‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, or so they say, but what about ‘when in Paris, eat as the Mexicans do’? Deciding to turn our backs on canard and moules and other typical French fare, Monsieur and I felt like dining on something different. That’s how we came to experience two very different Mexican restaurants when we were in Paris last week.
Monsieur loves nachos. They’re his comfort food. He has them after a late night out or when there’s a good football match on TV and even during the French election results last year, so it’s no surprise that he wanted to go Mexican in Paris. He googled ‘Mexican restaurants Paris’ and made a list of the top few. On 1 May, Labour Day, lots of places were closed for business as the workers of France enjoyed a holiday in their honour. Fortunately for us, The Studio, the first Mexican on Monsieur’s list, was open so we decided to try it out.
The Studio is located just off the rue du Temple (le Marais) on a cobbled courtyard where patrons can enjoy fine Paris evenings at one of the outdoor tables. As we entered the restaurant, a waiter appeared immediately to seat us and we were happy that everything looked as you’d expect – coloured glass tea-light holders on each table, a Kahlo-esque painting on one wall, the authentic looking bar stocked with requisite selection of tequilas and a big green sculpture of a lizard hung above a door.
The menu was typical Mexican, laden with nachos, enchilladas and fajitas, so as we struggled to decide we quelled a surge in appetite with the corn chips and spicy salsa that had been deposited in front of us. One downside was that the wait for service was very, very long. In fact, it makes me think of a quote that appeared on the Zagat website recently, where someone said:
“I actually pulled out my cell phone and called to ask them to please bring us water.”
We attributed the lack of attention to short staffing on Labour Day and just as we were beginning to wonder if there was anyone at all in the kitchen (several of the other tables hadn’t been served, either), the restaurant’s cogs started whirring and we were eating in no time.
To start, Monsieur ordered nachos, which did not appear as the typical mountain of chips but which was instead presented as an artfully arranged pattern of individually-dressed tortilla chips. Meanwhile, I chowed down on a calorific selection of ‘fritos’: onion rings, peppers stuffed with cheese and deep-fried batons of mozzarella. It was just what I felt like eating, but it did have a bit of that ‘here’s one I froze earlier’ quality to it. Still, if they stocked this food in the freezer section of my local supermarket, I’d definitely buy it for a naughty treat.
As a main course, Monsieur chose a plate of enchilladas, which he polished off in record time in spite of the fact that he was now convinced that everything we were eating had come from the freezer. My prawn-filled quesadilla was tasty but far from remarkable, a little bit cardboardy, in fact, and our margheritas looked like the pre-mix cocktail variety although thankfully more alcoholic. It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t great and we ended up paying about 40 Euros each for mediocre, which is hardly a bargain. Confusingly, the reviews on the web had been so positive that my theory is this: the regular kitchen chefs had taken advantage of Labour Day to have some well-earned respite, leaving a freezer or two filled with prepared meals so that the holiday staff could heat them up and arrange them on a plate. Hey, presto! They don’t lose any business.
Monsieur was unimpressed. The following morning he informed me that:
“we’re going to a different Mexican place tonight. It’s in the student quarter and it’s authentic,” That got my attention, as do most comments referring to food. “it’ll be interesting to compare it with last night’s food to see which one is better.”
I have to admit, it amuses me to go somewhere like Paris, only to eat Mexican food. Two nights in Paris. Two nights of enchilladas. It’s not the usual approach to eating in the City of Light, but we’re not exactly your usual couple. We do strange stuff like this. A lot.
So off we set, across the river to the 5th, to find The Studio’s Mexican rival, Anahuacalli, which is located on Rue des Bernardins, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Before we even began to eat, everything about the place screamed genuine Mexican at us, and we suspected we’d be safe here because it was already full. Prints of Frida Kahlo self-portraits helped create a Mexican atmosphere and, as her husband, Diego Rivera’s museum is located in Anahuacalli, Mexico, her presence made perfect sense. Mayan sculptures stood on sconces around the room, there were sachets of Mexican food for sale behind the reception desk and the waitresses all wore embroidered blouses of a Central American style.
The menu made for fascinating reading. Apart from salivating at the culinary options, I learned that Anahuacalli is an Aztec word, meaning ‘house by the water’, and that ‘tomato’ comes from ‘tomatl’, another noun of Aztec origin. Our margheritas turned up in chunky glasses with hints of blue and deliciously salted rims. They were generous, genuine and so good that we ignored wine and drank margheritas instead. Then complimentary corn chips arrived in a matte silver bowl with pyramid feet, joined by two little ceramic dishes of salsa, one red (hot) and one green (think mouth-on-fire).
The starters all looked great so we ordered a Tu y Yo (you and me) shared starter, which came on a single blue and white ceramic plate, each dish blending into the next. There was a sweet ceviche of raw white fish, a mound of freshly made guacamole with a coriander bite, small tortilla rolls containing soft cheese or chicken, and a delicious salad called nopalitos, consisting of tomatoes, coriander and cactus. CACTUS! Yes, we ate cactus and it’s my new favourite food. The texture is like a cooked green pepper, the taste is like a jalapeño without the chilli and it works brilliantly in salad. Now I just have to work out where to buy it.
I ummed and ahed over the main course selection. The turkey mole with a cacao and twenty-spice sauce sounded tempting, but in the end I went for Pescado, sea bream poached in a mix of peppers, cactus (again!), onions and tomatoes with citrus juice and capers. It’s probably one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever eaten. Monsieur chose the enchilladas because “I want to compare it with last night’s to see which is better”. You won’t be surprised to hear that Anahuacalli came out tops. Other temptations on the menu included fillet of salmon in a papaya sauce, or duck breast on a bed of courgette flower cream.
As we ate I observed a nearby table, where Mum and Dad were taking twenty-something daughter for dinner. Daughter was blonde with startled-looking blue eyes, so slim that her clavicle stuck out like a shelf. She ate with the gusto of someone who hadn’t seen food in a month, and this included licking her knife on both sides at intervals. I still remember the day when I was taught why people didn’t lick knives. I was five years old, so this display horrified me. I can hand-on-heart say that I haven’t seen a person lick a knife in public since I was a child. No doubt Daughter may have had an eating disorder, as she periodically disappeared to the restaurant conveniences, returning with watery eyes. Her parents looked sensible, however, and I wondered if they noticed their offspring’s erratic behaviour or the fact that she was putting away enough food to fill a pair of hollow legs.
Meanwhile, we called it a night. Deciding to leave Anahuacalli’s dessert list another time, we payed this bill with a smile and the knowledge that we know where to eat proper Mexican in Paris. I’m dying to return and have an entire plate of cactus salad and try their famous Mole.
NB If you do decided to give Anahuacalli a shot, definitely reserve. When we called, they told us they have two sittings: 7.30pm or 9pm so make sure you don’t turn up without a reservation because chances are pretty high that you won’t get in.