If Wahaca has made Mexican food trendy, liberating it from the slightly grubby stereotype, the burden to elevate the concept further has fallen on the inconspicuous Café Chula. Here knowledge, selection and service all beat the price expectation. Highly recommended.
Camden is not about high dining: street food is what the Lock does best. Café Chula both partakes in the trend and refines it, by providing West End standards to a cuisine tailor made for street food. The venue is small and not particularly noticeable, surrounded many colourful establishments within West Yard. The first impression is that this is most definitely not a tourist trap (and in Camden there are many…): pre-frozen dishes, haphazard service, greasy tables, random entertainment of disputable quality and the ubiquitous fish and chips have no place here. Café Chula keeps the décor demure but warming, just slightly spiced up by the Mexicana graphics (a Mexican spin on '50s Americana). Earthy colours and materials mingle with simple furnishing: basic square tables and chairs with a shared tall table in the middle, metal garden furniture in the heated patio and a wonderful glass wall looking onto the canal.
Perfectly informal, Café Chula works as a relaxing pause at any hour. This is one of those rare places where couples and groups work well together: the restaurant can be intimate enough to have a chatty couple's dinner, but it's also well suited for catch-ups with friends. In the evening, when West Yard is otherwise quiet, the restaurant is full with a nicely diverse clientele, speaking for the venue’s broad appeal. A key contribution to the atmosphere is the staff: you may not visually recognise the difference, but here the service is more attentive than many West End establishments (and certainly many Camden eateries), even when the restaurant is full. The strikingly energetic and engaging staff and passionate owners are a goldmine of information: their knowledge of Mexican food is pretty extraordinary.
The kitchen staff are bona-fide Mexican, bringing in flavours, recipes and tricks which are very much the real deal and not the British bastardisation. For dinner, within the 'antojitos' (generously portioned starters, £3.50-£8) the tortilla chips with guacamole are excellent - and huge - but these cover just the basics. At Café Chula, the devil is sneakily hidden in the smallest of details. Look on your table and find three different bottled salsas: get the staff to explain and you have a totally different flavour experience at your reach. The salad of oranges, grapefruit, rocket, radishes, cheese, pumpkin seeds with chile and lime is fantastic (and, again, huge): fresh, sweet and refreshing, the oranges are a truly inspired touch.
The tacos (£8) are soft rather than hard and are served as three little mountains of filling over a small taco: you can pick from steak, chicken, shrimp and more (the battered fish the only suspiciously British concession) but the changing combo is the best - the spicing perfect. Even within the sides (£2-£3), Café Chula surprises: be experimental to squeeze Mexico out of your dining experience. The cebollitas (grilled spring onion cooked whole) are (perhaps?) new to London: they are hard to cut and too fibrous, but still enjoyable thanks to a Valentina chili sauce, delivered at your table only when you order this dish. Why? Because so it is in Mexico.
Even if you don't have room for dessert (£4-£5) you can still fall back on Mexican hot chocolate with cookies, or on their wonderful wintery hot toddy: marvellously aromatic and not advertised on the menu. In fact, at Café Chula you need to dare: ask to try something new and the devilish details will all become visible in their glory.
Everything seems worth of a special mention, from the spiced coffee (£3.50) to the hibiscus margarita (£7), to the flights of tequila - another point where Café Chula excels: get advice from the staff and experiment with Blanco, Reposado or Anejo. Even with the good selection of Mexican beers (£3.70-£5) or their range of syrup infused water, you can't go far wrong.
The Last Word
It’s hard to find fault at Café Chula. In fact this little spot is pretty much perfect as everything has been curated extremely well. Did we mention they serve breakfast, brunch and lunch as well? Soon there'll be a long queue at any hour.