Durham is not an obvious location for a high-reaching Mexican restaurant...
That's fair. But I also think it’s a shame that so many chefs fear doing ambitious things outside of London and other major cities. My partner Victoria and I were working in London but we have returned to the North East to start a family. We opened a casual but high-quality taqueria called Barrio Comida just ahead of the pandemic. La Mesa is in the basement and was always part of the plan, but Covid held things up.
The menu is only £59 per person. How have you managed that?
It’s because Barrio Comida is effectively covering most of our overheads. If La Mesa was a standalone site it would not be viable. We’re currently only open Friday and Saturday evenings so we’re not really making anything from it, but we are taking a long-term view. The plan is to get it full, gradually increase the number of services and get some recognition for it. Hopefully we will then be able to extend the menu and maybe increase our prices a bit.
How many people does La Mesa seat?
We have one large communal table for 16 and an additional four covers on the kitchen counter. We offer a single seating; guests come down at about 6.30pm for cocktails and the meal begins proper at 7pm and finishes at about 10pm. It’s ended up having a dinner party vibe. People can be standoffish at first but it’s never long before everybody starts chatting to each other. The space is actually a bit more intimate than we meant it to be. We got all the fit out done right down to putting in the table and then the fire safety inspector came and told us we needed to fire-proof and plaster all the walls. That lost us about a foot-and-a-half on all sides of the room.
What's on the menu?
We start off with antojitos (snacks) including an oyster with aguachile; sope (a dish consisting of a fried masa base with savoury topping); and tostada with raw tuna, peanut and chintextle (smoked chilli paste). We then move on to a taco course, ceviches, a cooked fish dish and a larger sharing format meat dish. Right now we have lamb barbacoa with fig leaf macha and heirloom tortillas. Our sweets including raspado (shaved ice) of Alfonso mango and Mexican vanilla; and sweet potato pie with cinnamon and condensed milk.
What’s been the feedback so far?
We have not had a single person come down who has not loved it, which has meant a fair few return visits in the short time we have been open. Barrio Comida has gone down well, too. Durham is a university city so we have big fluctuations in trading levels throughout the year. That's been tricky to work around but in general business has been good. It’s a simple taqueria menu but the quality is high.
Where do you get your ingredients from?
We make our own tortillas using heirloom corn we import directly from Mexico. We also get our key dry products from Mexico including beans, chilies and chocolate. Most of our meat comes from north Yorkshire and most of our fish is couriered up from Cornish dayboats.
That sounds like a costly approach for a taco place…
It is, but I believe in good produce. The ingredients we use in Barrio Comida are the same as the ones we use at La Mesa. It can be difficult to hit the right margins sometimes but the great thing about tacos is that they can act as a vehicle for less pricey cuts of top-quality ingredients. We charge about £5 for a taco. Our customers are okay with that, but it’s sad that people always expect food from non-European countries to be cheap. For a brief period at Barrio Comida we tried to push things in more of an a la carte direction by offering larger sharing platters centred on a high-quality cut of meat, but £70 for two people was deemed too expensive. I’m not sure that would have been the case had we been serving steak and chips with béarnaise sauce.
Tell us about your background
I was born in York but I moved to Australia when I was seven and then to the US when I was 10. I lived in Colorado and latterly northern California. It was in the States I discovered Mexican food as it’s obviously one of the most widely-eaten cuisines over there. But the quality is often quite basic; there are some great regional Mexican places in LA but not so much in the north of the state. In 2005, I returned to the UK to cook at restaurants in and around Newcastle.
Why did you swap California for the North East of England?
I was in my early 20s and I wanted to work in proper kitchens. At the time, it was very difficult to get a job in a decent US kitchen without having an expensive culinary education. I didn’t have $60,000 for that but I did have a British passport so I came back to the UK, banged on doors and worked hard. It was during that time I met Victoria. After about five years we moved down to London.
Where did you work?
I worked for James Knappett at Bubbledogs and Kitchen Table and at St John. Victoria ran front of house at Dean Street Townhouse. In 2015, I returned to the North East to launch a Mexican pop-up restaurant. I was working with my close friend Tom Anglesea (now one of the chefs behind recently-launched London restaurant Dovetail) at the time. We were close to getting a permanent site but our backer pulled out at the last minute. I’d seen a clear gap in the market for good Mexican food in the North East and I also missed eating the food. But over the past five years or so I’ve delved deeper and deeper. It’s a fascinating but often misunderstood cuisine that’s far more regional than most realise. If your background is in French cuisine and you start making things like moles (a complex Mexican sauce), it's almost like learning to cook all over again.