Ladies and gentlemen, we are once again citizens of the free world and man does it feel good. But where to get a taste of that newfound freedom? Hit the coast? Bombard the bush? Or, for those who have been enjoying a rural pandemic, reconnect with the city? There isn't a bad option out there. There is just a very big caveat that if you are firing up the engines this week, you do it right.
That said, the right way to dine out has become a little bamboozling. Most of us have forgotten how to dress, and can't begin to think of where to go. Favourite places are booked solid and you might have lost track of who's new in the zoo.
Plus, safety advice for dining out isn't exactly what it used to be. You might be ready with your mask and contact tracing details, but add a big coat and hat to your list of dining out essentials. I've seen multiple dusk jacket drops as diners call home for extra layers and could almost hear the sound of bare necks crisping on brilliant-yet-unshaded rooftops.
With all this in mind, this week's column is dedicated to a gentle re-entry into the dining world, and what could be gentler than some tacos, scallop tostadas and tequila from the reliable stable behind Igni in Geelong?
Chef-restaurateur Aaron Turner is something of an expert at riding a fine line between worlds. On the one hand, he is responsible for some of Victoria's most masterfully restrained yet exciting cooking.
The late Loam, with its olive grove setting and onion ice-cream, is still grieved. Igni, with its deep worship of coals-based cooking and curing processes that demand respect and patience, is an engaging platform for Turner's loftiest ideals.
On the flip side, Turner's love of Nashville-style fried bird and the culture surrounding it has resulted in one of Geelong and Anglesea's hottest spots for a knees-up – the Hot Chicken Project. Now, just across the laneway of Little Malop Street, Turner has opened Tacos y Liquor, a simple spot you will either view as a bar with tacos or a taco joint with mezcal on the side.
It is not a big place. The design, with its big open windows, dominant bar wrapped in emerald tiles and more tables outside than in, was supposed to resemble a taco truck, and that's about the speed of the offering.
A short list of tacos is pinned to a felt board, all following the Oaxacan street-food style. The beef is Sher wagyu, rubbed in a paste of six kinds of chillies then grilled and sliced. Chicken has a tingle from a pre-plancha bath in salsa roja, the classic Mexican spicy red sauce, and the slow-cooked pork is a rich mix of belly and shoulder cooked with pineapple for that al pastor sweet-sour balance.
All go into tortillas with a base layer of mild, stretchy Oaxaca cheese, and all are topped with pico de gallo (a fresh salsa of tomatoes, white onion and coriander). Done.
Tostadas, the size of a large corn chip, are slightly more adventurous, loaded with a spice-sparkling heap of pickled cactus or, best of the list, a fat, pristine raw scallop whose sticky sashimi-like quality is a taste of things you didn't eat in lockdown, especially with a well-executed margarita in your hand.
Beyond this, there is elote, the grilled corn cob drenched in spicy mayo and crumbled queso. A bowl of broken rice and beans, eternally underrated, packs an astonishing amount of flavour and rounds out the list alongside a crunchy cabbage slaw with intense highlights of salted jalapenos.
There is smoky mezcal served in terracotta thimbles, or Mexican soft drinks such as Jaritos and the canned sunshine of an orange and pineapple Cactus Cooler.
It's that simple. No wild twists and turns or pretence about being an authentic Mexican experience. Turner has always made it clear he is a fan of foods he brings to these shores and makes no attempt to claim them.
Eat those tacos with a bottle of natural wine, rather than beer, if that's your jam. With Hot Chicken Project across the lane, you can order from their collection.
As we start to rejoin the dining world, simple feels right. Fun and easy feels good. And it's not just diners who might need a second to take stock and smell the tacos.
When Rene Redzepi reopened Noma, it was with burgers and wine in recognition that re-connection between shell-shocked diners and staff had to lead the way.
For Turner, he found that time away from the helter-skelter demands of pre-COVID hospitality made him decide he wanted change. He will only open Igni, for example, at weekdays so he can spend weekends with his partner. "I hope we are interesting enough that people will come when we are open," Turner says.
I trust we will. I hope diners have missed hospitality enough that we will appreciate restaurants big and small, and all those who strive to run them. Enjoy your freedom, Victoria. You've earned it.
Address 87A Little Malop Street, Geelong, 03 5222 2066
Open Wed-Sat 4-10pm
Drinks Mexican soft drinks and beer, Young Henry's cider, natural wines from across the way.
Pro tip Read Aaron Turner's semi-fictional literature, Tacos Y Liquor and the sequel No one gets out of Graceland alive, $22 each, published by Somekind Press. It's a wild taco adventure.
Cost Tacos $6; three with a side $23.
Score Scoring is paused while the industry gets back onto its feet.