It’s getting on for about 10 years since I first started knocking about in the Northern Quarter, you know, back when it was five pubs and a few hipster indie shops. It’s now become a sprawling strip of drinking dens and scoffing spots, prompting our NQ Review expedition last year where we attempted to review all 80-odd bars.
As you can imagine then, originality is tough to come by. Burger and pizza wars rage on, more and more innovation appears in the cocktail scene whilst Liquor & Burn and El Capo have brought a small taste of Mexicana to the area. But now there’s a new player in town; El Taquero…so first, here’s the history lesson (cue wibbly flashback overlay).
When Montpellier’s first opened on Back Turner Street it was a great little hideout. Offering a cosy drinking den at night or a big screen to watch the footy on come Saturday lunchtime, you could usually get a good ale and some decent food (the steak sandwich was an old favourite) despite the relatively small area it occupied. Unfortunately, it always felt a little unfinished and when AV issues started to plague our sport watching, the food went downhill and two or three beers were unavailable on what are surely key nights (you know, weekends) it seemed like only a matter of time before it closed.
Cue Franco Sotgiu. The Solita owner, and all-round entrepreneur took the opportunity to snap up his neighbour with plans for a Solita waiting room-cum-pizza palace and although this didn’t come to fruition, The Bouncing Czech did, serving Kozel and currywurst like it was going out of fashion. Again though it all felt a bit temporary so it wasn’t too surprising when it closed for a major refit.
And so we arrive at El Taquero, and the place finally feels like it’s got a fully-formed identity. Gone are the tellies and screens, replaced with huge mirrors giving the illusion of vast space, while the lick of paint, neon signs and strong branding give it a warm yet much brighter vibe than before. The physical bar is pretty much gone too, with the previously tiny kitchen spreading out into an open affair that creates a buzz when you walk through the door.
On each of my visits to El Taquero thus far, the waiting staff have been more than welcoming, something you tend to find in Solita too; they’re only too happy to talk you through the menu, offer their own personal recommendations and match up all likes and dislikes with appropriate dishes. After ordering a couple of Estrellas (the only beer on tap, although bottles are also available) we decided on sharing the Queso Frito (£6) along with the house salsas that arrive gratis for all punters.
The starter in question is a disgracefully gooey deep fried block of gruyere with freshly made blue corn and regulation tortilla chips on a massive sharing plate. It’s a cracking starter and throws together all the spicy, rich flavours you’d expect from such fayre. It’s only after demolishing this though that you start to question what you’re in for with the mains but as it all tastes so good, you’re going to plough on through like a brave soldier.
The pièce de résistance at El Taquero is of course the taco selection. Rolling off a taco machine imported from Mexico itself, the 10 fillings on offer range from £2.75-£3.50 each (or £7-£9.50 for three, and let’s face it you’re going to go big aren’t you), and include meat, fish and vegetarian options. Opting on this occasion for the Pescado Frito (haddock), Pollo Asado (chicken) and Carne Asado (chargrilled rib-eye), all three arrived stacked to the brim with tasty, well-cooked fillings. The haddock is surprisingly meaty yet seasoned with just enough spice to warm the mouth while the steak really is the showpiece here, beautifully grilled, if maybe a little too salty. Combined with gigantic shrimp in the Mar y Tierra, you’ll easily find yourself wolfing through them – before realising you also ordered an overflowing Quesadilla too.
Yes that’s right, if you really want to go all out, there’s a selection of eight different toasted delights too. I’ve now sampled the Chorizo Mexicano and the Champinones Y Ajo and both are rich, generous offerings, if a little fragile in construction. Oh and did I mention the pork scratchings? The Chicharrón (£4-£5) as they’re also known are wonderfully fluffy yet crisp cracklers which you can order on their own or with Guac, Pico de Gallo or Refried Beans.
After such a feast, you may well struggle to force down a dessert, in which case I’ve got one word for you – Churros. Yep, for £4.50 you’ll get four delicious doughnuts with chocolate sauce or ice cream (or both for an extra quid) freshly made and satisfyingly crispy. A Mexican joint also wouldn’t be complete without a decent tequila and mezcal menu and El Taquero satisfies on this front too. Although I’ve only sampled the Cazcabel thus far, it’s a decent selection, if not as extensive as El Capo‘s mammoth offering.
Overall, what you’ve got with El Taquero is a great little casual dining experience that lets the flavours do the talking. Its price point is accessible, it’s unpretentious and gives plenty of choice for groups of all shapes and sizes. Mexican food may have been readily available in Manchester for a fair while now but competition is never a bad thing and El Taquero can certainly sit comfortably alongside the city’s other spice spots.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Franco made me the offer to try the new menu on the house. I’m not a food blogger by any stretch, there was never any obligation to write about the place and a free meal isn’t always going to lead to a positive review anyway (Red’s, I’m looking at you) but I honestly enjoyed El Taquero a lot and I’m writing this because I really hope it works out in the long term. Franco is nothing if not ambitious and you can feel the passion rub off on all the staff in a place that has finally found its niche in a crowded part of town.
Now for the restaurant half of the NQ Review challenge…guys? GUYS?!?!
El Taquero, 42 Back Turner St, Manchester M4 1FR.