Brunch is a meal that is hotly appreciated in Brighton, but I would argue a strong case for simply ‘lunch’. Whether you look forward to the break in your day at work or a special weekend outing, the city has plenty of tempting lunchtime spots. Tucked away in the buzzing Brighton Open Market just off London Road is Casa Azul, a family-run Mexican restaurant serving first-class food. I meet the owners, Gabriel and Marina, who take the time to sit down with me and talk through the ethos of their restaurant.
The ‘Tex-Mex’ takeover in recent years meant there are now lots of westernised versions of Mexican cuisine. Now, food lovers are now craving authenticity and flavour from people travelling more or watching food programmes on television. The head chef has been in the catering industry in the UK for many years, but about a year ago Gabriel and his family decided to revisit the food of his birthplace in Mexico City. After a trip back to the capital city to remember the traditional flavours, Casa Azul (‘Blue House’) opened in Spring 2019.
To drink, you can choose from freshly made Horchata (£2.50), made with rice and flavoured with cinnamon and sugar. For me, this is the perfect palette cleanser and is hugely refreshing. Alternatively, Agua de Jamaica is a beautiful iced tea made on-site from dried hibiscus flowers sweetened with sugar (£2.50).
The team at Casa Azul has created a ‘mirror menu’ in which meat-eaters and vegans can enjoy the same dish specially adapted to their diet. Casa Azul serves eight taco options (four meat, four vegan) alongside their daily specials.
I choose the vegan ‘Tinga’ from the menu (£5.90), consisting of carrots, with a chipotle chilli-infused tomato sauce topped with vegan cream and vegan cheese. The meat version substitutes chicken for the carrots in this dish. The dish is served with a side and refried beans with a chilli sauce of your choice. With three soft tacos accompanied with a side, this is incredible value for your lunchtime meal.
Don’t be alarmed by the dark-greyish colour of the taco wrap. “Some customers say to me, ‘it’s dusty!’”, Gabriel laughs as I enquire about the usual colour. They both explain that it is made from blue corn, a tradition for Central and Southern Mexico. Casa Azul aims to dismantle the misconception that Mexican food is notoriously hot. Heat can be added to taste through a variety of freshly made sauces such as a sesame-based Sala Matcha and ‘Guacachilli’ hot sauce.
Initially, I say I have no more room for dessert, but Gabriel insists I must try their flan. This iconic dessert was initially brought to South America from Spain and has been a fundamental part of Mexican food culture for centuries. The sweet is smothered in a pool of thin, but rich caramel and the custard is so wonderfully creamy and smooth. I wash this down with a cup of Mexican coffee, served black with cinnamon and panela cane sugar.
Jars of the renowned Salsa Matcha can be purchased to take home and if you bring the container back you receive a 50p discount. Aside from specialised products, all their meat and vegetables are bought locally, either from Brighton Open Market or a nearby butcher. Their zero-waste initiatives emphasise how a sustainable mindset is possible for even smaller businesses in the restaurant industry. Marina and Gabriel want to demonstrate how ‘fast’ food can be good food. Marina also tells me about their ‘hanging meal’ concept with the YMCA, in which you can purchase food at Casa Azul for vulnerable people who need it.
If you find yourself in the area or need a family-friendly lunchtime spot at the weekend, Casa Azul should be top of your list. The long table in the centre of the room is the perfect place for communal dining, either with your friends or with other members of the community. This is authentic Mexican home cooking in an up-and-coming foodie hotspot of Brighton.
Casa Azul is located at Brighton Open Market, Marshalls Row, BN1 4JU. Open seven days a week. Mon-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 11am-4pm