If you ask a Mexican about the culinary specialities of his region, chances are his answer won't include minced beef and melted cheese. And yet – despite an enormous Mexican diaspora, large numbers of whom work in the restaurant trade – Tex-Mex has become the bland de facto representative of a cuisine recently recognized by UNESCO as one of the world's cultural treasures. It's as if the whole of France's rich food history manifested itself only in cheap croque-monsieur chains. Thankfully, Gabriela is here to rescue us from taco hell.
Opened last November by the proprietors of legendary tequila bar Agave (and conveniently located directly above it), Gabriela has quickly developed a loyal following. Just as Agave demonstrated that there is far more to tequila than cheap shots, Gabriela's mission is to prove that there is more to Mexican food than Tex-Mex.
In Jalisco (one of Mexico's 31 states) slow-cooked meats take pride of place; this is also the case at Gabriela. The warm 1930s décor is strikingly enhanced by the restaurant's glass smoker. According to our genial host Ferri, a man with an obvious passion for food, beef, pork and lamb are slow cooked over 5 or 6 hours allowing flavors to develop and mature. The visual effect of this kind of cooking is spectacular, and this writer could happily have stood for 5 or 6 hours with face pressed to the glass, just watching mouthwatering sides of lamb slowly transform. But meals don't eat themselves, so we proceeded to order.
On our waiter's recommendation we began with a surprisingly full-bodied Mexican Sauvignon Blanc (700 yen) with just a hint of apple that was good enough to demand a second generously poured glass. Opting for one of the set menus (5800 yen, or 6800 with milk-fed lamb), we began with a mixed starter plate. Almost a meal in itself, the plate consisted of some of the more familiar dishes of Mexican cuisine. The guacamole was freshly made to order – as it always should be – and was rich, chunky and perfect with warm corn tortilla chips fresh from the fryer. And in preparing the fried quesadilla the chef somehow managed to achieve the perfect balance of crispiness on the outside and softness on the inside, without allowing the dish to become oily.
Prawns in a light tomato sauce served on a soft taco added an acidic contrast, whilst our favorite – chicken and black beans tostada - was a triumph of texture.
But the real highlight of the plate was a sensational salsa which was deep, layered and fresh. Not only did it elevate all of the dishes, but it was good enough that we found ourselves guiltily spoon-feeding each other the remnants.
Next up were soups, first a tomato-based tortilla so rich and smooth as to be almost a sauce, and with just enough heat to keep us wanting more. That was followed by a chicken broth with a spectacular depth of flavor, garnished with red onions, coriander, avocado, chili and lime.
As much as we enjoyed the appetizers – and we really enjoyed the appetizers – the main event was of course the meat. The hefty 2-inch thick Mexican beef tenderloin was perfectly seasoned. Four dipping sauces (salsa verde, salsa roja, white wine vinegar dressing and a beef gravy) allowed for different interpretations with every bite while a side salad of watercress and coriander added crunch and texture. This, apparently, is how the Jaliscans eat their meat and on the evidence of this dish we're not inclined to disagree with them.
The rack of milk-fed lamb – which had entranced us since our arrival – was even better. The 6 hour smoking process had allowed some of the oil to drip from the fattier portions of the meat, rendering them crispy, unctuous and simply delicious. The meat below, perfectly seasoned, fell from the bone and made it almost impossible to stop eating – though we did periodically take breaks to sip the house red (700 yen), a Mexican Petit Syrah seemingly made for red meat.
The generosity of the portions made dessert an unlikely prospect but at the urgings of our friendly waiter we braved the flan. The matronly Mexican hostess proudly informed us that this was a family recipe, augmented by the addition of coconut milk. The result was a light, eggy, cheesecake-textured concoction that we will happily order on our next visit. Which, I'm happy to announce, will be soon. Tex-Mex is dead. Viva Mexico! Viva Gabriela!