The temptation to ignore the snacks section in an effort to keep the bill at a reasonable level is perhaps to somewhat miss the point in a convivial Mexican joint. So, while we ponder our choices for main courses, we decide to start off with what turns out to be quite a generous serving of house-fried tortilla chips, piled into a plastic tray lined with white wrapping paper. And this dive bar I find myself in, which includes a friendly dog who visits each table in turn, is just about the most relaxing place I’ve eaten at in a long time.
Those tortilla chips (€9) are large, crispy triangles loaded with splodges of sour cream, pico de gallo, salsa verde and roja, and scattered with coriander micro herbs and jalapeños. They have that reassuring pull of melted cheeses as you dig into them. There’s plenty of salsa to go around – always an important factor when you’re sharing – and the sour, slightly hot ping of the jalapeños is just what you want when you’re sipping a nicely made margarita. All the cocktails here are €12.50, which is below gouging level, so we try a couple more: An Uachtaráin, a dark rum-based cocktail, and a “friskey sour”, made with Small Batch Teeling. All are good.
There are other snacks to start – oysters, chicharrón and agave habanero chicken wings – but I’m keen to try as many of the tacos and tostados as I can. The only indication that Mexican food is the thing here is a small cactus plant on the table. And, of course, the menu. Outside, it is equally oblique. A neon yellow “Ca$h 4 Gold” sign is your indicator that you have arrived at Pawn Shop, a black-fronted bar on Dame Street, and a pavement chalkboard reads “tacos, tostados and burritos”.
It is a cavern of a bar, dark at the front with high tables for pints, three pianos flanking the side, leading to the dining area that is floodlit by an atrium which reveals the outer workings of the roofs of adjoining buildings. Cabinets with pawn-shop paraphernalia line the walls: jewellery and cameras, including the odd Hasselblad if you care to inspect closely.
While Pawn Shop is the pub, Órale Street Food is a separate entity, run by Ian Cairns. It started out as a pop-up at The Belfry in Stoneybatter, spent last summer as a food truck in Dún Laoghaire and now, in an arrangement that suits both parties, is permanently operating from the sizeable back room.
It’s a place where everything seems to work. The tacos and tostados land on the table not altogether but somehow just when we’re ready for them. The flank steak is a notable bargain at three tacos for €15. Crispy tortillas are filled with steak in a meaty sauce, garnished with chopped onions, finely sliced radishes and a wedge of lime.
A mix of three tacos for €18 gives us an opportunity to try more. Baja-style fish is always a favourite and here the pieces of battered fish come with lightly pickled cabbage and the spicy garlicy tang of ssamjang. The crunchy masa fried chicken has plenty of spice-bag flavour; and the pork carnita is generously stuffed with slow-cooked meat, habanero salsa and jalapeño slaw.
From the tostados section of the menu, the sea bream (€15) with avocado, kumquat and radish seems at first to be restrained, but the heat from the chillies in the sauce builds and makes this a crunchy bite of cheek-tingling heat with a mild sea freshness.
Burritos would typically not be at the top of my list of choices but the vegetarian at the table thinks otherwise and lands one of the best dishes of the evening with the sweet potato wet burrito (€15). Looking considerably more appetising than its mainstream compatriots, it is laced with tomatillo salsa and salsa roja and filled with a most delicious mix of black beans, sweet potato, onions and cheese.
The main courses are worth exploring but we’re properly full and just manage to share the chocolate brownie (€6.50) in a creamy caramel sauce with ice cream and toasted almonds.
Pawn Shop and Órale Street Food may give off serious cool vibes but it’s about as chilled a space as you could encounter. The tacos and tostados are given serious attention and the delicious and varied salsas bring something special. You could drop in for a quick bite but really it’s a round-up-your-mates sort of place to do the menu justice. And if you’re of a certain age, there’s a vibey club scene as the night progresses.
Dinner for three with three cocktails was €116.
THE VERDICT:A fun night out with tacos and cocktails
Music: Chilled earlier in the evening, going from hip hop to house when the atmosphere picks up
Food provenance: Balam tortillas, Glenmar seafood, Rings Farm organic chicken, O’Mahony Meats, Caterway
Vegetarian options: Sweet potato taco with black bean purée, sweet potato wet burrito, beetroot tostada, squash al pastor
Wheelchair access: Accessible room with no accessible toilet