The volume of ‘cast your mind back to the pandemic’ think-pieces appears to have slowed from torrential to intermittent gouts in recent months and this is both welcome and understandable. We’ve been filled to spilling with misty-eyed recollections of binge-watches and goblin-mode couch-couplings, scrubbing the messages with carbolic soap, sightings of majestic herds of caribou grazing down the Five Lamps and so on. Hashtag what a time to be alive. Let’s move on. The courses of history’s relentless tasting menu are being served with such haste that we can’t remember a global health disaster while trying to digest a Russian coup attempt. The idea of a mutinous former hotdog vendor having a credible tilt at seizing the world’s largest nuclear arsenal generates dread-reflux in me but is somehow still not sufficient to cure me of my hotdog problem. Good, bad or indifferent, if it’s a frankfurter in a bun I’ll choke it back with relish (not the condiment). It’s gotten to the point where my fancy wife now disgustedly refers to them as ‘filth tubes’ and lectures me about the health of my gut biome. We’ll circle back to that expression (the filth one) a little later with even more unpleasant context.
Cast your mind back then to the Summer of 2020 and as a society we’re oscillating wildly between periods of cowering in our dens and fitfully being permitted to patronise places that previously fed and watered us. But not the way we used to. No proximity, little joy, 105 minutes. Consume, sanitise and hit the road. Bon appetit. We mostly understood and complied. So when a video began to circulate online of a liqour-soaked, undistanced debauch shot in a Dame Street bar called Berlin outrage ensued. Perhaps taking the name of the place too literally staff and patrons were apparently attempting to re-enact scenes from the last days of the Weimar Republic. Another flagrant flouting of restrictions spurred the authorities to act and the place was shuttered. Licentious one day, licenceless the next, Berlin became another F-notch on the Jay Bourke bedpost. I’m getting to something resembling a point – the joint recently re-opened with new ownership and is now called Pawn Shop. Within Pawn Shop you’ll find a Mexican restaurant called Órale and if you’ve read this far you might as well stay for the food.
Mexican Food in Dublin is still not quite as well represented (or understood) as it might be, especially in bricks and mortar. The birria craze that began to grip New York City about two years ago is nowhere on the horizon. I suspect that there’s a lingering (mis) conception here that it’s something that you get from a truck at a festival rather than one of the most complex and thrilling cuisines devised since we began introducing ingredients to fire. The burrito blight of places like Boojum do little to advance the cause. That’s not about authenticity but quality. The genial Gustavo Hernandez used to sling some seriously good tortas and quesadillas at the stall he shared with his wife in Temple Bar Food Market and latterly from his K-Chido food truck but sadly appears to have ceased trading. Los Chicanos Tacos rolled in on a wave of hype but didn’t quite live up to it for me – I preferred the pared-back preparations at El Grito but then they upped and moved to Mountjoy Square and that’s too far from my desk. John Farrell’s 777 remains in a class of its own. Órale had an itinerant start with owner/operator Ian Cairns popping up like a game of whack-a-mole around various pubs and venues since 2019. This is the closest he’s gotten to putting down some roots.
On a bright May evening the space is flooded with light and there’s a hen party getting loosened up with a few cocktails at a large table. We are joined by old friends Frank and Marie, a couple of film-makers and academics who were over here visiting from the great state of Tennessee. They’re big fiends for Mexican food and they know their stuff. There’s a doorman helpfully bussing tables during the early evening period while he’s not required to be outside pulling arms from their sockets. He looks like one of the contestants from those early eighties strongman gameshows where individuals would compete to tear tractor tyres apart without rupturing themselves. I’d say more power to him but that seems scarcely possible. Details like this, the concrete DJ booth and the expanse of empty dancefloor serve to remind that you’re not eating dinner in a regular restaurant.
From the admirably concise menu we start with some plump, briny oysters, dressed with an orange and basil salsa that doesn’t overpower the bivalves. Lovely. Orange appears again in the saucing of the Agave Habanero Chicken Wings. It’s a vibrant, eye-widening sauce bright with Achiote but the wings sorely needed a little more time and heat. This sort of unevenness would run through the menu. A Tostada topped with Steak Tartare and Bone Marrow eats well enough but the flavours are oddly muted. The advertised Habanero Salsa provides just a suggestion of itself and the marrow is elusive. Tacos are well put together and made with good quality tortillas (some made with blue corn) but each one we tried – Masa Fried Chicken, Baja Fish and Pork Carnitas suffers from an unconfident hand in the application of salt. Seasoning needs to more strident across the menu, the first syllable of the word Salsa spells it out. Salt is ‘additive’ in the best possible way – elevating ingredients to taste most truly of themselves. This is not a hot take.
There’s a ‘Wet Burrito’ listed. As I wrestle with the dish description I momentarily zone out and a dimly remembered story of Mötley Crüe degeneracy bubbles up from my unconscious. Legend has it that Tommy Lee and the lads would stop off at a spot called Noggles at the end of the night for burritos. Okay, sure. In the back of the limo band-members would be inserted into the burritos in a bid to throw their better halves (how could they be worse?) off the scent of their infidelities. Unsavoury stuff. I make a mental note to save the story until we’ve finished eating.
A Half Chicken (from Ring’s Organic Farm) with Mole shows what the kitchen is capable of. The bird has been weighted on the grill to produce a superb char and sits atop a pool of teak-dark Ancho Mole that has the complexity of the very best. It’s a stunning dish and reason enough to come here. Frustratingly though the Chicken Fat Rice that comes with it is barely fat-slicked at all. Maybe they ran out of schmaltz. A whole seabass comes out profoundly over-cooked. Frank tells me that his wet burrito was actually a little dry and I take his word for it.
There’s a better restaurant in here trying to get out, there’s ambition and invention in the kitchen but it needs to stop holding back and trust that Dublin palates can deal with the flavour profiles dialled right up. Órale is a common slang term in Mexican Spanish, an affirmation of ‘hell yeah’ or ‘it’s all good’. It’s bueno for sure but not quite there yet.
Words: Conor Stevens
@ Pawn Shop
15 Dame St