Reliable, Casual Mexican Food! (Now Closed at The Hare and Hounds)
I’ll be honest. I have a real hard time believing in good Mexican food anywhere beyond Mexico and Southwest America – it’s a snobby and naïve mentality, really. It’s all down to growing up in the cultural melting pot that is Los Angeles where there is no shortage of the stuff. But it wasn’t just a cuisine of convenience for me, I genuinely love Mexican food – its intense love affair with super-charged chillies, fresh and fragrant salsas and the sweet and nutty flavours of corn.
It was a natural part of my life; my best friend was half Mexican and I can remember late evenings in her chaotic, rosary-and-trinket-filled house sharing her mum’s slow-cooked pork with a chocolatey mole or chicken enchiladas and almost always, gargantuan bowls of guacamole and sliced jalapeños with weepy, racy novellas blaring on the telly. Friends would always be up to no good in Tijuana and fighting over where you could get the best fish tacos and dance spring break away in Cancún or Cabo.
And back on toasty Californian sand, there was never anything better than a hefty Tex-Mex burrito drenched in Cholula after a long day surfing or just soaking up the sun.
La Choza – Hare and Hounds
So when I found myself pounding the pavement on London Road in Brighton on a skin-crawlingly muggy, grey day heading to the Hare and Hounds pub to eat Mexican food, I was laughing to myself. Mind you, I knew La Choza (which opened their second branch at the pub in spring of last year) had a good reputation (and not just for post night-out munchies), so despite any reservations, I was looking forward to giving it a chance.
The Hare and Hounds is on London Road – the beautifully ugly London Road, which has a slew of pound shops and permanently smells like a faint mixture of fags, urine and washing you forgot to take out of the machine for a few days (well, it happens to me) but it is also home to the utterly awesome Open Market, The Level and, well…Poundworld is pretty damn useful, too.
The pub was newly relaunched last year, kitted out with the essentials of a hipster revamp: exposed brickwork, industrial furnishings and pretty young (and heavily tattooed) things behind the bar as well as boasting a much-loved beer garden. There have been grumblings of surly and unprofessional staff but on my visit, I thought they were admirably efficient in the face of a steadily growing, rambunctious Friday crowd, mostly consisting of students and what it seemed like a tribe of frisky middle-aged divorcees in the middle of a highly-charged drinks sesh before a late night screening of Magic Mike XXL. The music was stupidly loud and basically the soundtrack to an American high school in the late 90s (think Green Day, Foo Fighters, Blink 182 plus random dance tracks thrown in) which is a serious pain if you have any desire in having a conversation. But who needs conversation if you’re about to dig into some – according to their website – “legendary Mexican street food”?
Mexico’s Greatest Hits
The menu reads like Mexico’s greatest hits: burritos stuffed with refried beans, green rice, cheese and sour cream, soft corn tacos with cabbage and onion, tostadas and quesadillas all with a choice of filling (Achiote chicken and homemade Mexican chorizo, slow-cooked spicy beef, 14-hour smoked pulled pork, chilli, garlic and lime prawns or the fish of the day as well as roasted spicy squash, sweet potato and feta or black bean and adobo roasted vegetables for all the veggies in the house). You then wisely choose your salsa (perhaps take advantage of the false sense of courage from all that cerveza and break new ground on the Scoville scale by loading up on the ‘xxxtra hot Naga’?) and you’re good to go.
There are also some ‘shack snacks’ ranging from finger food like chicarrones (Mexican pork scratchings), calamari to sharing platters of nachos generously smothered in beans, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, jalapeños and your choice of meat or veg. We went for the calamari which arrived still incredibly hot to the touch, extra crisp on the outside with the squid still tender, which demonstrates a deft hand with the deep fryer, a skill so very under appreciated…unless you’re the holy mistress of all things deep fried, like yours truly.
The calamari had a tangy seasoning to it that went really nicely with the refreshing lime and chipotle mayo.
My only gripe was that my dining partner and I polished the tiny serving in about 30 seconds.
Soft Corn Tacos
We also ordered soft corn tacos with the 14-hour smoked pulled pork with classic pico de gallo and the dangerously cheesy Achiote free-range chicken and homemade Mexican chorizo quesadilla with a side of the cooked chipotle salsa. The pulled pork tasted so comforting, with a smoky and subtle, deep flavour that comes naturally with stewing in wonderfully earthy spices and its own juices for 14 hours and a caramelised softness which really needed the crunch from the cabbage, onions and pico de gallo to give it that necessary extra texture. The pico de gallo could have done with a stronger citrusy hit, but all the flavours were still pretty dynamic. I was pleasantly surprised that there were no shortcuts when it came to the levels of spice; I even noticed a nice sprinkling of chopped chillies on top.
Mexican Chorizo Quesadilla
The quesadilla, well, it’s hard to get a quesadilla wrong, truth be told, but the salty, aromatic homemade Mexican chorizo stood up to the punishing layers of cheese and the lightly sweet and smoky chipotle salsa on the side added something a bit extra special to the humble quesadilla, making it a bit more upmarket than a lowly after school snack. I imagine the chilli, garlic and lime prawns would have been perfect sitting snug in between a cheesy, warmed tortilla, too. I was impressed with the fact that the menu had a few interesting salsa choices (Habanero and Xxxtra hot Naga, I’m coming for you next) – after all, a good, solid salsa is basically the heart and soul of Mexican food.
Churros For Dessert
For dessert, we shared some slightly anaemic-looking churros which tasted better than they looked and dipped them voraciously in the luxuriously thick dulce de leche sauce. There wasn’t much else to get the blood pumping on the sweets front, which was a bit of a shame – I would have loved to have seen the milky, syrupy deliciousness that is tres leches cake, a very popular Mexican sponge cake that I’d imagine would go down pretty well.
High Voltage Cocktails
The cocktails are high voltage, keeping in line with La Choza’s quirky and riotous Mexican theme. There are six margaritas on offer for £6.50, each of the concoctions as intriguing as the next, from blueberry and thyme, coconut and cherry to strawberry and Sriracha (a pan-Asian hot sauce with a passionate cult following), a strong selection of tequilas, mescal and Mexican beer, but if nothing else, you’ve got to make room for a glass of horchata (if they’ve got it available): a simple and creamy Mexican drink made of rice, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. There are also a handful of cool local ales and craft beers on offer as well as two towering Meantime tanks to the immediate left of the entrance, so you can top up on fresh, unfiltered beer to your liver’s demise.
I’m pretty stoked to be able to say that I’ve found a decent, casual Mexican that I can rely on in Brighton when I’m craving a juicy, overstuffed burrito or just feeling really nostalgic.
I just hope the menu continues to evolve and add more dishes or even reinvent some of the staples so I can keep coming back to try something new each time.