Hot and Healthy

Mexican food to go outlets have been springing up all over London in recent years and the trend shows no sign of abating. Many appear to come from the same mould, but one in particular, Poncho 8, stands sombrero and shoulders ahead of the rest. Nellie Nichols saddled up and paid a call.

Poncho 8

I’ve got this texture thing. I loathe soft and squishy and bouncy food; oysters, scallops, lumps of cooked egg white (chunky egg mayo, God forbid), and as far as I’m concerned, the Devil’s work has to be bananas.

I’ve been known to move train carriages to get away from people eating them and when the skins are put in bins, that ghastly smell lingers on for hours, I can smell them a mile away.

I used to have an issue about walking past them in a supermarket aisle but I’ve finally worked through that. When I was small, for some reason they were a compulsory part of my diet and I recall being faced with them mashed with cream, congealed in a bowl. The only encouragement I was given to eat them was a liberal sprinkling of Demerara sugar, as if that was going to make the difference.

Burritos from Poncho 8At the time we had poodles, Mabel and Maudie, and their meals were supplemented for years with flicked-under-the-kitchen table illicit mashed banana. I don’t recall it doing them any harm so it worked well for everyone: my mother was happy, the dogs were in heaven and I was off the hook.

When it comes to cuisines of the world, the texture rule is still my barometer and, if I’m honest, it’s held me back on many an occasion from eating Mexican. I have absolutely no idea why anyone in their right mind would want to eat Frijoles Refritos – refried beans. Apart from the fact they are a real palaver to make properly (wash raw, soak overnight, stew, puree into a rough mush, then bake with lard – I’m heaving at the mere thought of it) what you are left with is a textured cousin of the ghastly mashed banana of my childhood.

But a handmade, design your own burrito is a very different thing and over the last few years the number of outlets selling them have been springing up like daisies all over London: Chipotle from the States, Tortilla, Bar Burrito, Benito’s Hat and Poncho 8 to name just a few. What fascinates me is they are essentially all selling the same product, but a product that has a growing and enormous popularity.

Snacks from Poncho 8

Now I hear many of you saying that it’s essentially the same format as a sandwich, which as we know is a chameleon and a very clever one at that, having such a diverse wealth of different fillings and carriers. A burrito is made up of the same basic components: a tortilla enveloping rice, meat, beans, salsa, cheese and sour cream. Granted the rice is often flavoured and the beans slow cooked in all sorts, the salsas coming in different strengths of Pico de Gallo (mild), verde (medium) and Roja (fiery hababero chillies) and the beef, chicken or pork frequently chipotle grilled, slow cooked or achiote braised, but the cheese is nevertheless a grated cheddar type and the sour cream is well, sour cream.

So who’s the best and what’s the difference? Will they all continue to enjoy growth and expansion or is a point of difference vital? To be sure, the welfare standard of meat isn’t what I would call much of a point of difference anymore with consumers expecting decent farming as the norm now, and every one claims to make guacamole freshly each day (is it hard to mash fresh avocados with some lime and seasoning, not forgetting one has to anyway to avoid browning).

But if I’m going to pin my hat on any of them it’s going to be Poncho 8 and I’ll tell you why.

I’m sitting with Frank Yeung, co-founder in his recently newly opened Sheldon Square, Paddington store. I rather like Sheldon Square with its steps rising up in a giant semi-circle, forming dramatic seating for local office workers having lunch in the sunshine, like some modern Roman amphitheatre.

Burritos with dipThe choice of where to buy lunch is a good one for the companies that surround it – Pret, Itsu, Tossed and Poncho 8. Frank started his career in the City and, like many, hated it. Having a passion for Mexican food, he opened his first Poncho 8 in Spitalfields, with his friend Nick in 2009, with a bit of help from family and friends.

At the time there was little competition, compared to the London Mexican food to go landscape as it stands today. They opened their second in St Pauls a year later, their third in Soho in 2011, which Frank is happy to admit didn’t work (Soho hates brands and chains) and was then replaced with Leadenhall. Creating a new look to the stores, they went on to open in New St Square, Holborn and Devonshire Row. Joined by Sheldon, they are now in negotiation to open in Canary Wharf.

Frank Yeung is an incredibly likeable guy. Unlike many, what you see is what you get … but he is nobody’s fool. He has a refreshing honesty, but is clearly a very sharp cookie and over a Mexican flat white (60/40 Mexican Brazilian coffee beans and very good it was too) he tells me he’d like to grow some more stores. It’s been a vast learning curve and he has been doing it for a while but it might perhaps be someone else’s job to take it to 100 stores? He’d love to do it all again one day in the future but with the valuable knowledge he’s gleaned … a different concept and perhaps a different funding structure.

So, I ask Frank, what’s so different about Poncho 8? What is driving its success, and he immediately says health. Poncho’s rice is brown rice not white, and, apart from Leon, I’m not sure what other food to go operators on the high street are being smart enough to use it exclusively on their menus instead of white, which goes through a refining process that strips it of its nutrients and fibre.

A low carb box has been designed in conjunction with The Foundry Gym to keep energy levels high throughout the day, offering a filling, but low calorie option. Then there is their whole wheat tortilla, rather than, again, the white version, and the nutritional programme on their website which I have spent far too much time playing with, working out the calorie, carb, protein and fibre count of various products on their menu. You can order on line with a collection and delivery service – it’s all very well thought through. Genuinely very easy, convenient and, most importantly, healthy, andasfarasIcanseeno other Mexican operator is even trying to encompass health like this in their menu.

Poncho 8 Fresh SaladIf I was going to be really picky, I’d say their website could be a little more descriptive on their products, for instance on how their meats are cooked. I know they are going to great lengths to develop great tasting ingredients but you wouldn’t know it from a marketing perspective. They could bolster their brand a great deal doing it.

There’s something else very clever Frank has done in this new store and I’m looking at it: the first grab and go chiller cabinet in this sort of concept I’ve seen, filled with a grand selection of Mexican-inspired goods, from cold wraps (the chicken and avocado with fresh mango salsa was lovely) to wraps that can be toasted for breakfast such as the banana, Dulce De Leche and peanut butter; to quesadillas and innovative salads like the artisan Chihuahua cheese and chipotle honey with roasted pumpkin seeds.

This bespoke designed chiller has been hugely successful in driving new sales – the power of grab and go versus the inevitable queue for handmade burritos, tacos skinny and nachos boxes made to order. There are booths to sit at, bowls of freshly cut piled up wedges of limes, the most fabulous help yourself glass water keg with a tap.

It all says rather unique and cool and not mass-produced. It holds a charm made up of Frank and Nick’s personal design: strips of Mexican tiles in the floor, entertaining Mexican nick-nacks on shelves dotted around. I get the feeling each and every store from now on will continue to look uniquely different, not the expected venture capital, blanket template that so often looks identical on every big brand’s next store opening.

The London Evening Standard has called Poncho 8’s the best burrito in London and that’s an accolade I think they may well hold onto for quite some time to come.

Poncho 8