“There’s the Texas Embassy! And they’re celebrating Cinco de Mayo,” I blurted out from the back of the classic black London cab. My fellow passengers, husband and son, looked at me as if I had drank one too many pints of ale with my lunch.
It had been an American Express moment. Husband had lost his wallet on our second day in London, and we were retracing our steps back to a shop near Trafalgar Square. Fortunately, a salesperson had found the wallet where it had been left behind when he was paying for some items. Counting out those pounds and unfamiliar coins was still new to us, tourists that we were. Once the financial crisis was over I explained that the embassy was actually a restaurant called Texas Embassy Cantina, and because it was May 5, they were celebrating Cinco de Mayo.
When Texas was an independent country, from 1836 to 1845, an embassy was established in 1842 in London in the offices of Berry Brothers wine store at #3 James Street. With Ashbel Smith as the new country’s Minister to the Court of St. James, diplomatic relations were friendly between the outspoken Texans and the reserved British. Texas joined the Union in 1845 and the embassy was closed. Today a small plaque marks the location:
In this building was
The legation for the
Ministers from the
Republic of Texas
Court of Saint James
1842 – 1845
The Anglo-Texan Society
British novelist Graham Greene founded the Anglo-Texas Society in 1953 and served as its first president. The group’s main objective was to foster closer social and cultural ties between Britain and Texas. Greene’s biographer, Norman Sherry, recounts the more light-hearted origins of the society and relations between the stiff British and the rowdy Texans in his book, The Life of Graham Greene, Volume II. In 1976 the Anglo-Texan Society was offically dissolved.
Over 150 years later Texans visiting the city can feel right at home the moment they walk into the Texas Embassy Cantina at No. 1 Cockspur Street, only a short distance from the original embassy. Located in the impressive and historic Oceanic House with the Lone Star flying proudly outside, it could be mistaken for a real embassy – this is London after all. Not far away are Buckingham Palace, No. 10 Downing Street, Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the National Portrait Gallery. The building itself has historical links to America as it formerly housed the White Star shipping line that owned the Titanic. After the Titanic sank on its way to New York, relatives and friends came to the building to check the list of survivors.
The inspiration for the restaurant in the heart of London came from Texas oilman Russell J. Ramsland, Jr. and attorney A. Hardcastle, both of Dallas, who missed Tex-Mex food when they traveled. With a successful Dallas restaurateur, Gene Street, and a former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Alan Traill, the group planned for three years. Dallasite Thom Jackson is the general manager today.
The decor is typical Tex-Mex restaurant style found in many Texas cities and towns – fiesta lights, border town atmosphere, weathered doors and windows, faux plaster walls, serapes and the mandatory tortilla factory. Upstairs an 1880s saloon has been recreated with a 29-foot bar and the obligatory nude painting hanging above it. Texas icons and flags complete the illusion of being in the Lone Star State. One could easily imagine a couple of tall, tough, Texas Rangers swaggering in at any moment, the jangle of spurs, the scrape of a boot on a bare wooden floor, the scent of liquor and dusty heat. Or maybe Chuck Norris.
Dishes on the menu will satisfy the cuisine cravings of most any homesick Texan, from chips and salsa to fajitas and flan, Mexican beer and margaritas with familiar sounding names like Hill Country Peach and Padre Island. Yet the food has a certain English twist that one can’t quite explain. I suppose it is to pacify the local and international palates also. But for Texans far from home and tired of ale and plowman’s lunch, it is a haven.
Returning to the restaurant that night for dinner and the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, we did feel at home as we enjoyed Tex-Mex cuisine served with London panache. Mariachis dressed in authentic black attire and sombreros, appearing suspiciously British, sang “El Rancho Grande” upon our request as they strolled among the tables.
Despite the differences of the past, the people of Texas and Mexico continue to share more than just the Rio Grande. Today Cinco de Mayo is celebrated across America in many cities by those of Hispanic descent and other U.S. citizens who support freedom and liberty for all people. Relations continued strong between America and Britain when Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush, the former governor of Texas, met and agreed on many issues.
Now each Cinco de Mayo I vow, “Next year in London!”