On a quite stretch of Mayfair, literally steps south of London’s Shepard’s Market lies L’Autre, a Polish-Mexican restaurant. Over the past several years we’ve stumbled upon word of this bizarre gem on several occasions, and each time we thought, “Really must try that one day.” The day of reckoning came last Friday, during a slow and fruitful pub crawl in Mayfair.
The rumored story of the location—one of deceit and international intrigue—turned out partially true. Born at the end of the 1970s as the sister dining room to a now closed joint called This and That, it developed a following in the ranks of the nearby Mexican Embassy. Sensing an opportunity, the Vancover-bred owner hired a Mexican chef (from the Embassy) and started to appeal to this client base with off-the-menu items. As one might expect, other punters were intrigued (and here is that half of the rumors) by the Mexican dishes, which soon found a happy place on the full menu.
In 1987, the Mexican chef left London and went back home. To fill the demand he left in his wake and continue to appeal to the local client base, the Canadian owner advertised for a new chef with one condition: must be able to produce Mexican food. A lady applied, fooled the owner with one well-practiced Mexican dish, and suddenly pierogies started appearing on the menu (the deceit).
As the former owner told us, Shepard’s Market was a place one could dine, booze and pay for a shag. He knew his new Polish cook wouldn’t spend money on hookers. (Why he told this story remains a bit of a mystery). What he also decided was that she was competent and clever. And as such, a Polish Mexican restaurant was born.
The same trusty Pole that transformed the menu on Shephard Street in 1987 remains there today. In fact, she took our orders, retreated to the kitchen and later emerged with nachos. On first glance, they were as feared—traditionally British in conception.
Perfectly triangular tortillas sat beneath a molten heap of oily cheddar cheese. This glistening covering was topped by a terribly thin and by the book salsa, sour cream and guacamole. A picture of inadequacy.
Yet, spirits remained high. The atmosphere (like the young lady seated beside us) exuded such charm. We’d entered a rare world, where tortillas lived happily next to potatoes and men mostly came through the door to down vast quantities of Vodka and tell tales of the “Soviet days.” It was something—and it is typically best to avoid this clichéd distinction—out of the old school. A place that made little sense from menu to décor, but inside felt homely and close to perfect.
This calming scenario shed new light on the presented nachos. We’d seen them before, closely resembling the trainreck passing for nachos at nearby Harrods. But here, the cheese and chips married well. The salsa gave a hint of tang, the sour cream lived free from chives. Best of all, the guacamole was great. Fresh. Full. Spicy. Unlike anything we’d ever had in Britain. A proper strike on the “Mexican” food that had bullied our fancy.
These nachos were the opposite of the beauty sat beside us. She was absolutely gorgeous, but sullied by a metal filled smile. The nachos were average, but boosted by a delightfully unexpected guacamole. Often a single ingredient (or component) fails to save the dish. Yet, here we found a remarkably simple plate. One that felt at home in its surroundings, surroundings we too found great comfort.
Given the sum total, nachos from L’Autre will never rank in a top ten list. Nor will they be recalled for particular charms on the palate. They will, however, live in memory for the surprising nature of their build and the even more surprising history of their location.