Striking: The mural at Cactoblastis took two people 80 hours to paint. Photo: Fiona Morris
'It's the most expensive piece of art I've ever bought and I can't take it with me,'' Alice Mathers says. She's talking about the striking mural that covers one wall of her Mexican takeaway in Neutral Bay. It took two people 80 hours to paint. She told them roughly what she wanted - the South American cactoblastis moth, a Day of the Dead skull and references to Frida Kahlo - and was thrilled with the results. The giant moth, whose wings span the wall, has a skull head, Kahlo eyebrows and is flanked by dahlias, Mexico's national flower.
The artwork triggers lots of conversations with customers, many of whom have become regulars since Mathers opened her cantina-style operation last October. Some grab a meal to go, while others sit in on the pink and yellow stools or perch at the high bench by the window. Our party of three families, with four children between us, occupies a table next to the moth, which intrigues the youngsters as they wait for their dinner. It's six o'clock and tummies are rumbling.
There's a flurry behind the counter as Mathers and her brother Beau scramble to fill all the orders. There are no wait staff and no chefs. Mathers prepares all the food and assembles and serves it with the help of her brother: apart from the expensive artwork, it's a no-frills operation.
Homely and satisfying: Wet burrito. Photo: Fiona Morris
Mathers wanted to offer fast but healthy food, and has a long-standing fascination with Mexico, though she's never been. When her father, who owns the shop, offered her the chance to open a food business here, she decided it would be Mexican or nothing. As Neutral Bay had no Mexican restaurants, Mathers took the plunge, despite precisely zero experience as a chef or running a restaurant. She did have a special connection to the location - her great-grandparents Daphne and Alfred opened a fruit and veg shop here about 90 years ago, and the building has stayed in the family.
The menu is deliberately short. The choice is three types of burritos - wrapped, in a bowl, or ''wet'' - nachos or tacos, with the option of beef, chicken or beans, plus rice, guacamole, cheese, tomato salsa and jalapeno chillies. Burritos and nachos also come in smaller children's serves. Everything is assembled on the spot, though the meat sauces are slow cooked for eight hours and stored overnight for the flavours to mingle. The beef is spicier than the chicken, no problem for adult palates, but our children mostly stick with nachos, cheese and guacamole. Diners who prefer more heat have a multiple choice of chilli sauces on the table.
Burritos come wrapped in foil to hold the fresh tortilla and fillings together, eaten with the hands. The wet burrito comes in a bowl, with the meat, rice and beans wrapped in a tortilla, buried under a mound of toppings, eaten with a knife and fork. It's homey, satisfying food, nothing sophisticated or surprising, and anyone who wants an alcoholic beverage with their meal will be disappointed. Mathers hasn't been able to score a liquor licence, even for BYO, so soft drinks are it. Until recently, the only ''dessert'' option was chilli chocolate truffles, which Mathers makes herself; now she also has Pat and Stick's ice-cream.
Cactoblastis is cheap, cheerful, colourful and wholesome. It's easy to understand its popularity with families and locals in a hurry.
Beef burrito; wet burrito; chilli chocolate truffle.
- 0404 014 465
- Cuisine - Mexican
- Prices - Burritos, nachos $13; kids burrito and nachos $7.50; tacos $4 (three for $10.50).
- Features - Cheap and cheerful, Family friendly
- Owners - Alice Mathers, Beau Mathers
- Opening Hours - Mon-Sat, noon-9pm
- Author - Jacqui Taffel