar, providing another option on Tariff Street between Whiskey Jar and Kosmonaut for drinks. The premises is split into two floors very similarly to their aforementioned neighbours, in this case with the top floor primarily focused on the bar area and to serve food in on quieter occasions and the basement being the main restaurant area. The design is heavily based on an English twist on what you would imagine a typical Mexican cantina with lots of Mexican influenced paintings on the walls (sugar skulls, sombreros etc), bottles of tequila as vases, rustic tiles around the bar and wooden flooring throughout. It's clear some real attention has been spent on the decor and there were a few lovely touches such as the tables upstairs all having fresh lillies in the tequila bottle vases.
The opening of the restaurant area in late August was accompanied by one of those great stories that adds a lot of 'authenticity' (shudder) to a place like this with a tale of the head chef Troy Almador returning from extensive travelled in South America to learn about the tradition of much of the cuisine he plans to serve. Certainly a lot more impressive than downloading the Wahaca menu and trying to copy as much as possible. For me, the research has certainly paid off as when it comes to the menu they're well covered on both the typical Mexican staples (burritos, tacos, churros and so on) but digging a bit deeper into the menu reveals some more interesting options including prawn and scallop ceviche, pan seared cows heart and slow cooked pork stew. Certainly not your typical fare. 

As you'd expect since they've been open as a bar for several months, the drinks menu was pretty extensive - lots of interesting South American influenced cocktails, several wines and a ton of Mexican and American beers, lots of new names on me and certainly enough variation that a night in here on the booze would be a good time. 
I was so impressed during the first visit that I was keen to head back and try a few more dishes (as well as a few immediate favourites again) as quickly as possible so the food mentioned below was eaten across both meals. On the first occasion I ate upstairs, it was very quiet as I first arrived (worryingly so, with only 2 other tables occupied) and as a result we got some fantastic attention from the waitress who was extremely knowledgeable and helpful with the menu - making some great recommendations. The second visit was made on a busy Saturday night, with only one table still available when I dropped in - reassuringly the service was just as good and attentive which was certainly left a good impression. 

A snack of crispy, fatty long pork scratchings which came accompanied with a pot of chilli vinegar which added tartness. The long scratchings combined with a shallow ramekin weren't ideal for dipping and meant it was only possible to dip a cm or so at a time, still well worth the effort.

"Guevara No. 4"
The waitress did the right thing and warned me I was in for ceviche (raw fish typically cured in lemon and lime juice). I do always get slightly panicked when ordering ceviche as clearly if seafood isn't prepared properly the next 24-48 hours aren't going to be particularly pleasant. The presentation was initially off-putting but the seafood here was all very good flavour-wise, the queenies (baby scallops) were served roe-on which I know often turns people off but I dug in and thoroughly enjoyed it. The prawns and salmon were similarly delicate, the citrus was clearly pronounced in the fish but not over-bearing. The smoked sour cream served with a sprinkling of coriander in this instance.tasted of very little but added a welcome creamy texture to the dish.
"Cartel Pollo" (left in the photo below)
This consisted of two decent sized chicken breasts which had clearly spent a lengthy amount of time marinated in garlic, onion and coconut milk as the meat was so tender it tasted almost slow cooked. Draped with a few slices of well cooked pepper, this was an excellent start to proceedings.

"Prawnstar" (right in the photo below)
Seven well cooked bite-size prawns which had been butterflied and were served red hot still in the pan, lathered in garlic and chilli oil. Great as a dish to share.
"Mi Corazon" (on the left below, shocking photo - apologies)
Pan seared cow's heart which was served with slices of Aiji pepper, a very mild flavoursome vegetable. The meat was one of the big hits of both visits, cooked medium (not that you can tell from the photo), there's no way this wasn't freshly prepared given the cut of meat. 

"Sonora Salad" (on the right below)
A big old portion of quinoa salad, stuffed with peppers, plantain, salted cheese and topped with a couple of slices of grilled avocado - crisp on the outside but still creamy within. The real hit here was the taco bowl it was served in, forget your old el paso wafer thin taco bowl - this was a dream, thick almost short-crust pastry and the whole thing tasted like it had been deep fried to hold it all together in one piece. Absolutely fantastic, I could happily have sat all afternoon snapping pieces of a giant one of these and dipping them into hot sauce. Not the healthy option I imagined on ordering but very enjoyable for a 'salad'.
"Messi-Cow" (cooked rare in the photos below)
An 8oz portion of Argentinian steak which came well seasoned, it was so good on the first visit that I couldn't resist going for it again on the second. It comes with a choice of two sides from a list of 8.
Second time - asked how rare they'd go and the waitress advised blue, I thought this had come back as 'blue' as i'd like, it appeared just touched on the grill but I got hammered on twitter as it apparently wasn't properly blue. The meat didn't taste as well seasoned as the first time but was still very enjoyable.
The four sides I had with the steaks were:
Sweetcorn (top left below) - a full cob sliced in half, cooked to perfection for me (maintaining the crunch to the corn) and lathered in chillo mayo and slices of pepper. A full cob chopped in half made for a very generous portion.
Cassava chips (top right below) - A new one on me, it had that lovely grainy texture of bread fruit (suspect it's a near relative), very enjoyable as an alternative to your typical french fries. The best of the four sides I tried. 
Coconut rice (bottom right below) - this was very stodgy, almost like a side of only mildly sweet rice pudding. 
Refried beans (bottom left below) - standard refried beans, fairly bland on their own but fine with a dollop of hot sauce added. 
I had the nachos as a snack to start on the second visit and they were fairly decent. There were a few toppings to choose from (shredded pork, chicken, grilled meat, chilli con carne or chocolate chilli) and I went with the pork. The chips were a step up from the bland cardboard you often get served but overall everything was fairly dry, the sides of guacamole and salsa helped - both of which were fine but fairly small portions and nothing special flavour wise. They got picked at but not finished. 
"Lometo Completo" 
The steak was excellent, again ordered rare and arrived stuffed inside a deliciously soft bun with a fried egg and mustard making for a really messy sandwich. The side salad served within a few leaves of iceberg lettuce added enough to turn this into a course of food rather than just a burger. The menu mentioned curtido (which is apparently somewhat like a Mexican version of kimchi) and the taste was powerful enough to give a little extra to the salad to keep it interesting. 
"Helado" (Ice cream)
I was intrigued by the idea of the purple potato ice cream but it was unfortunately off for the evening (along with the churros - a shame as it's the 'classic' Mexican dessert) but an alternative of coconut ice cream turned out to be a good choice. Three ceramic skulls were dished up with a scoop of creamy coconut ice cream in each, looking worryingly like it'd been shaped into a quiff (I really hope this was deliberate). There was nothing spectacular flavour wise but looks-wise definitely more interesting than a bowl with 3 scoops of ice cream in.
"Pedro's Changa"
A crispy deep fried tortilla filled with mango and spiced apple which came sprinkled with cinnamon sugar adding a hit of sweetness to a fairly savoury dessert - it reminded me a lot of apple strudel. This was right up my street and the side of Vanilla ice cream in another of the skull dishes rounded things off well.
So overall, I came away on both occasions genuinely impressed by El Capo and it speaks volumes that I made a repeat visit so quickly as this is a very rare occurrence for me (I have to admit the 50% discount they had on for the first 3 weeks did help). I'd been expecting a pretty bog standard Mexican with focus on the drinks but was served really tasty and imaginative food, the ceviche in particular is a bold move for them to make and I wish them well. Based on the full menu prices, I'd say that all the portions were value for money with the possible exception of the prawns. The overall quality of the food was very high and as a result El Capo is definitely recommended.
El Capo on Urbanspoon

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