Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mohujos: Mexi-maybe

There's a moment in Once Upon a Time in Mexico in which Johnny Depp goads Danny Trejo into action by asking him, "Are you a Mexican ... or a Mexi-can't?" The Boy and I have come to use this qualification to separate the good from the bad (and the ugly) when it comes to Mex restaurants.

Tu y Yo, of course, is Mexican. Chains such as Chilis are Mexi-can't. Not because they're more Tex-Mex than Oaxacan, but because they present a simplified, Disneyfied version of even that cuisine (smother everything in melted chee and throw on some jalapeƱos and presto! South of the border!).

So when I heard that the reasonably good Spanish tapas resto a two-minute walk from my parents' house was now a Mexican place called
Mohujos, I was ready to cast it into column B.

Why so cavalier?

1) It's in Billingham. A lovely place with lovely people, but not a gastronomic destination. Apart from the many pizza/parmo places and the chip shops, the only "ethnic" cuisine is a handful of Indian takeouts and the redoubtable Li Wah Chinese restaurant (best known for throwing out a female patron because she laughed too loudly).

2) Mexico is a long, long way from Teesside; most people, if they've been to the country at all, will likely have stayed at a nice all-inclusive resort in Cancun, and so will be unfamiliar with authentic cuisine. And would rather have chips anyway.

3) The population density for Mexicans in the area is kinda light. (Actually, a quick check of the Census suggests no resident Mexicans anywhere in the country.) So who is running Mohujos?

4) Answer: a couple of lovely Teesside girls and an Angolan chef with 18 years of Portuguese cooking under his belt.

5) When I called up to check that they had a table, the person who answered the phone pronounced it "Mo-hoo-joes." I know linguistic fluency is not a prerequisite for opening a restaurant, but you'd think a familiarity with the language would help in understanding and formulating the menu.

6) The menu featured such Mexi-confused items as tequila fettucine and Mexican-style parmo. With chips.

Does any of this explain my wariness?

But the owners are so, so friendly and welcoming. And the menu had been expanded to include grilled lamb kebabs and lamb's liver in red wine and carne guisado.

Maybe things were looking up ...

Someone brought fresh salsa with chips, beer, a brightly citrusy margarita.

And when I asked if I could have a taste of the chef's homemade piri-piri sauce, one of the owners smiled broadly and disappeared into the kitchen, returning with a small dish of sauce and a spoon.

The sauce was hot, yes, of course. Hot, but also complex and layered, finishing with a smoky smoothness. Unexpectedly good.

We shared a plate of nachos (straightforward Tex-Mex, with guac and sour cream and melted chee), and then the mains (I'll add images when I have Photoshop access).

Kebabs for my dad--the lamb fatty-sweet, mouth-melty, the red onion still with a little crunch.

My mum had the chicken and steak enchiladas, smothered with cheese and apparently made with corn tortillas.

And I went for the carne guisado, a stew of tender beef with tomatoes and onions.

So not entirely authentic--the lamb kebabs, with their cucumber-yogurt dipping sauce, suggested Middle Eastern rather than Mexican, and the rice seemed devoid of starch, as though washed clean--but still tasty and, by Billingham standards, creative, inventive and unusual.

And then there was the dulce de leche cheesecake--light, fluffy and well-balanced by a buttery oat-cookie-crust base. They wouldn't reveal what made it so good, but said the recipe may appear on their website in the future.

I hope Mohujos does well--I hope, at least, that it lasts longer than the tapas place that preceded it--but if not, I really really hope they try making the most of the chef's background and go Portuguese. Either way, maybe Billingham could become a dining destination after all.

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Blogger Kyle said...

Admit were the female patron thrown out of Li Wah for laughing too loudly. We all know of the "Smelly Cat" incident at All-Asia. The precedent fits too well.

5:52 PM  
Blogger LimeyG said...

There was no "Smelly Cat" incident--it's all a lie. Anyway, I'm pretty sure the laughing woman thing happened in the 60s. Though my attempts to corroborate this have fallen flat.

5:12 PM  

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