500 Victoria St North Melbourne, VIC 3051
|Opening hours||Daily 11am-2.30pm, 5.30pm-9pm|
|Features||Gluten-free options, Groups, Events, Accepts bookings, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||03 9329 9477|
Caesar Duran and Javier Calzada did not open El Sabor in North Melbourne, but they did turn it into one of the city's most authentic Mexican restaurants.
Both from Mexico City, the two owners originally went into business together making tortillas. Today, they own a tortilla factory and the restaurant, and Calzada is a well-known VJ (he goes by the name BlueMD in his musical life).
Duran originally came to Melbourne in 1999 to study at Melbourne University. After he finished his studies, he went back to Mexico for five years, but says he couldn't find his footing there. In 2010 he returned to Australia as a representative of the Mexican Business Council.
Duran's wife was working at a popular Melbourne Mexican restaurant, and "she came home every night complaining about the quality of the tortillas", Duran says. Having been deeply involved in commerce between the two countries, he knew what was available on the Australian market. He and Calzada decided to start a tortilla factory, and El Cielo opened in 2012, making tortillas and stocking Mexican products.
"At first El Sabor was a customer of ours," Duran says. By 2016, the restaurant, which opened in 2013, was struggling and the original owner offered to sell to the tortilla-making duo. "He offered us a deal, and we said, 'Should we do it? Let's do it!' And so we did it and it was crazy. It's still crazy."
Duran knew he needed an accomplished Mexican chef to bring his vision to life, and he hired Israel Meza, who once served as the chef at the Mexican embassy in Canberra. They set about changing the menu. "All of our flavours are authentic," Duran says. "We try to recreate memories for people who really know Mexican food."
The brightly-coloured room has wooden booths and high stools that face out onto the street. The restaurant serves plenty of margaritas, but also has a nice selection of mezcals worth exploring.
There is a menu of to-go burritos, which the kitchen will make you to dine-in if you ask nicely, but the real treats lie with the more traditional Mexican dishes. The carnitas, served on tacos, are moist and porky and wonderful. The mole, served over chicken enchiladas, is deeply savoury, brimming with spices, nuts, and just a hint of bitter chocolate. Beef sopes get the texture of the masa flour base just right – just dense enough, just moist enough.
The beauty of this food is in its simplicity, and that is no coincidence. Duran despairs at the over-spicing and overwrought presentation of so much Mexican food in Australia. "Like any good cuisine, there needs to be a subtlety of flavours," he says. "Mexican food needs to be fresh. What we do here is basic. But it is subtle. It is always fresh."
Go-to Dish: Carnitas tacos, beef sopes.