THE WAITRESS is smiling and cheery behind her mask, I’m smiling and cheery behind mine. Sit where you want she says gesturing expansively throughout this sprawling restaurant.

So I pick this plum table with its peachy view over to Princes Street. But even before I touch down, just as I look down, the theme tune from Jaws has started playing in my head. Duun, Duun, Duun.

El Cartel, the child of a child of a reputedly brilliant Mexican restaurant, spawned in the city’s student quarter and now branched out to down some stairs, round a corner, down even more stairs and caramba there it is. Perched on a secret eyrie hidden just below the Royal Mile. Hand-pressed tortillas, Massa Harina, proper ingredients. Hola Amigos!

On paper anyway this should be really, really good. Especially since and even though, right now, at the top of the Harry Potter close I entered to get here, at that shockingly tacky bit of the capital, across from the City Chambers, tourists amazingly still clog and block the chill December pavements.

While in El Cartel this lunchtime anyway, there’s light, space and cool, calm air. Aah. Plus a kind of wild, strange Mexican mural which seems to be the bit where they stopped with the decor.

A prosperous looking couple chat warmly at the table next to me, he with his Rolex, she in her Doc Martens. Behind that, two English blokes are eating their Chamoy Wings and chummily congratulating each other for not going to Pizza Mutt as usual: good shout mate, yeah told you.

It’s all very promising but Duun Duun Duun. I look down again: shriek. A laminated menu. Nooo. In the lingua-franca of my culinary world anyway, nothing more eloquently says: we don’t care. Not a bit. And a bent and tired laminated menu at that, devoid of much, but prices and websites and quenching hope like a Greta at a climate conference.

I hear myself saying: I’ll have the Street Corn please, on the cob with cream, mayo, chilli and hard sheep’s cheese. Those slow roast pork ribs too with cumin, garlic, al pastor sauce and salsa verde.

Okay I don’t actually speak out the ingredients - that’s entirely for your benefit. But internally I’m scanning the world’s dullest typeface and reacting quietly to the prices.

A fiver for the corn, not bad, but ooft a tenner for those ribs. On a lunch menu? They’ll never compete with Wetherspoons at that rate.

Duck carnitas, too, the word roller coastering from the tongue, and I’ll have another taco please, I add, glancing up and seeing the waitress momentarily flinch at all this food going El Gordo’s way.

The smoked cheese and leek one. Seven quid for the tacos which will arrive in pairs. On those little silver taco racks that are all the rage these days.

But before we get to that I slurp and spray, I bite and chew my way through a fair old heap of ribs, my mask ending up with potentially crowd-clearing blotches of bright red salsa all over it. Fruity, is what I note, spicy, coriander, zilcho cumin, and the ribs pleasantly crisp beneath, then firm but hardly moist or tender. And the seasoning? Next to none.

The corn? Imagine cobs rolled in mayo, sprinkled with a pungent cheese, dusted in chilli spices, also faintly redolent of lime, think of big punchy flavours. Yep, you’ve got it. And messy.

At least these tacos are made in-house; I can feel that so satisfying, never forgotten, slightly crumbly parting of the ground corn tortilla as I eat.

The confit duck is crammed into it in thick, satisfying hunks, alternatively crisped and soft, is that a raisin I taste? Ping a pineapple cube goes off. Jalapeno hints, a juicy pecan salsa. Caramba. This is pretty good.

Can’t say the same about the smoked cheese, chipotle, cheese leeks, red onion even; Pico di Gallo it promised. Just a kinda mush is what it delivers. Incredibly salty too. El Cartel then? Meh. Lunch anyway.

El Cartel

1 Roxburgh’s Court

323 High Street,



0131 220 5924

Open: all day - closes 10 pm

Menu: Tacos, freshly made apparently, ribs, splattered corn; pretty run-of-the-mill Mexican fare these days. I ate from the lunch menu though. 3/5

Service: Sleepy, slack December lunchtime when not much happening; efficient and pleasant enough behind the mask. 3/5

Price: Duck carnitas £7, smoked cheese and leek £6, ribs a tenner, street corn £5. Okay for lunch in Edinburgh. 3/5

Atmosphere: Large, airy and spacious with a view (sort of) over Princes Street, shoehorned down a close; quiet when I was in. 3/5

Food: The ribs and the corn completely lacked seasoning, the duck was slightly over-seasoned, the leek taco shockingly so. On paper sounds great, in practice not so much. 5/10

Total: 17/30