The first time I met Guildford it was drunk. Proper raging, steaming drunk. An editor with a dark sense of humour had sent me to the town’s booze barns on a Friday night 20 years ago, to report a piece on binge-drinking Britain. You try interviewing inebriated twentysomethings just as their blood alcohol is rising. I remember one of them shouting all their indignant comments at my notebook, as if it was a Dictaphone. Happily, I later learned that, courtesy of the Guildford School of Acting, it also has one of the UK’s pre-eminent musical theatre courses. I much preferred to think of Guildford as all jazz hands, time steps and moistly emotional choruses of 525,600 Minutes.
Now I can attach to Guildford’s name another story, one which, as it happens, is also a little intoxicating and equally plump with drama and emotion. Its name is Gordo’s. It’s a Mexican restaurant and it may well be exactly what you need in these, the darkest, dreariest days of the year, when all the things to look forward to in winter have passed. It’s a simple, utilitarian-looking place: white frontage, the name spelled out against a turquoise sign. The only mark of what it’s offering is flagged up by the Latin American bunting hung from the ceiling, just visible through the plateglass. Inside, the open kitchen’s splashback is tiled in the colours of the Mexican flag and the tables are laid with vivid textiles. As you sit down a basket of golden tortilla chips arrives, still warm from the fryer, alongside a little hot sauce. It feels like the product of a tight budget, a focused imagination and a commitment to the fundamentals of looking after people.
Rafael Onate arrived in Guildford from Latin America two decades ago, hungry to work as a chef. He had just enough money in his pocket to call a friend, which is to say 20p. Goddamn those bloody migrants coming over here with their recipes and their skills and their driving ambition. In one London restaurant kitchen there were three cooks called Rafael. So Onate became Gordo, which was his nickname. It means “fat”, although I’ve seen the man and, frankly, he’s not even trying. Both he and his wife, Johanna, who he met in Guildford, wanted to open their own place. They finally managed it in 2021, as we were emerging from the pandemic. He told a local paper he was worried customers wouldn’t like too much spice, “But we put the spices separate and they can add as much or as little as they want.” And here they are on the table: a parade of El Yucateco hot sauces direct from Mexico, in various strengths of habanero and chipotle. Take note of the multiple letters in the “Exxxtra picante”. Mind you I really did meet some of the locals once, and as I wiped down my notebook of spittle, I concluded they would be up for most things. Never underestimate the good people of Guildford, or the bad ones for that matter.
The menu is built around the familiar and the classic: tacos, chimichangas, quesadillas and the like, with various braised and grilled fillings and toppings. We get a large bowl of still-warm nachos, crowned with fronds of greenery, with crumbly, seared chorizo and, on the side, a deep soothing bowl of their long-simmered black beans. It’s the kind of thing designed to make you feel better after a long grey walk through a drizzle-dampened British high street. Another portion of fried tortillas comes lubricated with a sauce of chopped fresh green herbs and topped with fried eggs, their sunshine-liquid yolks binding it all together. Vegetable empanadas are made with soft, flaky pastry and puff billows of spiced potato at you as you bite in. All of this comes sprinkled liberally with various grated cheeses and sliced fresh chilli. There are few things that aren’t improved by the addition of cheeses and fresh chilli.
Turning gently in the kitchen, looking much like a shawarma, is the pork al pastor, topped by a caramelising pineapple. Onate slices the meat from the bottom of the vertical skewer and the fruit from the top and serves it alongside a cast-iron skillet of rugged, warm corn tortillas, made to order for them locally. Get the Taco Board at £22 with enough for two, and it comes with pots of this, the slow-braised pork and the slow-braised chicken, black beans, sour cream, fresh chopped onion, chilli, lime wedges, chopped fresh herbs, more hot sauce and a brilliantly industrial cheese sauce the colour of fake tan. It’s a food adventure playground; a place to experiment and dip and dive and spread. Eventually, we abandon the tortillas and just fork away the fillings.
A black bean and three-cheese quesadilla is, of course, the grandest of toasted cheese sandwiches elevated to main event. If this is all too much softness, have a chimichanga: a crisp, golden, deep-fried tortilla wrap, filled with any of the above proteins, then dolloped with cheese and guacamole, sour cream and chilli. There were, to be clear, four of us shaking down the menu. Studied in this much detail, patterns emerge: they are offering permutations of proteins, toppings and things to wrap them in or dip into them. It’s an observation, not a criticism. Because all the constituent parts have a beguiling freshness and vivacity.
Gordo’s really do give a damn about what they are doing. The compact repertoire also keeps the cost down with main courses struggling to get above the low teens. Plus, there’s a breakfast menu of eggs in various Mexican ways, which naturally enough involves tortillas, hot sauces, cheese and black beans. It’s all the things that will make the day ahead look better, especially if it’s January.
If you want to be on first-name terms with your booze the drinks list includes a choice of mezcals and tequilas with titles like Don Julio Anejo and Jose Cuervo. We, however, have places to be and decide instead to get merry on sugar. Here come the sugar-crusted, deep-fat fryer-fresh churros, with both dulce de leche and chocolate sauces. You could, of course, come to Guildford for a lost night at All Bar One. Obviously, you could come here for the musical theatre course and learn to tap dance. But if you didn’t stop by Gordo’s on the way you’d be seriously missing out.
Article written by Jay Rayner. Full article (https://www.theguardian.com/food/2024/jan/07/gordos-guildford-restaurant-review-food-adventure-playground?CMP=share_btn_wa)