Viva margarita at Besos Latinos

Kim Knight,
On Trend,
Publish Date
Friday, 5 May 2017, 2:31PM

This is not the first time tequila has lulled me into a false sense of security. Once, for example, it prompted me to swim fully clothed in a hotel pool at midnight and leave a 14-year relationship.

The ensuing years were no picnic, but I still give thanks to the mango margarita(s) that hastened the inevitable.

On a recent Friday night, I found myself taking a sip down memory lane. New life, new love, new shoes (I appreciate one of those things is not exactly like the others) and a pretty damn good glass of salt-and-chilli rimmed mango margarita.

We were doing dinner and a show. Determined the second part of our evening would not begin with a grumpy usher and a torch, I chose a restaurant that was (individual times may vary according to heel height) a five-minute dash from the Aotea Centre.

Elliott Stables is a kind of upmarket food hall, frequented by the middle-class and the middle-aged, en route to appointments at spiegeltents and the Lower NZI Room. Every table is numbered, but how do you make sure someone else doesn't take your table, while you're placing an order?

Besos Latinos avoids all this stress by virtue of its status as a full-sized, stand-alone eatery at the back of the main dining hall. Plus, it takes bookings.

At 5.30pm, we were the only people there. This is a recurring theme in my overly punctual life. It ensures I am one drink ahead of everyone else, and there is time for pudding. Also, you get to choose your seat.

Besos Latinos has great seats. Proper, comfortable wooden seats at proper, comfortable wooden tables. There is ample room for your food, your punched-tin candle holder and your water jug, which is actually a recycled, skull-shaped tequila bottle. Of course there's a Virgin Mary over the piano, a portrait of Frida Kahlo and a skeleton wearing a sombrero. The decor is an exploded pinata of dimly-lit South American cliche but, against the century-old brick walls of this historic warehouse, it works.

To recap: I was delighted by the ambience, loosened by my tequila and charmed by the waitstaff. I can't however, go the fulsome enchilada with the food.

Besos Latinos bills itself as "the first Latin American gourmet restaurant in New Zealand". Perhaps it was. But somebody needs to get out more if they seriously think the piles of grated carrot and chopped iceberg lettuce that adorned almost everything we ordered could still be considered "gourmet".

The $16 Peruvian ceviche (distinctive for its inclusion of corn kernels) was made with warehou - and thank goodness, because only a very robust fish could withstand the acid assault that pooled in the bottom of the plate.

A margarita with a plate of empanada at Besos Latinos. Photo / Getty Images

The pastry on a shrimp empanada ($12 for two) had a doughy, uncooked flavour (though the filling was delicious). Jalapeno poppers - $12 for three cheese-stuffed, crumbed and deep-fried whole chillis - gave the cooling ceviche an even greater reason for being.

Was there mushroom in the vegetable quesadilla? I asked the waitperson. Yes, she said, and technically, she was correct. On my final mouthful of a tortilla that wasn't hot enough to melt the scattering of cheese inside, let alone the thin scraping of tomato-infused paste and corn that apparently constituted "vegetable", I found a single slice of mushroom. It was the most disappointing dish I've ordered this year. I wanted oozy cheese and umami-shroom, not something akin to a flabby Chux cloth.

Across the table, the opposite was happening. A chargrilled churrasco steak with a zingy chimichurri sauce ($32) was smokily delicious but seriously chewy. Don't try this if you don't have your own teeth.

Dessert? I factored in a queue to pay the bill, a loo break, and a brisk walk to the theatre. There was, it appeared, just enough time for another margarita. My mood was already improving.