Siesta to fiesta: The restaurants bringing real-deal Mexican food to Sydney

Milpa Collective has just opened Casa Merida in Potts Point and two more venues are imminent.
Milpa Collective has just opened Casa Merida in Potts Point and two more venues are imminent. Photo: Trent van der Jagt

One of the world's great cuisines has finally arrived in Sydney. Forget what you know and prepare to be wowed.

There have been a few breakout food trends in 2021, and while it's too soon to say if the TikTok-fuelled obsession with quesabirria (a cross between a taco and a quesadilla) will last or go the way of dalgona coffee, the internet mayhem surrounding these cheesy, beefy, dripping tacos is reinforced by a Mexican scene that's sweeping Sydney.

The taco selection at Sydney's Buen Taco in Pyrmont.
The taco selection at Sydney's Buen Taco in Pyrmont. Photo: Steven Woodburn

Milpa Collective, one of our most ambitious Mexican restaurant groups, already runs six venues including Calita and Sonora. Last week it opened Casa Merida in Potts Point and two more are imminent. In Barangaroo, Rebecca Lines and Hamish Ingham have relaunched Banksii as Tequila Daisy, an Australian-Mexican restaurant with more than 100 tequilas and mezcals available by the glass. And just last week, Buen Taco, a taqueria pop-up in Pyrmont, became a permanent fixture at Quick Brown Fox.

Why was 2021 the year Sydney's Mexican scene came into its own? "I think people are starting to appreciate the complexity of Mexican food, whereas previously it was kind of looked at as sort of a quick and dirty meal," says Daniel Hanssen, who started Tacos Muchachos, a pop-up inspired by Mexico's streetside stalls, in Surry Hills in July. Hanssen brought in Mexican chef Tonatiuh Arocha to oversee a menu featuring juicy pork al pastor tacos alongside other favourites (including quesabirria), while his wife, Jazmin Castaneda, hand-presses fresh tortillas.

It's one thing to ride a wave, but for Sydney's Mexican cooks, it's been a long journey to see their cuisine gain wider recognition and status.

Cantina OK! debuted at number 28 on the World's 50 Best Bars list.
Cantina OK! debuted at number 28 on the World's 50 Best Bars list. Photo: Nikki To

Juan Carlos Negrete, of Maiz in Newtown, is one example. When Negrete migrated to Australia from Baja California in 2014 he found a scene dominated by chains. When he moved to Albury-Wodonga to study, his Mexican world shrank to just one restaurant: Taco Bill.

Starved of the food of his culture, Negrete, who was working on a sheep and pig farm, took matters into his own hands. He started a stall at the Albury Wodonga farmers' market, using the meat he had reared then slaughtered. "I decided to do carnitas (slow-cooked pork) and lamb barbacoa (also slow-roasted) with tortillas made from scratch and produce from the area – tomatoes from Yackandandah, vegetables from Beechworth. It was super popular."

Negrete's current venture, as its name suggests, uses corn as its main inspiration. "Corn is so embedded in our culture," says Negrete. Ask and he'll speak about its 60,000-year evolution, the hundreds of varieties, and how nixtamalisation (where corn is steeped in an alkaline solution to release nutrients and flavour and achieves the distinctive flavour of masa flour) helped build civilisations.

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"In Mexico those indigenous cultures discovered nixtamalisation, which then shaped heavily how important corn is for our gastronomy, and therefore our culture."

That importance is writ large at Maiz, where the menu explores various corn-based dishes – crisp chilaquiles (corn tortilla topped with salsa often eaten for breakfast), and thick stuffed tlacoyos (oval-shaped tortillas loaded with beans and cheese) – each made in-house from nixtamalised and ground corn. Negrete has also begun to source heirloom and regional varieties for his menu: black or purple corn from Tlaxcala; gold from Chiapas; white from Oaxaca.

Where the interested home cook might be able to speak about different flour grades or different types of rice, in Australia corn has remained something of an enigma. But in the taco scene, at least, there's now a wave of chefs determined to change that.

Lamb, beef and chicken tacos from Tequila Daisy at Barangaroo.
Lamb, beef and chicken tacos from Tequila Daisy at Barangaroo. Photo: Supplied

One of these is Toby Wilson. The chef may have started out selling makeshift tacos in Chinatown (as Ghostboy Cantina) in 2013, but he's spent the following years delving deeper. Wilson recently turned his food truck, Ricos Tacos, into a bricks-and-mortar business in Chippendale. He currently uses bought tortillas, but sees the future of Ricos as one where the corn is nixtamalised, ground into masa and made into tortillas in-house.

"The thing that is often said of sushi is that the rice is more important than the fish," says Wilson. "And a lot of taqueros would say the same thing about a tortilla."

Of course, corn isn't the only vital ingredient. But Wilson, who previously looked to Asian grocers to fill in the gaps on his menu, has since seen supply change drastically. "The concept of Ghostboy came about, to some degree, because I couldn't get supply. It was like, let's try and replicate the essence of these flavours with the markets that are around me," he says. "What I'm able to get access to now – the dried chillies, fresh tomatillos [green Mexican tomatoes] – has dramatically improved."

Tequila Daisy's waterfront site at Barangaroo.
Tequila Daisy's waterfront site at Barangaroo. Photo: Hamish Ingham

This sentiment echoes the experience of migrant chefs like Rosa Cienfuegos, the owner of La Tamaleria and Itacate, who equally found herself trying to recreate the flavours of her homeland with whatever ingredients she could.

"I was lucky that my dad already knew where to buy a few ingredients or how to combine them," she says. "He'd say, 'We don't have Mexican chillies but you can get these Asian ingredients and they might be similar'. That's when I started to play around and be open to trying different ingredients from different parts of the world." Part of Cienfuegos' mission, she says, has been to not only supply more Mexican ingredients through her venues, but to increase supply by increasing demand.

It's a trend backed by a rapidly growing Mexican community. Census data tells us that between 2011 and 2016 the Mexican-born population in Australia (a relatively new migrant community) increased by almost 50 per cent. This also coincides with a demographic of Australians who are increasingly seeing Los Angeles and Mexico as tourist destinations, then coming home and demanding the real thing.

Casa Merida has just opened in Potts Point and looks to the Yucatan pensinula for inspiration.
Casa Merida has just opened in Potts Point and looks to the Yucatan pensinula for inspiration. Photo: Trent van der Jagt

The movement extends to booze, too. Just look at Cantina OK!, the tiny mezcal bar that last year debuted at number 28 on the World's 50 Best Bars list. For co-owner Jeremy Blackmore, smuggling rare bottles back in suitcases snowballed into a venue that's become the first stop for rare spirits from Oaxaca to Puebla.

"Mezcal is one of the last agricultural spirits in the world, made by people that not only make the spirit but grow the plants and have been doing it for generations," says Blackmore. "People are searching for something real, and there's a whole generation of young people that have tasted amazing Mexican food and won't settle for sour cream and an iceberg lettuce any more."

The success of a venue like Cantina OK! means that when Milpa Collective opens its 100-seat mezcal bar Santa Catarina in the CBD in November, the city will come armed with an appetite.

Cantina OK!, a tiny mezcal bar, in Sydney's CBD.
Cantina OK!, a tiny mezcal bar, in Sydney's CBD. Photo: Nikki To

Wherever you turn, the future looks bright in Australia for one of the world's oldest cuisines. But, says Cienfuegos, there's still plenty to do. "Instead of sending people to one specific Mexican shop because there only is one, I would like everyone to know how to cook Mexican food," she says. "For it to be part of the daily diet for Australian people."

Where to salsa right now

Bodega 1904 Cantina

A former tapas bar has morphed into a cantina under new chef Alvaro Valenzuela. Valenzuela spent lockdown putting together takeaway packs of tacos, burritos and quesadillas, but with reopening is bringing more restauranty flourishes. Think raw tuna tostadas (toasted tortillas), kingfish with aguachile (a type of Mexican ceviche), or grilled octopus with guajillo (a large, mild chilli) oil and potatoes. Plus, there's the bar menu overseen by Continental's Michael Nicolian.

Chilaquiles from Maiz Mexican Street Food.
Chilaquiles from Maiz Mexican Street Food. Photo: Supplied

Tramsheds, 1 Dalgal Way, Forest Lodge

Buen Taco

A lockdown pop-up at Pyrmont cafe Quick Brown Fox, Buen Taco has now become a permanent fixture. They may be best known for their cheesy birria tacos served with consomme for dipping, but co-owner Ben Calabro also swears by the pork torta (sandwich) and the frozen margaritas.

22 Union Street, Pyrmont

Itacate

Rosa Cienfuegos' Redfern sequel to Dulwich Hill's ever-popular La Tamaleria is emerging out of lockdown with a more streamlined menu. Tacos, tamales, empanadas, enchiladas and quesadillas will headline, while weekends will see more regional specials. It's supplemented by shelves stocked with everything from tomatillos (green tomatoes) to tortilla chips to brined nopales (cactus).

129-133 Redfern Street, Redfern

Maiz Mexican Street Food

Juan Carlos Negrete's Newtown restaurant offers a menu that ranges from sopes (small, thick tortillas) topped with beans and braised hibiscus flower to tlacoyo divorciados, where a thick tortilla is crowned with two fried eggs and salsa. The biggest draw, though? The heirloom corn that forms the basis of his menu.

415 King Street, Newtown

Santa Catarina/Casa Merida/Londres 126

Pablo Galindo Vargas and Liber Osorio, who own the Milpa Collective, already oversee six Mexican restaurants in Sydney, but the next few months will see them add two more. There's Oaxacan mezcal bar and restaurant Santa Catarina in the CBD, upmarket Casa Merida, which has just opened in Potts Point looking to the Yucatan pensinula for inspiration, and Londres 126 on Bridge Street, inspired by the parties Frida Kahlo used to throw in Mexico City in the '40s. Strap in for a wild ride.

Santa Catarina, 156 Clarence Street, Sydney; Casa Merida, Shop 1, 5 Kellett Street, Potts Point; Londres 126, 2-10 Loftus Street, Sydney

Tacos Muchachos

Another pop-up, Tacos Muchachos, is seeking a permanent site after operating out of Surry Hills cafe Paddock during lockdown. Tacos are the word here, with hand-pressed tortillas, juicy al pastor (tacos made with spit-grilled pork) and another take on birria. This is fresh, fast street-style cooking. Expect to get your hands dirty.

509 Crown Street, Surry Hills

Tequila Daisy

Having previously run vermouth-themed Banskii on the same site, Hamish Ingham and Rebecca Lines used lockdown to transform the space into one inspired by agave spirits. The extensive list of tequila and mezcal is complemented by dishes designed to share, from non-traditional tacos (carrot with chimichurri is a highlight) to shared plates including spatchcock marinated in bright-red achiote (spice) paste and wagyu flank steak served with a sauce made from dark pasilla chillies.

Shop 11, 33 Barangaroo Avenue, Sydney

Los Gueros

Dave McKinn and Alex White got their start at Erskineville markets before they started popping up regularly at Young Henrys in Newtown. The pair make their own tortillas – a labour-intensive process considering they mill their corn by hand – then serve them in just two to three styles. The al pastor has become a fan favourite, but it's the mushroom taco topped with habanero-pickled onions that really shines. (Check @losgueros.au for times.)

Young Henrys, 76 Wilford Street, Newtown

Ricos Tacos

First it was a truck, then a cart at The Grifter Brewing Co, but Toby Wilson has now launched a permanent Ricos Tacos site in Chippendale. So far he's been handing tacos and fish tortas out of the takeaway window, but the future might see eat-in and fresh-made tortillas as the base for what he hopes might become a Sydney-specific style of Mexican cooking. Oh, and grab a hash brown with salsa roja (red sauce) for breakfast while you're at it.

15 Meagher Street, Chippendale

Glossary of Mexican dishes

Empanadas This stuffed handheld parcel common across Latin America has Spanish roots, but Mexico has plenty of styles. Head to the Yucatan and corn dough is stuffed with egg and chaya (a leafy green). Stay central and it could be spiced pork. Visit Veracruz and the dough's made with plantain. 

Enchiladas A dish where tortillas are dipped in spicy sauce then fried and rolled around fillings such as meat, vegetables or cheese. Enchiladas come in many styles and are a Tex-Mex standby, where they're often covered in cheese and baked.

Quesadillas Effectively a turnover, where a tortilla is folded in half around a filling – chorizo and potato, say – then grilled or fried. Quesabirria, TikTok's breakout star of 2021, combines this and birria tacos to create a cheesy, fried hybrid ready to be dunked into rich, beefy consomme.

Tacos A handheld dish with myriad regional and sub-regional variations. The unifying element is the tortilla base (most often made with corn, sometimes with flour) which might then be topped with pit-roasted pork (cochinita), spit-roasted pork and pineapple (al pastor), slow-cooked goat, lamb or beef (barbacoa) and finished with salsa and a scattering of onion and coriander. 

Tamales A preparation with a long history. Today it usually consists of a lard-enriched dough made with ground nixtamalised corn that's then folded around simple fillings and steamed in corn husks or banana leaves.