The restaurants bringing real-deal Mexican food to Sydney

Sydney now has one of the most famous cuisines in the world. You will be amazed at what you don’t know.

There have been a few breakout food trends in 2021, and while it’s too soon to say if the TikTok-fuelled obsession with quesabirria (a cross between a taco and a quesadilla) will last or go the way of dalgona coffee, the internet mayhem surrounding these cheesy, beefy, dripping tacos is reinforced by a Mexican scene that’s sweeping Sydney.

The Taco selection at Sydney’s Buen Taco in Surry Hills. Photo: Steven Woodburn

Milpa Collective, one of our most ambitious Mexican restaurant groups, already runs six venues including Calita and Sonora. Last week it opened Casa Merida in Potts Point and two more are imminent. In Barangaroo, Rebecca Lines and Hamish Ingham have relaunched Banksii as Tequila Daisy, an Australian-Mexican restaurant with more than 100 tequilas and mezcals available by the glass. And just last week, Buen Taco, a taqueria pop-up in Pyrmont, became a permanent fixture at Quick Brown Fox.

Why was 2021 the Year Sydney’s Mexican Scene came to its Own? “I think people are starting to appreciate the complexity of Mexican food, whereas previously it was kind of looked at as sort of a quick and dirty meal,”Daniel Hanssen founded Tacos Muchachos (a pop-up inspired Mexican street stalls) in Surry Hills in July. Hanssen invited Tonatiuh Arocha from Mexico to create a menu with juicy pork al Pastor tacos, as well as other favorites (including quesabirria), and his wife Jazmin Castaneda hand presses fresh tortillas.

It’s one thing just to ride a wave. But, for Sydney’s Mexican-inspired chefs, it has been a long journey to see the cuisine gain more recognition and status.

Cantina OK! debuted at number 28 on the World's 50 Best Bars list.
Cantina OK! debuted at number 28 on The World’s 50 Best Bars. Photo: Nikki To

Juan Carlos Negrete, Maiz, Newtown is an example. Negrete immigrated to Australia in 2014 from Baja, California. He found a scene dominated with chains. When he moved to Albury-Wodonga to study, his Mexican world shrank to just one restaurant: Taco Bill.

Negrete, who was working as a pig and sheep farmer, became hungry for the food of his culture. He started a stall at the Albury Wodonga farmers’ market, using the meat he had reared then slaughtered. “I decided to do carnitas (slow-cooked pork) and lamb barbacoa (also slow-roasted) with tortillas made from scratch and produce from the area – tomatoes from Yackandandah, vegetables from Beechworth. It was super popular.”

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As its name suggests, Negrete’s current venture uses corn as its main inspiration. “Corn is so embedded in our culture,” says Negrete. Ask Negrete and he will talk about its 60,000 year evolution, the hundreds upon varieties, and how nixtamalisation, where corn is steeped into an alkaline solution in order to release nutrients and flavour, helped to create civilisations.

“In Mexico those indigenous cultures discovered nixtamalisation, which then shaped heavily how important corn is for our gastronomy, and therefore our culture.”

That importance is writ large at Maiz, where the menu explores various corn-based dishes – crisp chilaquiles (corn tortilla topped with salsa often eaten for breakfast), and thick stuffed tlacoyos (oval-shaped tortillas loaded with beans and cheese) – each made in-house from nixtamalised and ground corn. Negrete has also started to source heirloom and local varieties for his menu: black corn from Tlaxcala, gold from Chiapas, and white from Oaxaca.

Where the interested home cook might be able to speak about different flour grades or different types of rice, in Australia corn has remained something of an enigma. There is a new wave of chefs who are determined to change this in the taco world.

Lamb, beef and chicken tacos from Tequila Daisy at Barangaroo.
Tequila Daisy at Barangaroo offers lamb, beef, and chicken tacos Photo by Supplied

Toby Wilson is one example. The chef may have started out selling makeshift tacos in Chinatown (as Ghostboy Cantina) in 2013, but he’s spent the following years delving deeper. Wilson recently converted Ricos Tacos from a food truck to a bricks-and mortar business in Chippendale. He currently uses purchased tortillas but sees Ricos as a future where the corn is nixtamalised and ground into masa, then made into tortillas in-house.

“The thing that is often said of sushi is that the rice is more important than the fish,”Wilson. “And a lot of taqueros would say the same thing about a tortilla.”

Corn is not the only important ingredient. Wilson, who used to look to Asian grocers for the missing ingredients, has seen the supply change dramatically. “The concept of Ghostboy came about, to some degree, because I couldn’t get supply. It was like, let’s try and replicate the essence of these flavours with the markets that are around me,”He says. “What I’m able to get access to now – the dried chillies, fresh tomatillos [green Mexican tomatoes] – has dramatically improved.”

Tequila Daisy's waterfront site at Barangaroo.
Barangaroo waterfront site of Tequila Daisy. Photo: Hamish Ingham

This sentiment echoes the experience of migrant chefs like Rosa Cienfuegos, the owner of La Tamaleria and Itacate, who equally found herself trying to recreate the flavours of her homeland with whatever ingredients she could.

“I was lucky that my dad already knew where to buy a few ingredients or how to combine them,”She says. “He’d say, ‘We don’t have Mexican chillies but you can get these Asian ingredients and they might be similar’. That’s when I started to play around and be open to trying different ingredients from different parts of the world.”Cienfuegos’ mission has been, according to her, to not only provide more Mexican ingredients through their venues but also to increase supply by increasing the demand.

This trend is supported by a rapidly expanding Mexican community. Census data shows that the Australian Mexican-born population (a relatively new migrant community), increased by almost 50% between 2011 and 2016. This also coincides with a demographic of Australians who are increasingly seeing Los Angeles and Mexico as tourist destinations, then coming home and demanding the real thing.

Casa Merida has just opened in Potts Point and looks to the Yucatan pensinula for inspiration.
Casa Merida just opened in Potts Point. They look to the Yucatan Pensinula as inspiration. Photo: Trent van der Jagt

The movement is also expanding to booze. Cantina OK! is a tiny mezcal bar that debuted last year at number 28 on The World’s 50 Best Bars List. Jeremy Blackmore, co-owner, started smuggling rare bottles in suitcases and it turned into a venue that has become the first stop for rare spirits.

“Mezcal is one of the last agricultural spirits in the world, made by people that not only make the spirit but grow the plants and have been doing it for generations,”Blackmore. “People are searching for something real, and there’s a whole generation of young people that have tasted amazing Mexican food and won’t settle for sour cream and an iceberg lettuce any more.”

Cantina OK! is a success story. Milpa Collective’s 100-seat mezcal bar Santa Catarina, which will be opening in the CBD in November is sure to make the city hungry.

Cantina OK!, a tiny mezcal bar, in Sydney's CBD.
Cantina OK! is a small mezcal bar in Sydney’s CBD. Photo: Nikki To

Australia is one of the oldest cuisines in the world, and the future looks bright wherever you look. Cienfuegos says there is still much to do. “Instead of sending people to one specific Mexican shop because there only is one, I would like everyone to know how to cook Mexican food,”She says. “For it to be part of the daily diet for Australian people.”

Where to salsa right away

Bodega 1904 Cantina

A former tapas bar has morphed into a cantina under new chef Alvaro Valenzuela. Valenzuela worked in lockdown to prepare take-out packs of tacos burritos, quesadillas and burritos. But, with the reopening, there are more restauranty flourishes. Think raw tuna tostadas (toasted tortillas), kingfish with aguachile (a type of Mexican ceviche), or grilled octopus with guajillo (a large, mild chilli) oil and potatoes. Michael Nicolian, Continental’s bar manager, oversees the menu.

Chilaquiles from Maiz Mexican Street Food.
Chilaquiles at Maiz Mexican Street Food. Photo: Supplied

Tramsheds, 1 Dalgal Way, Forest Lodge

Buen Taco

Buen Taco was a temporary pop-up in Surry Hills’ Quick Brown Fox. It has since become a permanent fixture. They may be best known for their cheesy birria tacos served with consomme for dipping, but co-owner Ben Calabro also swears by the pork torta (sandwich) and the frozen margaritas.

22 Union Street Pyrmont

Itacate

Rosa Cienfuegos Redfern sequel to Dulwich Hill’s acclaimed La Tamaleria is out of lockdown, with a more simplified menu. On weekends, you’ll find more regional specials. It’s supplemented by shelves stocked with everything from tomatillos (green tomatoes) to tortilla chips to brined nopales (cactus).

Redfern Street, Redfern, 129-133

Maiz Mexican Street Food

Juan Carlos Negrete’s Newtown restaurant offers a menu that ranges from sopes (small, thick tortillas) topped with beans and braised hibiscus flower to tlacoyo divorciados, where a thick tortilla is crowned with two fried eggs and salsa. The best part is the salsa. His menu is based on heirloom corn.

415 King Street Newtown

Santa Catarina/Casa Merida/Londres 126

Pablo Galindo Vargas and Liber Osorio, who own the Milpa Collective, already oversee six Mexican restaurants in Sydney, but the next few months will see them add two more. There’s Oaxacan mezcal bar and restaurant Santa Catarina in the CBD, upmarket Casa Merida, which has just opened in Potts Point looking to the Yucatan pensinula for inspiration, and Londres 126 on Bridge Street, inspired by the parties Frida Kahlo used to throw in Mexico City in the ’40s. Enjoy a wild ride.

Santa Catarina, 156 Clarence Street, Sydney; Casa Merida, Shop 1, 5 Kellett Street, Potts Point; Londres 126, 2-10 Loftus Street, Sydney

Tacos Muchachos

Tacos Muchachos, another pop-up, is looking for a permanent location after operating from Surry Hills cafe Paddock during lockdown. Tacos are the rage here with hand-pressed tortillas and juicy al pastor (tacos with spit-grilled pork) as well as another take on birria. This is street-style, fresh street food. Expect to be dirty.

Surry Hills, 509 Crown Street

Tequila Daisy

Hamish Ingham (who previously managed Banskii, a vermouth-themed bar) and Rebecca Lines (who used lockdown for the transformation of the space to agave spirits inspired it) have both run Banskii before. The extensive list of tequila and mezcal is complemented by dishes designed to share, from non-traditional tacos (carrot with chimichurri is a highlight) to shared plates including spatchcock marinated in bright-red achiote (spice) paste and wagyu flank steak served with a sauce made from dark pasilla chillies.

Shop 11, 33 Barangaroo Avenue, Sydney

Los Gueros

Alex White and Dave McKinn met at Erskineville market before they began appearing at Young Henrys in Newtown. The pair make their own tortillas – a labour-intensive process considering they mill their corn by hand – then serve them in just two to three styles. The al pastor has become a fan favourite, but it’s the mushroom taco topped with habanero-pickled onions that really shines. (Check @losgueros.au for times.)

Young Henrys, 76 Wilford Street, Newtown

Ricos Tacos

Toby Wilson launched a permanent Ricos Tacos shop in Chippendale. So far he’s been handing tacos and fish tortas out of the takeaway window, but the future might see eat-in and fresh-made tortillas as the base for what he hopes might become a Sydney-specific style of Mexican cooking. Oh, and grab a hash brown with salsa roja (red sauce) for breakfast while you’re at it.

15 Meagher Street Chippendale

Glossary of Mexican dishes

Empanadas This stuffed handheld parcel common across Latin America has Spanish roots, but Mexico has plenty of styles. Head to the Yucatan and corn dough is stuffed with egg and chaya (a leafy green). It could be spiced pork if you stay central. Visit Veracruz and the dough’s made with plantain. 

Enchiladas A dish where tortillas are dipped in spicy sauce then fried and rolled around fillings such as meat, vegetables or cheese. Enchiladas come in many styles and are a Tex-Mex standby, where they’re often covered in cheese and baked.

Quesadillas Effectively a turnover, where a tortilla is folded in half around a filling – chorizo and potato, say – then grilled or fried. Quesabirria, TikTok’s breakout star of 2021, combines this and birria tacos to create a cheesy, fried hybrid ready to be dunked into rich, beefy consomme.

Tacos A handheld dish with myriad regional and sub-regional variations. The tortilla base is usually made with corn. It can then be topped by pit-roasted pork (cochinita), with spit-roasted pork and pine (al pastor), slow-cooked goat (barbacoa), or lamb (al pastor), and finally with salsa and a scattering onions and coriander. 

Tamales A preparation with a long history. It usually includes a lard-enriched dough, made with ground nixtamalisedcorn. This dough is then folded around simple fillings. Finally, it’s steamed in banana husks or corn leaves.

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