Now let’s face it, Mexican restaurants in the UK haven’t had a particularly good reputation in the past. A pre-mixed sweet margarita and stale nachos out of a plastic bag don’t make for an exciting eating experience; a tatty straw donkey and a dusty sombrero hanging on the wall most certainly do not an atmosphere make.
We probably shouldn’t even call most of them ‘Mexican’ as the food is really a pastiched US cuisine that is correctly termed Tex-Mex and bears only vague similarities to the extensive and varied regional kitchens found south of the border.
Which is why on my very first visit to La Choza – way back in 2012 – I entered with a high degree of trepidation. I’d walked past the unavoidably brash façade on Gloucester Road in Brighton a number of times, and I’d heard a fair few good things on the Sussex culinary grapevine, but my preconceptions of Mexican food – no doubt also influenced by being force-fed Old El Paso fajitas packet mix in my teens – were firmly entrenched and not in a good way.
That first lunch was perhaps one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had in Brighton. The small restaurant was packed to the rafters with North Laine trendies. We were squeezed onto the end of someone else’s table; clearly egalitarian dining was on the cards. Cutlery crammed into a battered tin can, garish vinyl covered the tables and bowl after bowl of food was being rushed from the basement kitchen to hungry, animated diners. I immediately realised the tequila and mezcal was clearly already flowing with cocktails as far as the eye could see… I was an immediate convert.
Since that first visit, I have to hold my hands up and say I’ve become good ‘amigos’ with gregarious owners Annie and Aoife – and their talented and perhaps long-suffering head chef Benji – , in fact I’ve even dragged them to the Netherlands to bring some La Choza magic to a twice sold-out food festival supper we organised together.
La Choza’s build-your-own bowl concept was pretty novel when they launched and it remains a fun and engaging way to dine. Choose a base of tacos, tortillas or re-fried beans; pick the filling from a choice of fish, meat or vegetables; and then test your tastebuds with varying heats of chilli-packed salsa. I like a bit of heat but I must say when the guys say its hot, then its really bloody hot.
As a man of occasional simple taste, my usual La Choza go-to is the spicy chicken quesadilla – flat flour tortillas stuffed with pulled meat, melted cheese and sour cream. It’s also a dish that doesn’t require excessive napkins or finger licking.
However on this visit, with the encouragement of my lunch guest and the quaffing of two pineapple margaritas, I went off-piste with the weekly specials board that included seasonal asparagus tostados, tacos with lamb in a mint and cucumber marinade, locally caught sea bass ceviche and habanero tempura prawns with mango and lime.
As I’m currently on a mission to eat as much ceviche – raw fish ‘cooked’ in the acid of citrus fruit – I can confirm that La Choza’s sea bass on crispy tostado was impressive. But the pièce de résistance was the deep fried prawns: these boys were big, fat and juicy with just the right combination of crispy, light batter offset by tangy mango and lime.
Price-wise, La Choza is unbeatable. For a hearty meal, you’re basically looking at between £10-12 plus a drink; kids eat for £6.50 including a drink. When you consider that pretty much everything on the menu is homemade at the restaurant – including their very own chorizo – and local suppliers are used wherever possible, its insanely good value for money particularly at a time when we’re all feeling the pinch.
This month – as La Choza celebrate their 10th anniversary – I can hand-on-heart say that, when I finally write the no-holds-barred book on Sussex food and drink, this restaurant will not be a mere footnote in the growth and development of Brighton’s creative, independent food scene. It’ll get a full chapter: Viva La Choza!
La Choza, 36 Gloucester Road, Brighton BN1 4AQ
01273 945926 • www.lachoza.co.uk