17 Randle Street Surry Hills, NSW 201002 9311 7798
|Opening hours||Daily noon–11pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Mastercard, Visa|
What do you mean, you're getting tired of reading about Mexican restaurants? How do you think I feel having to eat at them all? We've had El Loco, El Topo and Mejico. We've had Mexican bar pop-ups and Mexican food truck roll-ups. It's tacos at dawn and tostadas at dinner time. Now what used to be Warren Turnbull's casual, pubby District Dining is riding the Mexican wave. Mexico Food & Liquor is part of a New Zealand-based chain of three that makes no bones about the fact it plans to open ''many more'' in Sydney. Oh, great.
With its madcap jumble of Day of the Dead skeletons and assorted religious artefacts - a crucifix here, a neon Madonna there - it feels a bit like a cross between a funeral parlour and a fiesta. The action is definitely more festive than funereal, however, as office workers by day and tequila lovers by night cram around wooden share tables and add to the decibels.
The brown paper menu, which doubles as place mat, runs to soft-shell tacos, quesadillas, a couple of salads and drinking food such as patatas bravas and salsa roja with house-made corn chips - good to go with the Mexican beer, sangrias, margaritas and tequila (with its own 80-strong list).
Unlike the menus of traditional restaurant chains, this one actually changes, so the tostaditas ($8) of my first visit - four crisp, spoon-shaped tortillas topped with crab, almond and green onion mojo - are now topped with mussel and chorizo sofrito with orange, mint and crisp shallots. They're just a bite or two each but they work a treat: smoky, lush and tangy.
Kingfish ceviche ($16) is claimed as a specialty and rightly so, with the model being a lively citrus-dressed salad of good, chunky pieces of kingfish, lime, avocado, chervil, grapes and candied sesame seeds.
The guacamole ($8) may be labelled do-it-yourself but when all you have to do is slather the avocado, already crushed with a lilting blend of spices, herbs and lime juice, onto warm, soft, flour tortillas and put it in your mouth, I think we can call that more an act of eating than of creation.
Wine-wise, pickings are slim-jim, limited to one house red, white and sparkling, and a blackboard special or two. A buttery 2009 Desierto 25/5 chardonnay from Argentina's Mendoza ($11 a glass/$45 a bottle) is unremarkable, and the house red La Vuelta cabernet sauvignon is probably at its best in a cold, fruity sangria ($10) with Grand Marnier, brandy, elderflower, apple and cranberry juices.
Drinks sorted, it's back into the fray. A soft-shell taco ($7) is a roll-your-own soft, floppy, steamy, open-faced flour tortilla topped with juicy beef brisket cooked in coconut with ancho chilli and served with green onion, chilli and papaya. Like a lot of the cooking of Mexico itself, it combines the best of both slow food and fast food.
The cleverly styled space, with its colourful tableaus against timber-lined walls and its girls bedecked with flowers in their hair a la Frida Kahlo, is a similar build to those in New Zealand, envisaged by the in-house design team. And while Warren Turnbull isn't actively involved in the day-to-day stuff, his wife, Mimi Gilmour, is, as the group's smart young operations manager.
The food is driven by executive chef Javier Carmona, with hands-on execution led by incoming chef Derek Bell. Their menu brags that the fried chicken ($14) is ''not to be missed''. But unless you have a nostalgic childhood craving for crumbed chicken nuggets with dipping mayo, I wouldn't say it was mandatory. There's the usual mayonnaise abuse here and the lively salads suffer from being crammed into small enamel soup-kitchen bowls. But I accept that mayonnaise is the mortar in the bricks of modern Mexican and that salads are probably not the point here.
Nor are desserts, although a tarta de dulce de leche ($10) is pleasant enough as a thinly disguised cheesecake with a biscuity base, covered in outrageously good spiced and caramelised popcorn that act like crunchy bubbles.
Mexico looks very much like a new business model for the budding restaurant chain entrepreneur; one that pegs prices and delivers a good time without actually amortising overheads such as chefs and produce to death. As such, it will do well. It could even outlast the fashion for Mexican food.
Best bit It's all good, clean fun.
Worst bit Service can lose the plot.
Go-to dish Ceviche of kingfish, chervil, avocado, lime, grapes and candied sesame seeds, $16.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.