Tuesday 17 August 2010

Benito's Hat: Mexican Kitchen, Covent Garden

At last a burrito I can respect. 

The jaw locking pork burrito at Benito's Hat is a behemoth example of what a burrito should be. It is literally bursting with pile upon pile of tender, fragrant shreds of carnitas pork - braised slowly and simmered with lime juice, balsamic vinegar, black pepper, cumin and oregano. The balsamic may lack authenticity, but is a deliberate improvement beyond reproach since it adds a superb kick. It comes topped with mounds of black beans (slow cooked and flavoured with avocado leaves), coriander and lime rice, lettuce, grated Montery Jack, guacamole, sour cream and salsa - all somehow rammed into a soft tortilla. I can't believe what I'm seeing as it's being built. But I keep quiet and watch bemused as they somehow manage to wrap it all up. It costs £5.50 (plus 50p for the guacamole). Bargain.

The Peanut Gallery's chargrilled steak burrito is right up there with the pork. Marinated overnight in chipotle chilies, lime and spices the lean meat is supremely tender with an earthy, smoky flavour - he opts for the slow cooked pinto beans with paprika instead of the black beans (£6.00).

This is gutsy Mexican food. It tastes both fresh and interesting. And (tip to other burritos I've tried recently) it's not overloaded with refried beans to the point of saturation of all other flavours.

Benito's Hat opened its new outlet in Covent Garden on 16th July, an offshoot of its popular Goodge St restaurant. The decor in Covent Garden is different - quite stark and white, with splashes of green and red, it doesn't encourage lingering. It screams fast food (despite the careful, slow cooking involved). But chef Felipe Fuentes Cruz concedes this, and admits the team are already considering changes to soften some of the edges and encourage their patrons to linger with that extra margarita or dessert.

You get the idea they're flexible enough to make whatever changes are required to satisfy their customers - some Goodge St customers have commented that the food tastes different, which Felipe puts down to the different, more modern equipment being used in the new kitchen. If the new stuff doesn't work out, they'll revert back to the same equipment as in the original store. It seems to be working out to me...

Named after Benito Juarez, a former Mexican president with a penchant for a certain distinctive wide-brimmed hat, Benito's Hat is the enterprise of Ben Fordham (ex-lawyer who has honed his culinary skills in Mexico) and head chef Felipe (formerly of other London Mexican restaurants like Green & Red). Felipe, hailing from Puebla in Mexico, is happy to chat with patrons as he works the floor and the cash register, and his passion - devoid of any ego - is obvious. 

The aim here is to bring the vibrant flavours and colours of Mexico's rich culinary culture to Londoners who are over the bland Tex-Mex scene.

The flavours are simple and fresh. And, for once, the pork burrito tastes and smells distinctly different from the beef one. 

There are tacos, salads and soups as well. 

We start with a couple of margaritas - classic for me (£5) and watermelon for TPG (£6.00). Made with 100% Pure Blue Agave tequila (no mixers) they're excellent. 

We accompany them with some light and crispy tortilla chips with a terrific guacamole - chunky fresh avocado, with the zing of lime and the bite of summery tomatoes.

We also try some tacos with 2 types of chicken - Ben's chargrilled chicken breast, marinated overnight in chipotle chillies, cumin and cinnamon, and Felipe's braised chicken breast version cooked in a blend of achiote (the seeds are ground and used as a mildly flavoured colouring agent in Mexican cooking), tomato and guajillo chillies (£4 for two). They come in soft flour tortillas with the recommended lettuce, cheese and salsa (although you can add other toppings). Alone they would be a much smaller meal than the burritos, and together with a burrito, it's all way too much. But we battle on in the line of duty...

Felipe's braised chicken is particularly good (again, so tender) but the tacos are less interesting, less meaty - I'm afraid they don't compete with the magnificent burritos so I take a couple of bites and decide not to waste rapidly diminishing stomach space.

And then, although we can't believe we're doing it, we have dessert. By this point our chairs are creaking, on which grounds we steer away from heavier options like the tres leches cake and go for a ball of dulce de leche ice-cream, sprinkled with cinnamon and surrounded with a higgledy piggledy array of buneulos (strips of fried flour tortillas) liberally sprinkled in sugar and cinnamon (£3.50). Presentation could be improved, and while I didn't adore the bunuelos I devoured them in a way you wolf down the empty calories of a packet of Doritos after a big night on the town - in that wasteful, dirty, mindless sort of way. The ice-cream was lovely.

Benito's Hat is great value - you could easily get away with a meal and a couple of drinks for around £15 (or well under a tenner for a quick bite without alcohol).

The only real drawbacks are some confusion around the method of service - the idea is to order up at the counter and walk along selecting your toppings. Some customers were clearly a little befuddled about where to start queuing from, and even while things were quiet, there is a bit of a wait. This issue will probably only magnify as the queues start rolling in.

However, not only is it the first burrito I'll actually return for (once I've digested this one - it may take a while), but it's also inspired me to take heart that good Mexican fare in London may be worth looking for.

Benito's Hat Mexican Kitchen, 19 New Row, Covent Garden, London WC2N 4LA (Tel: 020 7240 5815)

The original Benito's Hat is located at 55 Goodge Street, Fitzrovia, London W1 4NB.

Greedy Diva was a guest of Benito's Hat.

Benito's Hat on Urbanspoon


  1. I still see the dreaded RICE in a burrito. That really is one of my pet peeves BUT the rest looks great and the bunuelos! I love them. This looks like good honest Mexican food, like the taco shops I used to hit late nite back in CA after a hard nite of partying. I may just have to check out Benito's hat.

  2. I went to Benito's hat when it first opened in its original shop and thought it was pretty good. More a takeaway than eat in place though.

    Wine Sleuth - I thought the rice in burritos was a more Californian style?

  3. Winesleuth - The rice in burrito thing is like the great burger bun debate. So long as it's not being heaped in too much as a filler, I like it as it helps soak up the juices. It's optional at Benito's Hat anyway.

    Gourmet Chick - I think they are both more takeaway or quick bite places, although they wants to encourage the eat in crowd at the Covent Garden venture which will require some tinkering with the decor I think.

  4. Magnificent is the exact word for how that burrito looks! And for someone with unknown and uncertain lunch plans this post is torture. Damn I wish I still worked in Covent Garden!

    Another one for the list then...

  5. Becca - Actually, I don't think my photos capture the full meaty goodness of these things - I wish I had my camera at the counter as it was being put together. Spectacular.

  6. I work around the corner from here and am a regular. Their burritos are consistently awesome and have very friendly and fast service. I recommend the hot sauce/salsa. It is very tasty as well as nicely hot :)

  7. Anon - the pork burrito still remains a regular staple for me when I need a quick fix!


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