Shanghai is saturated with a lot of things, but Mexican food ain't one of them. What Mexican food there is in Shanghai primarily gravitates towards Tex-Mex, AKA your standard repertoire of quesadillas, half-assed tacos, burritos et al.
Kelley Lee and her business partner Raffe Ibrahamian are both restaurateurs with an astute business accumen for sensing a change in what Shanghai diners want from a Mexican restaurant, hence why they've done a slash and burn on Cantina Agave, and replaced it with a new, more authentically Mexican sibling, Tepito.
The reality is that neither expats or locals are willing to shell out hundreds of yuan for the same tired Tex-Mex made with cheap ingredients that you can just as easily assemble yourself from City Shop. Tepito aims to buck this trend by offering chef-driven, regional dishes that focus more on specialty. The chef in question is Edgar Hernandez, a real, live Mexican hailing straight outta Mexico City.
In addition to being a mezcalier, 28-year-old Hernandez was for seven years mentored by one of Mexico's most renowned chefs, Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, and more recently worked with Pilar Cabrera at La Olla, an Oaxaca City restaurant.
First things first, margaritas. Tepito's are strong and made with Corralejo Blanco and Grand Marnier (RMB70), and come shaken and on the rocks. They'll also make it frozen on request. Cheaper booze includes RMB35 Corona, red wine by the glass from RMB45 or a delightfully salty and grapefruity 'Paloma' cocktail (RMB60).
Tepito might be more chef-focused than many of Shanghai's other Mexican restaurants, but for the most part, the menu has managed to balance deliciousness with its ambition. The 'crudo' (raw) section of the menu dedicates itself to fish and seafood, including a traditional ceviche de mariscos (RMB88), which is fresh, tangy and fiery.
However, it's eclipsed by the excellent kingfish tiradito (RMB78), with mango, jalapeño, a smoky charred oil, guacamole purée, and sour cream. Unlike the ceviche, the tiradito is not served spicy, so we added a splash of Tabasco to kick it up a notch.
Fiery chicharrónes (deep fried pork crackling) also make an appearance, served with guacamole for dipping. These guys have a very porcine flavor, so think of them like meat nachos. Delicious meaty nachos made of skin. What's not to like?
Vegetarians don't get much of a look in at Tepito, but one of the few vegetable dishes on the menu, the earthy 'ruleta rusa' ('Russian Roulette') peppers are a hit. For the most part they're mild and enjoyable, but occasionally one comes out as insanely spicy resulting in an emergency margarita ganbei.
Charred Mexican corn ('esquites,' RMB48) is a must-order. Made from an intriguingly chewy white maize as opposed to the standard yellow corn, it has a popcorn-like flavor that intermingles with a subtle dousing of mayonnaise, cream, lime, chili powder and queso fresco (fresh cheese).
Tacos also play a key part at Tepito, and while the fillings are limited, they're hands down the best we've tried in Shanghai (so far).
Crunchy, rolled flour carnitas taquitos (RMB58) with salsa verde, avocado sauce, jalapeño and more queso fresco were an obvious success. Good carnitas (slow braised shredded pork) is the cornerstone of a Mexican restaurant, and should be juicy, rich and addictive.
Soft tacos make an appearance in the form of panuchos de cochinita pibil (Yucatan-style shredded pork with habanero salsa and black bean purée, RMB68) are double layered to provide distinctiveness between the pork and bean purée, and the habanero salsa is darkly spicy. We wish there more of it.
Tepito also offers a taco of the day (RMB25/65) – filled with their "favorite meats" (carnitas and chorizo on this visit) and crowd-pleasing classic topping of onions and salsa. We were worried these looked dry when they arrived, but luckily they were juicy AF and non-soggy. Not a shred of sad lettuce or unmelted cheese in sight.
Touching on another cornerstone classic of Mexican cuisine is the pato con mole negro (RMB138). Famous for its deep brown color, mole is traditionally made with chocolate, chili and a million other spices. This dish sees magret duck (the specific type used to make foie gras) breast and leg lavishly doused in a very dark mole, apparently made using 70 percent dark Belgian chocolate.
Dubious? Even the menu nervously disclaims that this is a "very traditional dish not to everyone's liking!" But if you like juicy, fatty meat and complex, dark flavors, order it. We also can't imagine they're turning a profit on this dish given how hefty the portion is. Unless you're a luchador in training, you will almost definitely need to share.
More conventional tastes are to be found in the Yucatan tamarind pork ribs (RMB168), which seem like a little swipe at fellow Mexican restaurant Maya, renowned for its sweet and sticky glazed pork ribs.
Perfect for people who like (a lot) of meat, but we'd choose the duck over this by virtue of its uniqueness.
Food Verdict: 2.5/3
Like its predecessor Cantina Agave, Tepito is aiming for fun, casual and group-friendly vibe. Gone are the raucous free-flow margarita packages in favor of more refined cocktails, but colorful interiors still lend themselves to get togethers both celebratory and otherwise. Management tells us a weekend brunch will also be coming soon.
One thing that bothered us was that servers insist on remembering orders in their head rather than writing it down. We seriously hate this in both casual and formal restaurants. Why add to the anxiety that something has been forgotten? On one occasion, our server forgot our main, a problem easily solved by using a pad of paper and a pen, or even an iPad if you must.
Vibe Verdict: 0.5/1
Value for Money
Some dishes might not be to everybody's liking, but frankly speaking, Tepito is the change that needs to happen to Mexican food in Shanghai. Come in a group and you're looking at an average spend of RMB150-200 per person (more if there's just two of you). That's not dirt cheap, but for the quality of the food and the chef behind it, Tepito is good value.
Value for Money: 1/1
TOTAL VERDICT: 4/5
Price: RMB150-300 per person
Who's going: young locals and expats
Good for: casual dinners, groups, Mexican food, tapas, groups, dates
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