Why. Why, I pondered wide-eyed. WHY must it be so hard to get a decent margarita these days?
True, I don’t spend ALL my time looking for one. And…well several places in Canterbury appear to be offering them now I do a Google search…and I know a lot of people in the UK may be more concerned about being underwater…….but, damn it, this is important!
This pondering took place last Friday night, as I gulped down increasing ales in one of my usual dens of inquiry and found myself craving my favourite cocktail. Nobody panic – I still like beer that tastes like twigs and beards. But every now and then I want to pass the evening sipping something sharp, strong, and full of bite (for I am but a girl). Frozen or shaken, just make sure there is a nice layer of salt on the rim of the glass and we’re golden.
But finding a good one is getting harder these days, even as cocktails in traditional pubs become more commonplace. For with mass production, margarita standards dip and they are often sullied with sugar or fresh lime juice has been abandoned in favour of for lime cordial.
So as the dawn rose on Saturday and I lay on the bedroom floor cursing the pus-spewing Gods of ale for my headache, I realized I needed food and writing inspiration; I had the perfect reason to go to Café Des Amis.
Before we go any further, please note that Café Des Amis is a restaurant, not a bar. While I normally stick to pubs & bars for Places to Quaff and Quarrel, I have long history with this little number and it warrants a fair slice of my time. And you can get drunk there.
Café Des (as we regulars call it because we don’t have time to say all the words) offers modern Mexican cuisine, and has been a Canterbury institution for 25 years. Way back in the late 1980s, it was pretty damn hard to get your hands on a burrito outside of London so there was a gap in the local market. There were none of your Chiquitos, none of your Chimichangas, none your burrito shacks, none of that, none, none, NONE!…..actually I think Chiquito started in 1989….
Finding an alternative to burgers when dining out was a treat for my family, and Café Des never failed to satisfy. Like a hot sizzling orgasm.*
Found on a precarious corner by Canterbury’s Westgate Towers, next to the River Stour, Café Des Amis probably hasn’t had a slow day in the last quarter of a century. Beloved by students (they offer student discount and plenty of sharing dishes) and fought over by locals, it is a cross between a ramshackle beach hut and an explosion from Dia des Muertos. Aztec blues and pepper reds, distressed tables and chairs, drift wood shelves, papier-mache art and infectious Latin tunes; it tantalizes the eyes and ears before the taste buds.
(And if you need a cooler reason to visit, the menu and original promotional artwork were designed by Dave McKean, cover artist for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Hi prints still adorn the walls. DA-DAH!)
I have particularly fond memories of this place for ‘twas a favourite of my late father’s. He liked nothing better than ordering up a great pile of fajitas, and then stabbing at us wildly with a steak knife when we reached for seconds. I remember him ordering a habanero chilli as a side dish, and merrily devouring it, seeds and all. A fleck touched my 14-year-old lip and spent the rest of the day head first in Antarctica. Dad didn’t drink much, but something about Café Des always put him in a daring mood. “I’m going to have a margarita,” he’d nod.
“Have you evergotten really drunk, Dad?” I asked him, once over lunch. “Really drunk?”
Dad paused for thought. “Once time when I stayed up for two nights in a row playing poker in Las Vegas, got through a bottle of tequila and the woke up somewhere wearing a poncho.” My father, readers.
Beyond the laid back vibe, the strength of Café Des has always been the quality of its food
. The menu has changed very little in 25 years, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It offers Mexican stables such as nachos, fajitas, burritos, enchiladas, and tacos, as well as bolder dishes with more Mediterranean and Californian influences, including a hearty paella, duck breast with mole sauce, and roasted vegetable tostadas.
The meat is delivered by the local butcher, the fruit and veg from a local market. The cherry tomato salsa and unctuous guacamole is made fresh daily. Service is swift but pleasant, and you’ll need to book way in advance for a table on a weekend night.
I have tried many dishes here in my time, but their nachos will always have a soft spot in my heart. Here they are appropriately loaded and the punchy mature farmhouse cheddar compliments the freshness of the salsa. And any decent Mexican must be judged on it fajitas, and Café Des’ were delicious from the start. The initial limited choice of chicken, steak, or vegetables has now expanded to include shredded duck, lamb, pork belly and seafood.On my visit, the beau and I sampled the pork belly for the first time (£26.95 for two).
We were only supposed to get salads. That didn’t happen.
The pork fajitas did not disappointed, Firstly it comes with crackling on the side, which instantly wins my heart (beau does not favour crunchy pig skin for he is but a tiny prepubescent girl). The pig meat itself was succulent, tender and lashed with caramelised onions and peppers, with a thick slice of lime on the side. The seasoning was spot on as well with just the right amount of heat to enhance the smokey flavour. I’m actually getting a bit emotional just thinking about it. Don’t look at me for a moment.
My only slight criticism with Café Des is that they could be a liiiiitle more generous with the fajita toppings – it’s easy to reach the end of your dressings before your last tortilla. But perhaps it should be a lesson in self-restraint; the fajitas are filling to say the least.
If you have room for dessert, the chocolate fundido for two is not to be missed. A selection of exotic fruits and sponge fingers are served with one pot of deep, dark melted chocolate, one pot of whipped cream and NO RULES. The chocolate, orange pecan torte is also the sort of dish that will change you as a person, for good or evil.
Nowadays, Mexican food is so wildly available that the novelty has worn off for some. Nachos and fajitas are practically a pub staple, and I’ll be honest, there are a plenty of pubs in Canterbury where I can eat nachos and frequently do when I’m in need of a fix.
But Café Des Amis is a treat that I like to save and savour. There’s a reason I’ve been coming here for 25 years, and it is because its quality makes it an indulgence and puts it on a far higher tier then the cheaper Mexican grub doled out by chains.
And most importantly…Café Des will at least serve you a damn fine frozen margarita, and an even better shaken concoction.
Fresh lime juice, quality tequila, and a salted edge, they burn in all the right ways and leave you affected. My lunch was washed down with one, and I don’t regret a moment of it.
Cafe Des also has a selection of tequilas to sip, and other saucy cocktails. I don’t think I’ve ever had wine there (why have wine when you can have margaritas and then more margaritas?), but I commend them for providing a wine list that gives novices a helping hand with their selection.
Punchy cocktails at lunchtime may seem excess to more faint-hearted amongst you, but do you have a good enough reason NOT indulge this weekend? I didn’t think so.
With a margarita in my veins, I was ready to take on the world. After a little sleep.
Open: Mon to Thurs 12pm to 10pm, Fri & Sat 12pm to 10.30pm, Sun 12pm to 9.30pm.
Often two sittings for dinner at weekends. Early evening menu £13.95 for two courses and a drink (5pm to 6pm Mon to Fri). 25% student discount at select times.
* That’s how my parents described it at the time. I hadn’t thought about it until now.