How the taco won Melbourne

THURSDAY, 7.06pm: ''We should have a table for you in half an hour,'' the glam Gen Y-tress says. Touche Hombre is my taco Everest. Last time, I failed to reach ''bar-stool base camp'', aborting after 1½ hours.

8.11pm: One hour, one game of Pac-Man and one jug of (excellent) margarita later and … nothing.

9.15pm. A party of eight are so elated to score seats, they form a conga line and ''Whoop, whoop!'' to their table. They are euphoric; they are despised.

9.16pm. We are now locked in a psychological game of non-eye-contact warfare with the ''door bitch'', who I'm sure is quite lovely, really.

9.24pm. Y-tress: ''Hi! I have a table for you!'' Us: ''We've been waiting for nearly 2½ hours.'' Y-tress: ''Wow! We're so popular!''

We inhale smoky, fatty lamb ribs. We wolf down blackened buttery corn and scoff inauthentic tacos that, after so much hype, feel expensive and not worth the hassle but are actually pretty good. Total eating time? About 10 minutes.

Have we missed the point of what Mexican street food is all about - something that is cheap, fast and accessible - or are there simply not enough taquerias to go round?

''Our nights are getting busier and busier,'' Davis Yu from Touche Hombre says. Mamasita's queues are steadily increasing and, while researching this story, I waited for almost seven hours.

If you think Melbourne is experiencing a Mexican wave, consider this a tsunami warning: It's just the beginning.

''I'm amazed at the rate places have opened in six months and there's more to come,'' says Matt Lane from Mamasita, which exploded on to the dining scene, trailblazing ''authentic'' Mexican cuisine and fuelling a growing awareness of the country's regional dishes.

Next week the Black Toro, a modern Hispanic restaurant by Garen Maskal (ex-Ezard), is set to open in Glen Waverley. Los Hermanos, a taqueria by Mexican Bruno Carreto, opens next month in Brunswick. Raph Rashid's roving Taco Truck just clocked up 20,000 ''Likes'' on Facebook and truck No.2 hits the road soon.

Opening this week is Elcielo, Melbourne's first tortillaria (the equivalent of a bakery) run by Mexicans Cesar Duran and Javier Calzada. Their core business is making fresh tortillas daily, wholesale, plus selling salsas (Duran's mother's recipes), Mexican chillies and agave syrup.

Let's go back to 1974 when Bill Chilcote brought Californian Tex-Mex Down Under. ''Australian people had very little knowledge of Mexican food,'' says former co-owner Vicki Teschke of Melbourne's first Taco Bill. ''Within a few months we were having three sittings a night and we would have people standing on the stairway waiting to get into the restaurant.'' Sound familiar?

While it's easy to be disparaging of franchised Tex-Mex, those in glass houses shouldn't throw pinto beans. Melbourne's knowledge of ''authentic Mexican'' is still new-found.

''When I opened the restaurant people still came in looking for hard taco shells and 'big everything','' says Aturo Morales, who launched Los Amates in 2004. ''I worked with a lot of chefs who didn't consider Mexican food as a cuisine.''

''People's awareness has changed,'' says Simon Fischer, who opened Trippy Taco a couple of years later. ''No one knew what a soft-shell taco was. I had to explain to people not to eat their burritos or tacos with a knife and fork.''

In 1986, John Bergbauer opened Aztec Mexican Products. ''Back then we just stocked the basics, jalapenos and flour tortillas.''

Now most people have heard of - and know how to pronounce - chipotle (smoke-dried jalapeno chilli) and aren't too flummoxed by pico de gallo (tomato salsa). And, of course, asking for hard-shell tacos will have you voted off the island.

Rashid and Yu describe their semi-authentic offerings as ''Mel-Mex'' and Lane says, ''We've crossed over more to 'modern authentic'.''

Duran reckons the gluten-free nature of corn tortillas and the anti-oxidant properties of chilli are part of the attraction. ''Mexican food is very, very healthy,'' he says.

In a previous interview in The Age, Anthony Bourdain said: ''If you're not making your own tortillas you're already missing the plot'', and house-made tortillas are a badge of honour for many new taquerias.

Chingon, Senoritas, the Newmarket and Trippy Taco make their corn tortillas from scratch and Fonda's dough is made at the Abbotsford Convent and pressed to order. Mamasita outsources its tortillas but Lane is heading to Texas soon to test some machines. Rashid has a tortilla machine ''as big as a truck'' on a boat from the US and Morales is working with Elcielo to get the preferred thickness and texture for Los Amates. Duran says Mexican isn't at all overhyped in Melbourne and says we're ''just getting to know it''. Perhaps that's why all the current restaurants are fit to burst. For those with a limited time frame or who prefer not to eat dinner at 5.30pm, there's still plenty of room on this wave for more.

What makes a good taco? A soft, warm corn tortilla, made fresh that day. Bright flavours and fresh ingredients. Here's a rap on the town's most talked-about taquerias.

Touche Hombre

Owner Davis Yu is 22 and, mostly, so is the crowd at this loud, bar-like taqueria with DJs, street art, retro arcade games. On my visit, the tortillas weren't hot but were fresh and tasty, hand-made off-site by ''a Mexican woman''. Fillings are modern and inauthentic: pork with Granny Smith and habanero cream, Korean-spiced tofu and romesco sauce or blood pudding with pico de gallo and aioli. Fatty lamb ribs, sticky with truffle honey, are awesome.

Corner Tattersalls Lane and Lonsdale Street, 9663 0811. Tacos, $6-$7.

Radio Mexico

Rockling ceviche is zesty and fresh; chilaquiles is a smart, fresh take on nachos; black beans are luscious and sprinkled with queso fresco, the meats are quality (organic saltbush lamb, Otway pork), and the tortillas (hand-made in Sydney) are hot. The mood is relaxed, the service professional and the food a cut above.

11 Carlisle Street, St Kilda, 9534 9990. Tacos, $6.

Trippy Taco

It started as a truck at festivals before graduating to a tiny shop then moving to bigger digs. Order at the counter and collect your own everything: water, cutlery, Mexican beer. It's not authentic - and doesn't claim to be - but it does make its thickish corn tortillas on site. Fillings are all vegetarian or vegan from drippy black beans to spicy grilled tofu, and the smoked-paprika-dusted fries are huge sellers. It's not gourmet, but it's filling and fast.

234 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 9415 7711. Tacos: $6.50-$7.

Los Amates

A generous stack of hot tortillas arrives in a basket, bundled in a tea towel to keep warm. Fillings land in little terracotta dishes to pile on top - chicken with chipotle and tomato salsa, pork wrapped in a banana leaf and slow-baked for three hours, gamey ox tongue, or potato and chorizo. The colourful walls of this authentic, traditional cantina are strung with ornaments, and service is as warm as a hot Puebla sun.

34 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, 9417 0441. Tacos: $18.50-$20.


The food in this timbered, curvy space is a modern Mexican benchmark. The char-grilled corn, with queso, chipotle mayo and lime, is still some of the best in town. Warmed tortillas hold fillings such as grilled fish with achiote, crispy ox tongue and cheek with pickled veg, and a vegan eggplant offering. Service can be bossy: ''Don't add hot sauce.'' ''Four tacos are too many.'' But Mamasita's still got it.

Level 1, 11 Collins Street, city, 9650 3821. Tacos, $5-$7.


The no-bookings policy is gone and Senoritas now has two sittings a night; yee-ha, no queues. The small, three-bite corn tortillas are warmed on the grill, filled with hapuku (confited in oil, orange and Coca-Cola) or marinated pulled pork (on my visit, a bit dry) or grilled prawns with refried beans and chipotle mayo; it takes a few to fill you up, and can feel overpriced. Head chef Hugo Reyes hails from Mexico City and ''authentic'' is his thing. Salsas arrive with the tacos and the frijoles are splendid.

16 Meyers Place, city, 9639 7437. Tacos, $8-$11.

Fonda Mexican

Bright, loud and noisy, with the smell of the deep-fryer and a more atmospheric courtyard and second room, Fonda is a fast-paced taqueria run by David Youl and Tim McDonald. There are three tacos: fried rockling with chipotle aioli, cabbage and carrot; an excellent veg option with chicory, corn and eggplant; and pulled beef brisket with corn kernels and radish, with juices that drip on to the growing mound of serviettes. Also on offer: frozen margaritas and puffy pork scratchings.

248 Swan Street, Richmond, 9429 0085. Tacos, $5-$6.

The Newmarket

Street food is big business in this loud, always-busy converted pub. The food is modern Hispanic with wood-roasted meats and posh tacos, such as a pretty oily wood-roasted bone marrow, chimichurri and beef brisket; prawns with jicama slaw; or the purplish blue-corn tortilla with locally foraged mushrooms and goat's cheese. At lunch, all tacos are $5.

34 Inkerman Street, St Kilda, 9537 1777. Tacos, $5-$8.50.

Taco Truck

Taco Truck roves the inner north, dispensing three types of tacos: a tortilla folded over potato and deep-fried, with jalapeno ricotta, slaw and salsa verde; battered rockling with poppyseed mayo; or grilled chicken thigh marinated in chilli and orange juice. Fried chicken skins are a hit with habanero sauce and salt. The food can be inconsistent but it's fun.

Tacos, $6. See Facebook and Twitter for locations.

Paco's Tacos

Paco's all-weather, outdoor setting captures the essence of ''street'' taqueria. The board menu is simple, with tacos from pinto beans with guacamole and sour cream to braised beef with chipotle and pico de gallo and fresh salad. On my visit, the soft corn tortillas (from Casa Iberica) weren't warmed and the fillings were light-on but bright, balanced and tasty, with flavours that mesh well.

Level 1, 500 Bourke Street, city, 9663 3038. Tacos, $6.


''Chingon'' is Mexican slang for ''awesome'' or ''bad-ass''. This rustic, chingon taqueria is run by the expat Balleau brothers: Michael cooks, Will runs front-of-house. Corn tortillas come with char-grilled pork, grilled pineapple and salsa; steak, black beans, smoky tomato and corn salsa; or grilled fish, with lime, chipotle cream and red cabbage salsa. The kitchen is contained in a mobile trailer that sits out back and will hit the road once the weather warms up.

413 Swan Street, Richmond, 9429 5695. Tacos, three for $15.

Mexican food in Melbourne

May, 1974
Melbourne's first Taco Bill opens in Russell Street, Melbourne.

Casa Iberica opens in Fitzroy.

The 1980s
Australia discovers nachos.

February, 1982
Mexicali Rose opens in Richmond.

October, 1986
John Bergbauer opens Aztec Mexican Products.

December 31, 2000
Trippy Taco starts trading from a truck on New Year's Eve at outdoor rave Earthcore.

January, 2001
Bluecorn opens in St Kilda.

July 14, 2004
Los Amates opens in Fitzroy.

September, 2004
Bluecorn appears in The Age Good Food Guide 2004.

October 11, 2006
Trippy Taco opens in Collingwood.

February 11, 2010
Mamasita opens, exploding onto the dining scene, packed from night one.

March 17-21, 2010
Thomasina Miers from Wahaca in London visits Melbourne to run a masterclass and Mexican dinner at MoVida as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.

December 17, 2010
The Newmarket opens in St Kilda.

March 10, 2011
Taco Truck starts trading (illegally, without a permit) in Collingwood, selling 150 tacos before being shut down.

June 9, 2011
My Abuela's Table, an illustrated journey into Mexican cooking, is published by Hardie Grant, to great acclaim.

August 30, 2011
Mamasita appears in The Age Good Food Guide 2011.

October 11, 2011
Trippy Taco moves into bigger premises in Fitzroy.

November 10, 2011
Paco's Tacos opens as part of the MoVida empire.

November 14, 2011
Fonda Mexican opens in Richmond.

March 9, 2012
Senoritas opens in the CBD.

March 18, 2012
Touche Hombre opens in the CBD.

April 13, 2012
Chingon opens in Richmond.

May 1, 2012
Radio Mexico opens in St Kilda.

June 1, 2012
Former Mamasita chef Jason Jones appears on MasterChef.

Mid-June, 2012
Mamasita and Touche Hombre experience their busiest two weeks since opening.

July 4, 2012
Mad Mex opens in Southern Cross with balloons and a mariachi trumpeter.

July 27, 2012
The Black Toro, a new taqueria and Hispanic eatery by Garen Maskal (ex-sous chef at Ezard), opens in Glen Waverley.

Opening July, 2012
Elcielo, a supplier of hand-made tortillas and salsas, due to open in Port Melbourne.

Opening August, 2012
Los Hermanos, a new Mexican taqueria is slated to open in Brunswick.

Taco Dos (by Taco Truck's Raph Rashid) due to hit the streets; same concept but a different menu to Taco Truck.

Opening later in 2012
Paul Wilson's Acland St Cantina and Cellar Bar.