Pinto, Glasgow - Restaurants in Glasgow |

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138 Queen Street,

0141 221 9330

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Mex in the city

Review published on 28/05/2012 © Sunday Herald

Mexican street food? Now there’s an intriguing prospect. Mind you, you never know what’s going to turn up on a Mexican street these days, what with drug cartels dumping miscellaneous body parts all over the shop. But there’s no such lawlessness at Pinto in Glasgow, just a faithful attempt to give us proper Mexican food, as opposed to US-style Tex Mex, or worse, UK-style Haven’t Got A Clue Mex.

“Our Ethos” says the Pinto blurb, “is to deliver a healthy, fresh, fun, fast, casual Mexican street food restaurant group”. That last word seems aspirational in that Pinto has only one outlet as yet, in Glasgow. But there must certainly be scope for more branches, given the undeniable truth that Mexican food is never truly delivered or executed here the way it is on its home turf.

Pinto looks so disconcertingly fast food, it’s off-putting. These days, even McDonald’s is aping Starbucks and cultivating a cooler, less corporate look. But with its vibrant chilli pepper scarlet and lime green colour scheme, staff with baseball hats and raucous music blasting out, Pinto is as discreet as a Mariachi band.

Pinto talks the language of provenance, but in woolly terms, pledging “only naturally raised chicken and pork” and making play of its use of Red Tractor beef. Recently, Compassion in World Farming debunked the myth that Red Tractor stands for much more than minimum legal standards, so a free-range/Freedom Foods/organic guarantee would be more to the point. That said, it’s heartening that Pinto promises that its herb and spice blends are milled every week in small batches to keep their potency and freshness, that it eschews the use of the microwave and freezer, and that its food is prepared fresh daily.

Even people well accustomed to ordering food at fast food counters, from those illuminated displays above the heads of serving staff, may find the options at Pinto baffling. Perhaps I’m a slow learner, but I had to get the person serving to explain the permutations twice. Those vertical and horizontal columns reminded me of log tables, or algebraic equations, a sort of A plus B equals C proposition, with A being the starchy bit of the equation (burrito, nachos, tacos etc), B being the filling, and C being miscellaneous permutations of add-ons, such as cheese, sour cream, pickles.

In Leon, the upmarket fast food chain in London, variations on a dish are easier to grasp. A poached egg cup, for instance, comes in three forms – Gruyere and truffle, with chorizo, or with ham hock. Even I can understand that. But at Pinto my head was reeling and I left with the distinct feeling that I could have ordered much better, and would have enjoyed the whole experience more if it had been served from a menu at a table, after explanation and deliberation, not standing up, at a counter, with a queue forming behind.

Still, the food that I did end up with was better than I expected. A soup of black bean and chipotle chilli, with corn off the cob and pico de gallo salsa, was veg-packed and full of satisfying textures. It was also so mouth-numbingly chilli-hot as to suggest a no-compromise attitude to authentic Mexican spicing. A malleable burrito, stuffed with moist and exotically spiced shredded beef, made a meal in itself. I could have done without the rice (added automatically), not being a fan of starch upon starch, ditto Monterey Jack cheese, which despite being just what you’d get in Mexico, is a bland commodity for which more interesting local equivalents, like cheddar, could be substituted. But with a dollop of sour cream, crunchily fresh cos lettuce, and a dribble of aptly named “Hell of a hot Habanero” chilli salsa, it constituted a great deal at £5.45. Our tacos with slow cooked pork were even better, because they had no rice.

If you do visit Pinto, I can recommend the velvety guacamole, better for soothing a chilli-inflamed palate than any chilled beer.

Counter culture

Review published on 12/11/2012 © Sunday Herald

Ay, caramba. Here’s where it all went wrong. As soon as we approach the counter we’re funnelled to the front by some theme-park-like crowd control system.

The menu is at rubberneck height on the wall a la McDonald’s, except way more complex. The food is laid out in bewildering patterns before us; the staff just gazing back impassively. Not a single smile. We try to speed-read the menu, working out the food combinations, while not holding the staff back and not looking any more stupid than the system makes us look. Or, indeed, we are. But aargh, there’s too much info to take in.

Oh no. Now other customers have been shuttled down the barriers and are right behind us. Waiting. We’re holding them back too. How stupid do we look? There’s no way to escape either, because of the barrier system, and still nobody’s cracked a smile behind the counter.

So what do we do? Forget the menu, panic buy. Give us some of this and some of that. Yeah, yeah, the green stuff. Tacos? You betcha. What? Hard or soft tacos? Fire roasted tomato chipotle. Tomatillo salsa verde. Burrito? Everything in it please. Drinks? Oh my gawd, do we have to work out what’s available to drink too?

Eventually, the whole lot is piled up beside the till. We’re now so sorry for the inconvenience we’ve caused that I’m hunting round the restaurant for a tray, because there isn’t one being offered from behind the counter. I grab one from a pile near a pillar, stack the food on it and we retire to a tight little booth to lick our wounds, and realise the tray has already been used. Groan. Is this what happens when right-on, reasonably well sourced, big-flavoured food meets fast-food style? Maybe.

The queueing system is difficult and I don’t like the decor and the Mehi-i-can themed colours, which are too harsh, but you’ve got to ask yourself this: have they cunningly designed it this way so you don’t linger?

This is a new Glasgow Mexican joint, not Tex-Mex – definitely don’t say Tex-Mex – which promises healthy street food. Full marks for that sentiment, anyway.

I obviously struggled with the counter experience, but we’re quite liking the food. The slow-cooked pork in my tacos is deep, rich and strongly enough flavoured to fight for attention with the cheese, the sour cream and fire-roasted tomato chipotle that has a real zing to it. The cubes of char-grilled steak are nothing special in yet another taco – told you we were in a panic – but Luca and I are deeply impressed with the chicken tortilla soup. Its chunks of Red Tractor chicken in a deeply flavoured stock spiked with chillies, dusted with mild cheese and crunchy tortilla pieces, give a great combo of textures and flavours.

That burrito Debs ordered? The usual stodge on stodge with a heavy dollop of beans to the filling and a smattering of char-grilled chicken, yet somehow quietly satisfying. I polish it off anyway.

Pinto is fairly grown up inasmuch as you can buy a beer, and if you have time to look up the website you’ll find a big, long, touchy-feely mission statement. You could even practise ordering from the online menu so you’re up to speed when you find yourself shuttled to the front of that counter.

But is it all any good? Combining healthy, well-sourced food with a fast-food style packaging is the holy grail of the restaurant industry. Crack that and you’re made for life. Have they managed to do it in here? Nope. Even McDonald’s has moved away from the harsh, cold interiors and there isn’t much point in cleverly drawing up your menu if you design the counter system so badly it doesn’t work. Well, not for me anyway. But the food has sparkle and the prices aren’t bad. It may not be the holy grail, but it’s definitely a step up from the usual offerings.