Review – Smokin’ Gringo at Sidewinder
Mexican-inspired food hit our city last year with a bang. Burritos and tacos were suddenly everywhere and it was hard to escape the biggest food trend of 2014. So, it makes logical sense for such popular food to be served in pubs, doesn’t it? And what better pairing than authentic Mexican fare in one of Brighton’s best boozers.
Smokin’ Gringo took over the kitchen at popular Kemptown pub Sidewinder in June last year. The kitchen is run by Matt Young, an engaging and instantly likeable young chef with a penchant for Tex-Mex cuisine and a background in Modern European cuisine. Matt worked as a chef for over four years in the weird and wonderful town of Austin, Texas and it was there that he “learnt about spices and flavour combinations” and picked up a passion for Mexican food.
Matt aims to ensure Sidewinder is a “busy bar that serves good food” and wants dishes to be “something you can share with your friends”, hence his decision to serve his food on sharing-style plates and baskets.
The menu is really well laid out and certainly caters to many tastes: quesadillas, tacos, nachos and burritos are all available. The menu isn’t entirely authentic Mexican and is, as Matt puts it, “a Tex-Mex inspired menu”.
As someone who recently spent 10 days in Mexico, I was really looking forward to casting my mind back to hazy summer days, eating tacos and sipping strong cocktails throughout the afternoon. I have, however, recently given up drinking for the foreseeable future (aka, until I crack), so a Virgin Paloma was served – grapefruit, soda and a chilli salt rim – to quench my thirst and Matt thought it best to showcase his bar snacks and taco parts of the menu.
Served in the aforementioned sharing baskets were Chicharron – a Mexican-style pork scratching (£2.50) and Cactus Leaves (£1.95). Pork is my favourite meat and the chunks of confit pork belly were great: hot, greasy and fatty. They make the ideal bar snack. The cactus leaves were a nice, innovative idea but far too salty to be enjoyed properly and the panko breadcrumb masked any taste of cactus.
Matt was keen to showcase his taco selection and kindly prepared a selection for us to try. Starting at £5.50 and rising to £6.95, taco options include fish, prawn, brisket, chicken and cheese.
Sourcing fish from a local fishmonger for his El Baja taco – fresh market fish of the day, pickled red cabbage, lettuce, samphire and citrus mayo – we were treated to breaded, deep fried and crispy cod cheeks. These were enjoyable, but the thick coating took away from any real fish flavour. There was a good zing from the citrus mayo but other flavours, including the red cabbage, didn’t stand out.
In contrast, the other fish/seafood based taco, El Gambas – pan-fried king prawns, mixed leaves, red onion, coriander, mango and green chilli salsa – fared a lot better. Fresh, vibrant and retaining a lot of moisture, making it juicy and enjoyable.
These tacos were served with Smokin’ Gringo’s homemade tortilla chips. Crispy and warm, these were good to nibble on and dunk in the creamy homemade guacamole.
The El Queso – char-grilled halloumi, fresh avocado, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, jalapeño and honey salsa – was my favourite. Perfectly cooked squares of halloumi with a great kick from the spicy salsa. Loved the addition of avocado and subtle crunch from the lettuce.
Falling way off the mark however was the El Tejas with oak-smoked brisket, crispy fried onion, rocket and chimichurri salsa. Dry, insipid and far too oily, the combination of flavours just didn’t work and tasted almost bitter together.
Another interesting concept Matt has introduced are yuca fries. Yuca is a South American plant which can be sliced, boiled and deep-fried to create a fibrous, earthy dipping fry. These were great to try, although I’m not confident I would order them again.
Each of these tacos could have done with bags more flavour i.e. a squeeze of lime, green chilli, red chilli, coriander etc. They were far too dry and desperately needed some wet toppings. Tacos should be messy, juicy and punchy. An option to load your taco (as they do in Mexico) with your own choice of salsas and toppings would have been ideal.
Matt is clearly passionate, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and not afraid to introduce new Mexican-inspired dishes to the city – all brilliant positives. But he seriously needs to up the intensity of his food. More heat and more flavour would have taken these tacos to the next level and provided a more authentic Mexican experience. But, the Smokin’ Gringo concept is certainly promising and I’m confident with some tweaks, the kitchen will be a success.
Sidewinder/Smokin’ Gringo, 65 Upper St James’s Street, Brighton, East Sussex BN2 1PJ
Claire’s food and drink was complimentary courtesy of Sidewinder and Drink In Brighton.