This week Shannon Harley discovers how local chefs are putting the X-factor into Mexican offerings in Australia
Ihad my first real taste of Mexican food back in my university days. I was dating a Mexican guy, who introduced me to his mum’s homemade frijoles, tamales and tortillas. They were in stark contrast to the so-called Mexican food I’d grown up with, watered-down Tex-Mex clichés for gringos. It wasn’t until those Sunday mornings mopping up a puddle of black beans with a chewy handmade tortilla that I realised what I’d been been missing. Beef mince flavoured with a dubious sachet of ‘Mexican seasoning’, tasty cheese, sliced lettuce, sour cream and taco shells fresh out of the packet couldn’t compete with the nuanced flavours I had now discovered.
Mexico’s culinary heritage is a melting pot of Mesoamerican traditions and post-conquest influence. UNESCO describes it as ‘elaborate and symbolladen’ on the Intangible Cultural Heritage 2010 list. Head chef of Fred’s in Sydney, Danielle Alvarez, who has Cuban heritage, says despite this recognition, Mexican food is often misunderstood or underappreciated. “Mexican food in the US is the Thai food of Australia,” she says. “At the same time, it’s incredibly complex cooking at heart, and we’re now starting to appreciate the depth, subtlety and elegance of regional cooking.”
While a handful of chefs in Mexico and the US are dishing it up on the world stage,Alvarez says in Australia we’re only at the beginning of this Mexican revolution. “We need to show people that burrito bowls, stale tortillas and beans from a can are not what it’s about.”
Mexican food is rich in regional diversity. Dishes from the Baja California region brim with fresh seafood, often served raw as aguachile or ceviche. Versions of barbacoa, the technique of slow-cooking meat, often lamb, are made throughout central Mexico, though chef Cristina Martinez, who appeared in the latest season of and gained fame for the lamb tacos she serves at her Philadelphia eateries, claims her hometown, Capulhuac, is the capital of barbacoa. The wheat from Sonora is one of the oldest surviving varieties in North America, and the pale Sonoran tortillas are made from this instead of corn.The state of Chiapas is famed for its tamales made with indigenous corn varieties. In Oaxaca, meanwhile, local chilhuacle and smoky pasilla chillies star in the region’s signature mole sauces, which have been taken to the heights of haute cuisine by chef Enrique Olvera. He’s credited with raising the standing of Mexican cuisine and his fine-dining restaurant in Mexico City, Pujol, currently ranks 13th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
René Redzepi’s pop-up in Tulum on the Yucatán peninsula last year has also helped put Mexico on the culinary map. The Noma team worked with a local organisation that supports Mayan foodways to source traditional staples. Noma Mexico served Mexican cuisine’s ‘three sisters’, corn, beans and squash (so-called because they’re planted as companion crops across the country), along with the likes of shellfish, bee larvae and Melipona honey among other local specialties.
Redzepi cited the mastery of spice as the “most amazing” discovery during his time there. “I am blown away by it, by how chilli can round off and add depth to almost anything if you know how to use it well.”
While here in Australia we have a dearth of native chefs and Mexican ingredients can be tricky to access, some local chefs, including Neil Perry, are navigating these obstacles. In March, Perry opened Bar Patrón by Rockpool, a sophisticated tequila bar and Mexican restaurant helmed by Pamela Valdes Pardo, a chef from Xalapa in Veracruz.
Northern New South Wales, meanwhile, is becoming something of a Mexican hub. “I have high hopes for La Casita in Brunswick Heads,” says Alvarez of the restaurant that has been taken over by the Fleet team. Also in the Byron Bay hinterland, you’ll find chef Evan White rolling out Yucatán-style tacos and ceviche at Chupacabra in Suffolk Park. White, who trained in Mexico, says conditions on the east coast replicate Mexico’s Gulf Stream, making it an ideal setting for the fresh seafood and tropical produce of Yucatán dishes. If you’re looking for a bean and melted cheese extravaganza, the closest you’ll get is his chilaquiles, a dish that comes topped with house-made Oaxacastyle cheese.The latest project from the Three Blue Ducks, meanwhile, is a takeover of the La La Land nightclub in Byron, which they plan to relaunch as a late-night eatery with a Mexican bent after a research trip through Mexico City, Oaxaca and Tulum.
In Melbourne, Mamasita, which opened on Collins Street in 2010, is recognised as the first ‘proper’ taqueria in the city, but Mexico City natives Cesar Duran and Javier Calzada, co-owners of El Sabor restaurant, a tortilla factory and an online Mexican-produce shop, El Cielo, brought the art of the tortilla to the Victorian capital. “We’re proud to be the first Melbourne tortilleria to offer fresh nixtamal corn tortillas,” says Duran.These are made with corn grown in NSW which undergoes a traditional alkalising process that softens the masa (corn dough), unlocks a sweet, roasted flavour and rids it of toxins.
You’ll find Duran’s tortillas on the menu at Hot Lips Hacienda in Highett, which specialises in Mexico City street food and has three Mexican chefs in the kitchen to keep things on track.
It’s clear that authentic Mexican food is finally having its moment. Get it while it’s hot.