It's chilli down south

Unauthentic burritos and fatty fajitas are usually the staple of Mexican restaurants in this country, but Karina Mantavia finds the real deal in Brighton
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Indy Lifestyle Online

El Mexicano 7 New Road, Brighton, tel: 01273 727766

El Mexicano 7 New Road, Brighton, tel: 01273 727766

Britain is famously inept at Mexican food - even in the capital's multi-ethnic restaurant scene. You can cater to the darkest of the kinky foodie's whims, whether it's crispy fried goat's brains or wobbly sea urchin genitalia, but if it's a good Mexican mole you want, leave the country.

What's called Mexican food here is actually Tex-Mex food, and bad Tex-Mex food at that: an ingenious, double bastardisation of two cuisines for the price of one. I was once dragged to a packed so-called Mexican restaurant in the heart of London, with assurances that here was the real deal, and offered a plate covered in sweating pale yellow melted cheese, crowned with a jalapeño chilli. Literally - plate, cheese, chilli. Perhaps I was meant to eat the plate.

This culinary tic is partly to do with snobbery. Just as Indian food was for years synonymous with lager, Tex-Mex grub is unheard of without jugs of margaritas, tequila slammers and beer, preferably all at once. It's booze fodder. But while Indian restaurants had a drunken moment of clarity and re-invented themselves, the Tex-Mex equivalent is still standing on the table singing about its big hat.

Brighton's El Mexicano could be the beginning of the end for these crimes against Mexican food. It's run by Mexicans who came to the town, not via the US or London, but straight from Mexico. And it shows. The decor looks authentic, meaning completely nuts. A large, arched room with lazy ceiling fans is painted half canary yellow, half hot pink, like a psychedelic double-decker. Multi-coloured piñatas, sombreros, 12-coloured throws and a dizzying array of fruity nick-knacks adorn the room. Tables are daubed yellow and green, chairs all display hand-painted flowers - there is absolutely nothing without colour. The glorious, unashamed absence of blond wood makes you want to drop to your knees and weep.

Food is good, generous and, with a few detours, very much the real enchilada. Not that you'll find an enchilada on this menu. Alongside the nachos 'n' dips, tacos and quesadillas, which in Mexico are only eaten between meals, some genuinely weird and wonderful dishes can be had at pretty good prices: starters and desserts are around £3-5, mains range from £7-11.

Cactus salad, which was apparently a serious source of protein for the Indians, is unbeatable. Reminiscent of softened, less sweet peppers, it's dressed with lime, shredded tomato, onion and coriander. A side order of guacamole is the best I've had: creamy, garlicky, with a chilli hit, all in the right proportion.

Prawns in tequila sauce is excellent, huge shell-on prawns made smokey with the trippy liquor and accompanied by intensely concentrated fried oniongarlic mix. One for kissers who like to live dangerously.

But the real test, of course, is the mole: the grand mustachioed dame of the Mexican menu, which uses unsweetened chocolate for richness. Somewhat overcooked chicken is compensated for by a spectacular sauce: glossy, dark and tasting of cinnamon, nuts, chillies and garlic.

The fair-haired boss waits tables and explains the menu, dispensing culinary wisdom like a benevolent Mexican Godfather. He graciously apologies to a couple who are un-happy because the food "wasn't really what we were expecting". Melted cheese plate has lot to answer for.

Casual-clobbered clientele, from gassing girlfriends to silent couples all seem to be drawing the meal out, with the aid of vaguely upbeat Latin tunes. You'd be surprised how relaxing pink and yellow surroundings are. With only one table dedicated to the customary screech-and-shag party, Saturday night's customers are remarkably sober.

This, despite a fair wine list and a number of decent beers - including the recommended, big-bodied Mexican Bohemia - must be a sign that customers are here primarily for the food. It's also an indication of how dire the cocktails are. Margaritas substitute that fairy liquid mix for fresh lime juice, while big frilly drinks like daiquiris and the hopeful Mexican Dream would disappoint any self-respecting lush.

Still, you can't help but wonder given the quality of fare here, if this isn't one of those deliberate oversights: a little gastronomic engineering, perhaps from the Godfather, to ensure that you will never find a melted cheese tequila mix regurgitated on the pavement outside.