When this Mexican-themed local chain (part of the ever-expanding Bon Vivant Group) opened its first branch in Thistle Street several years ago it replaced the restaurant Tex Mex. This was a move which signified one away from staid staples of for example, refried beans and towards delicate ceviches, twists on margaritas and a thirst for ‘authenticity’.
This third El Cartel, the second being at Teviot, perches above the Mound in the somewhat hidden Roxburgh's Court. We head down from the Royal Mile into the big cantina-like space decorated with bold splashes of colour. Our table is opposite a graffiti wall mural created by the Scottish artist Bernie Reid and under a print of the iconic Frieda Kahlo wearing adidas. Our table is a dreamy indigo blue which evokes the sea while simultaneously making am attractive 'Insta' backdrop.
We have just come from the Turner exhibition and have been studying intricate 19th century watercolours – what a contrast.
A bite to eat is what we want and El Cartel fits the bill. It is deathly quiet on a frigid January mid-afternoon which perhaps explains why there are no food specials and only one dessert – sorbet. They do have drinks specials though and I order a Paloma which is served in a thick recycled glass. A smoked paprika and salt decoration on the rim of the glass is a creative touch to this long grapefruit and tequila drink.
We order several dishes from the simple menu; Duck Carnitas, Street Corn, Salmon Ceviche, Guacamole. The latter comes with long tongues of fried plantain which prove to be an excellent alternative to tortilla chips and very practical for scooping up food. Mr. Bite enjoys his carnitas but although I love shredded meat it can mean keeping it juicy and caramelized is a challenge. Corn is smothered in paprika and mayo and gobbled up with gusto. Ceviche has plenty of fish and citrus but the salad is spoilt by being fridge cold. Those green and red tomatoes need some warmth to bring out their flavour ( I blame the health and safety zealots not the restaurant). The 'guac' is chunky and a snowy sprinkling of sheeps' cheese and crimson pomegranate seeds remind me that Christmas has just passed.
While I take a comfort break Mr. Bite picks up the tab but forgets to mention the New Year discount (say “Simple 25” for 25% in January). We don’t quibble instead I tell the waitress to take the difference as a tip. We are more than happy with our tasty pit stop which we judge to be very good value at £44 for tasty food and well above par drinks.
1 Roxburgh’s Court, 323 High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1LW Tel: 0131 220 5924 - firstname.lastname@example.org