Tostaditas of crab, almond and green onion mojo, cucumber, lime, grape.
Modern Mexican: crab tostaditas at Mexico Food and Liquor. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Sally Webb

If the Mexican wave that's sweeping Sydney keeps up its pace, it won't be long before the quesadilla is more popular than the cheese toastie.

It took a while for Australians to tell their chimichangas from their burritos but we're making up for lost time, with several high-profile new ventures, from hole-in-the-wall taquerias to upmarket restaurants, opening in the past year.

Mexican tucker from Al Carbon food truck.
Char-grilled: Mexican tucker from Al Carbon food truck. Photo: James Brickwood

Firmly entrenched on UNESCO's register of intangible cultural heritage, Mexican food, which is really a collection of distinctive regional cuisines, is incredibly important to gastronomic history. Without Mexico's contribution, most of the great global cuisines would fall apart. Think of a world without chilli, avocado, sweet potato, corn and chocolate and you get the idea.

In Sydney, we're still a few restaurants short of the pinnacle of Mexican fine-dining but that's not surprising, given the reality in Mexico itself.

Speaking at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival earlier last week, Mexican chef Enrique Olvera said his country ''has a great food culture but until recently never had a great restaurant culture''.

Cocktail mixing at Mexico Food and Liquor.
Arriba!: drinks at Mexico Food and Liquor. Photo: Jennifer Soo

The best food has long been found on the streets, in the markets and in family celebrations. Much of what we see in Sydney now is Mexican-style street food, influenced as much by the US as it is by Mexico, with a few restaurants aiming higher on the authenticity meter and serving food from a single region.

It's a strong business model. In BRW's Fast Franchises list for 2013, three of the top-10 fastest-growing franchises in Australia are Mexican food chains. If the business sticks to street-food staples - burritos, tacos, quesadillas - the food's inexpensive and doesn't take years of culinary training to perfect. Indeed, of the new wave of eateries profiled here, not one has a specialist Mexican-trained chef.

And like much of the world's street food, it's great drinking food, so works well in bars and pubs. According to Merivale's Justin Hemmes, who has just expanded his El Loco taqueria concept, the Mexican craze hasn't yet reached its peak, and reflects industry trends where ''the boundaries between traditional restaurants and traditional bars are becoming blurred''.

Hemmes plans to expand El Loco with more pop-ups in creative spaces, as well as launch a new Latin American restaurant at ivy midyear, with a menu designed by Tim Pak Poy that will ''go beyond Mexican and encompass more refined street food''.

The Mexican wave is here to stay. ''It's a wonderful international cuisine,'' Hemmes says. ''There's no reason for it to go away.''

Gringos guide to the best Mexican in Sydney

LA LUPITA

You don't expect to get authentic Mexican from a Turk but that's what Attila Yilmaz has achieved in Canterbury with his ''permanent pop-up'' taqueria La Lupita, a sister to his Al Carbon food truck. Yilmaz set up La Lupita, a warehouse-like kitchen and eatery, while waiting for his truck to be completed, and now alternates the two ventures.

Even though he hails from a family of Turkish restaurateurs, Yilmaz travelled extensively to research and develop his Al Carbon (''to cook with charcoal'') concept inspired by the barbecue pits and street food of Sonora and Baja in northern Mexico.

''I'm not doing anything revolutionary,'' he says. ''In Mexico, if you go to one place they specialise in one thing and one thing only.''

The menu is short: spit-roasted chipotle chicken wings with a fiery chipotle mayo, cowboy beans with chiltepil salsa (a mix of pepitas, sesame and three kinds of chilli) and chilli-and-lime watermelon salad with traditional Oaxaca ''string ball'' cheese sourced from a local cheesemaker.

And then there are the tacos. The meat - spicy pork or chicken or milder beef - is rotisseried over mangrove coals. The tortillas are pressed and grilled in front of you, and then you add your salsa of choice, guacamole and fresh or pickled vegetables.

The salsas are the highlight, ranging from hot (arbol chilli salsa) to explosive (habanero salsa) and illustrating the depth of flavours of Mexico's myriad chilli varieties. If you thought chillies just added heat, think again.

La Lupita, 325 Canterbury Road, Canterbury, 0416 061 974; facebook.com/LaLupitaSydney; visitalcarbon.com.

 

MEXICO FOOD AND LIQUOR

If anyone has grasped the economic benefits of Mexican food, it's Kiwi Warren Turnbull. The former two-hat chef has jettisoned fine dining for Mexican, launching Mexico Food and Liquor in late 2012. It followed the huge success of two Mexico Food and Liquor restaurants in Auckland, opened in 2011.

''Mexican is definitely one of the world's great cuisines, so fresh and healthy and tasty,'' Turnbull says. ''And, if you create the right vibe, it's just fun.''

Turnbull and his partners are rolling out another five outlets in New Zealand this year. ''At the moment we can build them faster than we can staff them,'' he says.

Mexico Food and Liquor is not pitched as authentic Mexican. ''It's more modern Mexican,'' Turnbull says. ''But for $6 a taco, it's about getting a lot of flavour. And the drinks are as much fun as the food.''

The advantages, from a business point of view, are that Mexico Food and Liquor doesn't need traditionally trained chefs or waiters with good skills.

The design and fitout is vibrant, colourful and low-cost, with plywood tables and benches, and walls crammed with rustic framed artworks featuring Frida Kahlo, Day of the Dead and other Mexican cliches.

Dishes are plated on wooden boards or in enamel bowls. Place mats double as menus. Serve-yourself cutlery is plonked on the table in pots but you'll eat most of the food with your fingers, anyway: salsas or dips with corn chips, tostaditas with crab, almond and green onion, and soft-shell tacos.

17 Randle Street, Surry Hills, 9211 7798, mexicofoodandliquor.com.au.

 

MEJICO

There's not an image of Frida Kahlo to be seen in the slick fitout of CBD newcomer Mejico. Pitching itself as a modern and upmarket alternative to the plethora of street food in Sydney, Mejico is the brainchild of extraordinary young entrepreneur Dr Sam Prince, who set up the uber-successful Zambrero fast-food franchise when he was a medical student and has since poured its significant profits into philanthropic foundations targeting technology training in rural Sri Lanka and medical intervention for indigenous Australians.

A tequila bar here - boasting more than 130 varieties including Kah in a bottle resembling a human skull - is worth the visit alone.

105 Pitt Street, city, 9230 0119, mejico.com.au.

 

EL TOPO

Perched atop Bondi Junction's Eastern Hotel, El Topo gets a gong for authenticity, focusing on the food of Oaxaca, Mexico's most biologically and culturally diverse region. It's also one of the prettiest Mexican eateries, decorated with colourful hand-painted tiles and offering a spacious outdoor area.

The menu offers typical Oaxacan dishes including chapulines (roasted crickets), which look like something you'd sweep up off an unloved beach-house floor. They are crunchy and nutty and seasoned with lime, chilli and fried garlic.

More of a crowd-pleaser is the charred corn, rolled in crushed pepitas and chipotle mayo and sprinkled with fresh cheese, and a chilli-laden ceviche of scallops with green tomato, which arrives in its own parfait jar, squired by delicious house-made corn chips. The pick of the quesadillas includes Mexican truffle - a mushroom-like fungus that grows on corn.

Rooftop, Level 3, Eastern Hotel, 500 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction, 8383 5959, eltopo.com.au.

 

EL LOCO

Talented pubmeister Justin Hemmes donned his sombrero in 2011 with El Loco taqueria, tucked behind the Excelsior Hotel in Surry Hills. In January, he took the concept harbourside with an El Loco pop-up as part of the Opera House's Summer at the House and earlier this month created El Loco at Slip Inn in the city.

El Loco's menu is inspired predominantly by the Mexican food trucks of Los Angeles, which Hemmes and chef Dan Hong experienced in an intensive research trip sampling 25 trucks in five nights - ''We were like greedy little piggies,'' Hemmes says.

At Slip Inn, new pub-friendly dishes including minute steak and barbecued chicken have joined the existing tacos dishes and famous El Loco hot dog still available at the original.

What hasn't changed is the fast-food aesthetic, high stools, plastic table coverings in vibrant florals, food served in cardboard cartons, drinks in plastic cups and paper serviettes too small to be useful. Not surprisingly, there's a focus on Mexican beers and tequila cocktails; the jalapeno Margarita is long on spicy heat and the Lagerita like downing a Corona with lime and a tequila at the same time.

Purists might be aghast at the mixed cultural metaphors in the tofu and roasted-veg taco, into which Hong (who also heads up the kitchens at Ms. G's and Mr. Wong) adds a dash of hoisin and chilli bean sauce. But if Mexican is the original fusion cuisine, El Loco's running with it.

Excelsior Hotel, 64 Foveaux Street, Surry Hills; Slip Inn, 111 Sussex Street, city; merivale.com.au/elloco.

 

CANTINA MOBIL

Cantina Mobil was granted the first Sydney food-truck licence. The secret of success for Stephanie Raco and Rode Vella, partners in business and life, is to keep things simple. ''We wanted to pay homage to the street vendors overseas who pick out one style and do it well,'' Raco says.

The succinct Cantina menu comprises a choice of burrito, taco or nachos and three filings: slow-roasted, shredded chipotle beef, spicy achiote chicken and boldly flavoured triple-boiled pinto beans braised with red capsicum, garlic, onions and Mexican dried oregano. Their commercial kitchen - or Cantina HQ - in Darlinghurst offers a permanent outlet if you can't catch them on the road.

HQ, corner of Oxford and Crown streets, Darlinghurst, cantinamobil.com.au. See @CantinaMobil for location updates.

 

Sydney's best tacos

LA LUPITA, CANTERBURY

Hands-down, Sydney's best and most authentic tacos with soft wheat flour tortillas pressed and grilled to order, meat slowly roasted over charcoal and fiery salsas that will variably warm you up or blow you away.

MEXICANO, NARRABEEN

Nestled in flaky, home-made tortillas, Mexicano's beer-battered fish tacos come with red cabbage slaw, chipotle mayonnaise and papaya, and are sprinkled with tomato and coriander salsa.

EL LOCO, SURRY HILLS AND CITY

Staff probably won't tell you what's in the secret taco till you've eaten it but if you don't like offal then steer clear. For the record, roasted pigs' testicles are tender with caramelised crisp edges and drizzled with smoky chipotle mayo. The tortillas come from Fireworks Foods.

Mexican ingredients

FIREWORKS FOODS

15/16 Loyalty Road, North Rocks, 0432 507 521, fireworksfoods.com.au.

Marycarmen Aguilera relocated from Mexico City 13 years ago and has built her present business with husband Raymond Said. Visit Fireworks (or order online) for fresh corn tortillas, chips and tostados made on the premises, tinned tomatillos, chilli pastes, dried chillies, achiote paste, hot sauces and rare red jalapenos (tinned). $20 minimum order.

IMPORTED MEXICAN FOODS

8A Waugh Crescent, Blacktown, 0417 210 105, importedmexicanfoods.com.

Angel Granados has been importing Mexican food for 24 years, including dried chillies (chipotle, pasilla, guajillo ancho, habanero, morita, mulatto, cascabel) and chilli powders, pre-made salsas, white corn tortillas, flour tortillas and masa (white corn) flour.

MONTEREY MEXICAN FOODS

Unit 6/340 Hoxton Park Road, Prestons, 9826 9378, montereyfoods.com.au.

White and blue masa flour, dried corn husks, whole and powdered dried chillies (ancho, chipotle, jalapeno, habanero), tinned tomatillos, and various hot sauces.