I really didn’t want it to be this way. El Chico’s, which opened in 1998, is a Streatham institution. It is perhaps rivalled only by Mrs. Wongs Chinese restaurant, further down the High Road, as the longest serving member of the Streatham culinary community. As every misguided, poorly named, poorly executed new eatery crumbles to ash after a year, El Chico’s stands proudly, blue neon sign burning the air, watching history flurry past.
How is it, then, that it is so impossibly bad?
Valentines Day is a funny time for me to return to El Chico’s. The last time I was here was as a teenager. My then-girlfriend, a year my senior and legally allowed to drink, wanted to order a cocktail. For some bizarre, puritanical reason, I was against it. Probably jealously, probably a pathetic exertion of control, thinking hormonally that this was normal behaviour. It (rightly) led to her shouting expletives at me in the street and storming off, leaving me stood alone on the pavement, tail firmly pinned on the donkey.
Ten years later and my current partner arrives with a box. Naturally, it isn’t for me. It was thrust at her by a drunkard on her way here. “Alright sexy?” he said, “Here. Happy Valentines Day,” and off he wandered. The box, as you can see, is filled with strawberry and cream cupcakes, sour strawberry cables and a mini bottle of Blossom Hill. It was the Ark of Heartbreak, a face-melting container of romantic pathos. Stood up? Said the wrong thing? Allergic to strawberries? We’ll never know.
I arrived before my date and was sat at the back of the restaurant, at a cramped table that had not been dressed. A couple next to me ordered six double tequila shots, either in celebration or a bid to Eternal Sunshine what they just ate from their minds. There’s a few young parents here too – people for whom Valentines used to be a pointless preamble to drunken shagging, and is now spent wet-wiping enchilada juice off a toddler’s sticky claws.
El Chico’s is, and has always been, a family restaurant, a birthday party venue. To expect an authentic Latin American experience here is to expect wine and cheese at the GG Allin show. In my head it’s always been Streatham’s answer to Holborn’s Ciao Bella; passable food in a glorified bar, a safe space for getting wrecked. But the food is not passable, not even close.
After moving to a different table out of the darkness (a wall light bulb had died) we made our order. A ‘Cancun street food burrito’, which is a more demure size than the regular one, each, plus a sharing platter for two with all the Tex-Mex usual suspects, and two barbacoa beef tacos.
We waited for these items for almost an hour. A complimentary tortilla chips and guacamole came from an apologetic and saturnine senior staff member. My partner was impressed with the guacamole. I was not sold. It was inoffensive. It also proved to be the nicest thing we were served all night.
The starters and mains arrived all at once. The burrito, filled with flat, dry paella rice and flat, dry pork was a tired old thing. The platter contained a fair enough beef chilli, some Odeon-quality nachos, frozen mozzarella sticks that disintegrated in your hands like wet candy floss, and two chicken wings. The wings are the first, and hopefully last, things on this High Road voyage that I can describe as inedible. One bite of wet, gooey skin and flavourless flesh is enough to put me off landfowl for life.
Though not the most unpleasant thing on the table, the tacos were perhaps the biggest piss take. They did not contain barbacoa beef, they contained the exact same chilli that sat a foot away on the platter. I had to Google ‘barbacoa beef’ to make sure I hadn’t lost my fucking mind, and that this was as much of a conceptual middle finger as it appeared. There was also a piece of paper packaging in my partner’s burrito. I’d have taken it over those wings no questions asked.
After all this was politely made clear to the manager, he kindly wiped the bill clean and gave us two tequila shots for our trouble. As we were leaving he hovered by the door, a look of crestfallen shame on his face, a thousand apologies spraying forth as he took my hand for a conciliatory shake. “See you again,” he mewled. This isn’t the first time this has happened, and won’t be the last.
It honestly gives me no pleasure to write this review, in this way. This isn’t some eye-wateringly over priced sub-Michelin-style ego trip from a ‘top chef’ who loves the smell of their own truffle-oiled farts. I went to this place when I was a child, as a horrible teen. There are a million memories for thousands of people tied up here. It makes me wonder whether there’s even any point in reviewing it. Maybe there isn’t. Twenty-two years deep and Streatham seems content with it. Even so, El Chico’s should honour decades of patronage with some desperately needed overhauls. For many, Valentines Day is a rare night out, a special occasion, and those people deserve better than the loveless spread on offer here.