It is a truth universally acknowledged that any city in possession of a few million ren and a burgeoning post-work drinks and snacks and drinks culture must be in want of a Mexican restaurant. Q Mex was one of the first restaurants to answer this demand in Beijing, and remains one of the most popular spots for locals to tank up on burritos, tacos, beers and cocktails.
The menu features standard American Tex-Mex classics, as well as some more popular creative options such as a thin-crust pizza topped with seafood and jambalaya sauce (a blend of smoked meats, onions, chilli and garlic). Fine dining or even particularly remarkable casual food this is not. But with a group of friends in tow and a desire to kick back with thoroughly decent and reasonably priced sustenance, Q Mex is a reliable choice.
Q Mex launched with more hype and hope than almost any other Beijing restaurant we can think of. And with a bona fide Mexican chef with an unmistakable passion for her heritage in Karla Castillo Reyes, it seemed destined for success.
The reality is less exciting. On entering, veer away from the table behind the bar, which is often forgotten by staff, or any underneath the dripping air-conditioning. Not that it mattered: on all three visits, we were plagued by mosquitoes – inside! – wherever we sat.
And we sat for a long time. Though there were just five occupied tables at brunch, the two waitresses were unable to keep up with orders, meaning our cafe cortado condesada (espresso with condensed milk, 25RMB) arrived as espresso macchiato, lukewarm and souring from oxidation. Taking the edge off with a ‘dirty Maria’ (50RMB) was a mixed success: it’s a great bloody Mary, with more heat and slap, but it waited on the bar for 15 minutes until we collected it ourselves.
The chilaquiles verde con huevos (45RMB) are corn tortilla chips topped with scrambled eggs, tomatillo salsa, creamy cheese, red onions and coriander. These vegetarian chilaquiles combined heat, tang and textures into a winning brunch dish. Bland chicken chilaquiles (50RMB), meanwhile, were fixed with extra-spicy chipotle salsa (15RMB), adding smoky fire to the mix. A final round of cafe con leches (latté-style coffee, 25RMB) came to us mistakenly as (again) espressos with condensed milk, so the deep-fried cinnamon-sugar sticks of churros tradicionales (35RMB), which were heavenly, went down unaccompanied.
Dinner is better, with a busier atmosphere and more staff. Start with some of their excellent cocktails – like the classic margarita (45RMB) – then move onto food. Q Mex serves Mexican cuisine, not Tex-Mex, so try the taquitos (45RMB for four), corn tortillas with chicken, shallow-fried until crispy, then topped with queso fresco and divine chipotle salsa. Equally great are the pescado (fish) tacos (25RMB) with chipotle mayo, and taco bistec con queso (beef-skirt steak and Manchego; costs 28RMB).
But still the waiters struggled, while a supervisor clicked away on his Mac, oblivious. At one point, our table was cleared by the bartender, while the servers stood around cluelessly. It’s no surprise: the owners also run Q Bar, which similarly combines great cocktails alongside outrageously poor service and a whole lot of waiting.
Q Mex is gifted with Reyes’s passionate talents, and the demand for authentic Mexican among gourmands in Beijing is high. But Q Mex needs more to survive, and the appalling service, coupled with in-house mosquitoes, ruined our meals. It’s well past soft-launch phase, too. Every star has been earned by the food alone – if Q Mex can’t handle the heat, we would certainly follow Reyes out of the kitchen and into a restaurant of her own.