El Grito, Unit 2-3 Merchant's Arch, Temple Bar, Dublin 2. (01) 5584717
I don't know about you, but one of the things that's been helping me get through dry(ish) January is Rick Stein's The Road to Mexico. Of an evening, you'll find me curled up on the sofa in front of the fire, cup of sleepy tea in hand, dreaming of sunshine and vibrant colour and food filled with heat and flavour that lifts the soul.
I do hope that he's being paid by the Mexican tourist board, because Mr Stein's cheerful enthusiasm certainly has me Googling hotels in Tulum and wondering if there's any way of sneaking off for a life-enhancing spring break before I succumb to the terminal gloom of an Irish winter. I suspect I'm not alone.
Mexican food is one of the great cuisines of the world, sophisticated in a way that may not necessarily be apparent if the only food you have encountered from that country is the leaden kind of burrito that has become the default ballast option favoured by students and slender young people who don't have to worry unduly about carbs or calories.
If you want to explore cooking Mexican food at home, then Diana Kennedy will teach you how. The 90-something English woman has published nine books on the subject, including the seminal The Cuisines of Mexico, and received Mexico's highest award for foreigners, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, in 1981. Kennedy is all about authenticity and respecting tradition, and she doesn't have much truck with fusion food, to which anyone present when she spoke at Ballymaloe Litfest a couple of years ago will attest.
Of course, you are unlikely to find the ingredients to make proper Mexican food on the shelves of your local supermarket, but for Dublin dwellers, Mexican woman Lily Ramirez-Foran's lovely little shop Picado Mexican Pantry on South Richmond St in Dublin is on hand to supply everything you need, from corn tortillas (or the masa-harina flour and metal press to make your own) to achiote paste, and a comprehensive array of different chillies. There's an online shop too and Lily also runs cookery classes and small suppers.
If, however, you'd rather just pay someone else to make Mexican food for you, then you could do worse than pay a visit to the unassuming El Grito, tucked away in Merchant's Arch in Temple Bar and run by a Mexican/Polish couple. So tucked away, in fact, and co-located with Hanley's Cornish Pasty Shop and a South American grocer's, that I walked past twice before I found it.
I first heard about El Grito from one of my daughters, who in turn heard about it from a friend who teaches English to foreign students. It was, he told her, where all his Mexican students went to eat when they wanted food from home.
Sure enough, when we pitch up for an early lunch on a bitterly cold day, El Grito is already thronged with a group of language students - from Mexico, Spain and the Canary Islands - tucking in happily, and talking about their mothers' food. (One described a recent 'light lunch' of red beans and black pudding that sounded fabulous.)
The menu is short, and everything costs the same, which makes things easy. You can choose between burrito (filled flour tortilla), tacos (corn tortillas), torta (Mexico's version of a sandwich), quesadilla (toasted tortilla, melted cheese), gringa (toasted tortilla, grilled cheese), nachos (corn tortillas) or volcan (crisp corn tortilla), all riffs on the taco/tortilla theme.
Then you choose your filling, from a selection of pork, beef, chicken chipotle, chilli con carne and Mexican chorizo. The ghost of a vegetarian option lingers faintly on the blackboard, but appears no longer to be available, and really vegetarians have no place at El Grito. You order at the counter and the food takes about 10 minutes to prepare, during which time you should try and commandeer one of the half dozen stools in the tiny restaurant.
Tacos al pastor are thought to have been introduced to Mexico by immigrants from the Lebanon in the 1920s and 30s, which makes sense when you look at the vertical rotisserie of pork at El Grito. The idea is that the adobo-marinated pork has as wide a surface area as possible on which to develop that delectable Maillard char, and that slivers are sliced off and combined with fragments of warm, sweet cooked pineapple that are the hallmark of a classic pastor. At El Grito, you get five crisp little tacos filled with the sweetish meat, onions and coriander, to which we added some melted cheese and guacamole.
With hindsight, the cheese was unnecessary, and the flavour of the meat would have been more distinctive without it, but the guacamole - simple, salty, with just a little green chilli, white onion, coriander and lime, I think - was a great addition. We also ordered the gringa with barbacoa beef - slow-cooked, tender, with depth and richness - and grilled cheese, to which we added some sharp pickled jalapeños. There are a couple of good salsas on the counter; the green salsa verdes more deadly than the smoky salsa rojes.
With one shared agua de horchata - sweet rice milk topped with cinnamon - our bill for a hearty lunch for two came to €21 - pricing guaranteed to generate sunshine.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
El Grito is one of the most pocket-friendly eating experiences in the city. Each dish costs €7.
ON A BLOW OUT
It's hard to spend a lot of money at El Grito, but if you opted for lots of extras and had a (soft) drink each, you might be able to push the bill up to around €25 for two.
THE HIGH POINT
El Grito is a friendly spot, crammed with Mexican people who clearly eat there all the time.
THE LOW POINT
It's a bit of a squish, so probably not somewhere that you're going to linger after you've finished your food.