Located just a few hundred metres from the more recently opened The Junction Market, Nag’s Head Market has been providing a place for vendors to sell their wares for nearly fifty years. Here, in just a few paces, you can go from getting your palms read to gorging yourself on steaming hot pierogi. A more recent addition to the ever-changing array of food stalls, Picante Latino is a small venture, positioned in the heart of the market which sells a range of Ecuadorian dishes alongside other Latin American favourites.
We started with the national dish of Ecuador, an encebollado – a fish stew made with tuna, onion, yuca and a variety of spices and herbs. Famed by many as a miraculous hangover cure, I can confirm that a hangover is not necessary to appreciate this warming broth. Light and fragrant, the pickled onions give the bowl an acidity which effectively cuts through the meatiness of the tuna. It was served with fried plantain chips and, interestingly, plain popcorn – both of which add some texture to the dish. If it isn’t already evident from the accompanying photos, the portion size was impressive for the price (£9). This was a bowl which I have little doubt could cure much more severe ailments than a simple hangover.
We also tried the Argentinean style asado (£13). The dish consists of steak sliced thinly, completely covered in chimichurri (a bright green salsa made of parsley, chilli and garlic) and served alongside rice, yuca and a fresh salad. This one was a firm favourite. Sliced so thin, the steak surprisingly played a supporting role to the chimichurri, which was bright and flavoured the accompanying rice. The yuca was also a great addition, providing another blank canvas to cover with the salsa-covered steak. Steak is often a rich and heavy food, but the combination of the chimichurri and the fresh and slightly acidic salad made this dish feel more delicate than it had any right to be.
We were also told to try the bolón de verde (literally ‘big green ball’). This is a deep-fried ball of green plantain, stuffed with cheese and, in our case, chicharrones. It was served alongside that same fresh salad with an acidic red onion bite and a small dish of ají, a chilli sauce. The ají was thick and didn’t have a particularly strong tang, so we quickly covered the bolón with every drop. This is pure comfort food, plain and simple, and perfectly scratched that deep-fried itch after such fresh and light dishes.
Due to the intimate nature of the stall - with just a few small tables and chairs to sit at - I was able to chat with the owner and chef, an Ecuadorian woman called Ninfa. Ninfa is clearly loved in the area, with our conversation frequently halted as a passer-by greeted her and she shouted back with a smile. Put simply, it was clear to me in the short time that we spent there that she is one of the most lovely and warm human beings you could hope to meet. The size of the stall is something worth noting - although I’m certain you could use the tables of adjacent stalls, Picante Latino doesn’t have seating for a very large group.
Finally, we watched as Ninfa peeled back the corn husk on a humita (£2.50). Humitas are much like an Ecuadorian version of tamales - although slight variations on humitas also exist in many other Andean countries. They consist of fresh corn ground into a paste and combined with cheese, encased in a corn husk, and boiled or steamed - in Ecuador they are often eaten at breakfast. At Picante Latino it was served with another small dish of ají and a large mug of black coffee for that authentic breakfast feeling at 6 p.m. Is this not essentially just cornflakes with added chilli? These were simple but delicious, and Ninfa told us that she sells out of them every day.
All this was eaten leisurely whilst sipping a glass of colada morada (£2.50) – a vibrant purple drink served hot or cold (in this case cold) made of a selection of fruits and berries, purple corn powder and warming spices such as cinnamon and cloves. This was Christmas in a glass, and I’m sure it tastes even more like distilled festive cheer when warm. The reasonably large chunks of pineapple which filled the glass also made this drink feel quite substantial. Amongst an impressive selection of dishes, this first-time try will definitely stick in my mind.
The same can be said for the batido de aguacate (£2.50) – a tall, muted green glass of avocado milkshake. When this was first recommended to us by our culinary tour guide, I was far from convinced. In reality, it turns out that avocado, milk, and sugar blended together tastes exactly like you would expect – creamy, sweet, and avocado flavoured. If you like avocado as much as I do, you’ll enjoy this; if not, it won’t win you over.
Picante Latino, tucked away in the small but charming Nag’s Head Market, is a true gem of North London. The food was excellent and the prices were very reasonable for the truly impressive portion sizes. The service was also some of the best I’ve ever had, making us all feel like we could return just to chat with the owner for longer. I would wholeheartedly recommend this spot to anyone passing through the area - just remember to tell Ninfa that I sent you and I’m sure you’ll get a warm greeting.