Tales From The Street: Mission Mariscos
By Laura Martin
While the Mexican cuisine scene might be pretty healthy in London at the moment, there's just one thing everyone has failed to nail. The mighty fish taco. Done well, there's hardly a better street food snack: crispy chunks of battered fish topped with shredded cabbage and a kick-ass salsa, all encased in a taco. Good thing Mexican-born, LA-bred Andrew Ramirez of Mission Mariscos also realised there was a gap in the (food) market and decided to bring the staple Cali street food snack to London.
Andrew had been in the UK for 12 years, but it took until 2012 for him to get the fishy epiphany. He says: “I woke up one day and wanted a fish taco and I was like, “I can't get them anywhere!” Then I thought, this is perfect, no-one else is doing it. I'd been waiting for a good idea to come along because I wanted to do street food, but I didn't know what to sell. That's when I realised the last good fish taco I had was when I was back home five years ago – and I could change that.”
For two years now, Andrew has been cooking and selling fish and prawn tacos from his popular stall at Schoolyard Market, using a mixture of recipes handed down to him from his family, alongside some almost obsessive research on how to make the ultimate dish.
He says: “Growing up, I learned how to cook from my mum and grandma. My grandma's not with us anymore, but before she died, my uncles were making videos of her making all the cooking, showing us how to do it. I have all her recipes from my mum, which she then taught me.”
While a fish taco is seemingly a simple dish to prepare, Andrew reckons the secret is all about having the freshest ingredients and balancing all the flavours out. He says: “Also, it's so important to get the batter right – making sure it's nice and crunchy. There's a fair amount of ingredients in it and I had to do a lot of practising and reading lots of different recipes, as everyone does it differently. I think now, they way I do it is the best way.
“Other than that, it's just shredded cabbage and pico de gallo – tomatoes, onions and coriander.” And of course, the other draw to Andrew's stall is his punchy homemade salsa – which should be liberally doused on everything else as well as fish tacos, in our opinion. He says: “The salsa is taken from what my grandmother showed me and from reading lots of recipes. When I started this, I had to research ideas as I didn't make fish tacos at home. I made all other types of things, but we'd say “Oh, let's go and get fish tacos” - it was a treat to go and get them. I don't why that is – actually, I don't know anyone who makes them at home. I guess people don't really fry or have the proper fryer at home.”
With his recipe sorted, it was time to taste it out on the punters. While a cold, rainy pub carpark in Kentish Town might not sound like the best place to launch, it gave Andrew an idea of the demand for the dish. “It was really crappy weather,” he says, “but they were still selling well so I stuck with it.”
On a good day at the market, Mission Mariscos gets through around 60 or 70 fish tacos, but it takes a big commitment from Andrew, who is a builder during the week. He says: “Even if I'm selling well here, it's always a lot of work – four hours of prep each Friday, then a 12, 14, sometimes 16 hour day, then after costs, I'm lucky to make what I would make normally on an eight hour day. I'm waiting for my mum to get here so she can help me out!”
Next up on the menu is some other traditional Mexican plates, menudo and tamales. Tamales are a traditional masa stuffed treat wrapped in corn husk especially popular around Christmas, while menudos are, well, let's put this bluntly, tripe. Andrew explains: “I want to bring these dishes to the stall – tamales would be great for Christmas as that's what everyone eats in Mexico. You can't really get them anywhere in London and that's what I want to offer – things that you can't get anywhere else. Menudo might be a bit more of a difficult sell, but I think I might give it a go as people around here are pretty adventurous with food, plus I can't see how anyone could try it and not love it – I grew up on it.”
The success of the tacos has to be down to the food itself – plus the fact that word got around that finally there were some decent fish tacos in London. Andrew says he has a load of local regulars, but students with the munchies also keep him well in business: “There's a lot of American students here who I think have had them in America, and they're like “Oh my God! Fish tacos!”. I think they've come across the stall, got really excited, told their friends then they come back every week.” We don't blame them.
While Andrew's plan is to be able to move out onto the main strip of Broadway Market (sales are said to be double that of a stall in the Schoolyard Market), and to have other stalls in other markets like The Wick, his ultimate goal is to get a permanent place for Mission Mariscos. He says: “I've been doing building work for most of my life and the aim is not to be doing it when I'm older. I'm already breaking down as it is! I can't be doing it forever, so to be doing food would be fantastic.”
He adds: “In about 2008 in London, no-one was doing good Mexican. At that time, my friend and I decided decided to do a food truck but then he chickened out and went home. But I wish I'd done it then – who knows where I might have been now? Now I'm focusing on fish tacos as no one else was doing it – that's my angle. If I'd done it 10 years ago, I'd have been the one and only. Now you get tacos everywhere.”
Yeah, but there's only one place worth its weight in jalapeños for fish tacos.