174 Smith St Collingwood, VIC 3066
|Features||Bar, Cheap Eats, Licensed|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
We've arrived. Enough time has elapsed since the Mexican wave of 2011 subsided that you're excited for tacos again. Tecates all round.
It's probably appropriate that the people making you talk tacos again are the same who did it the first time around. Remember when Mamasita had the queue to rule them all? Hotel Jesus is the long-awaited new sister in the old post office on Smith Street. This time, it's all about tostadas.
Only, it's not. Before we go over the highs and lows of the jazzed-up tortilla rafts being pumped out here at double time, note that Hotel Jesus' draw is in reminding us why we fell for Mexican to begin with. There are always frosty tins of salt-rimmed beer and ridiculously vibrant rooms. And even if the food is laughably expensive compared with Mexico proper, dinner for under $40 is doable.
So, join the queue. Floor-to-ceiling tiles in white and blue are the glistening base to Coca Cola logos and handwritten signs promising agua frescas and cervezas. Behind the central tiled bar sit soccer ball statuettes and rows of tequilas. A vase of plastic flowers sits beside an illuminated portrait of a kindly looking senorita who no one can identify. The vibe is canteen from tick-a-box menus to folding chairs and plastic plates.
For those who have forgotten their vocabulary think of a Michelada as a hot and citrussy Virgin Mary, topped up with beer. This one is pretty funky courtesy of a prawn garnish and a spice mixture that's got the smoky, tangy paprika heat of Kansas City barbecue sauce.
I prefer the perfectly on point margarita, or there's a salty-sweet watermelon and mezcal cooler with a chicken crackling garnish – bizarrely refreshing, like a sports drink.
There's always a straight nip of grassy, smoky raicilla, an ancient agave distillate once considered rustic moonshine, now "small batch artisanal spirit made on foraged agaves".
Having eaten the menu from end to end, there's good and less great news. Praise be for a sweet, mild, green chilli, roasted and stuffed with charred corn and stretchy queso like a grown-up version of jalapeno poppers.
Whipped smoked tuna with bonito flakes are the rilletes of Mexico, smeared over Saladas. There's an odd yet alluring raft of chicken skin crackling stacked with shredded and sweetly dressed iceberg lettuce like a handheld caesar salad. A finely minced white fish ceviche has a lime-salt-chilli vibrancy sometimes missed elsewhere.
Also good: ordering for one, taking a red bar stool and ticking solo items on your order form is easy. Vegetarian options are modest, but some of the best dishes. See the molten black bean and cheese quesadilla (called foldies) and the veg taco with nicely charred broccoli, cauliflower and chipotle.
Although it's the coriander and garlic-fragrant green chorizo, with a few fries enfolded in its tortilla like a tiny Mexican souvlaki that's king of tacos here.
Would that everything had the vibrancy to match that of the room. Many times I want to add salt. Lime often registers sour over bright, chilli bringing raw burn over spice. Balancing those ever-changing ingredients needs work, seen notable in our aguachile – prawns turned too hot and sour, and underwhelming bean dip (though this is vegan and hence hasn't had its usual pork fat).
To the tostadas you're actually here for, they come crested with most of the above including smoked tuna, and the bright ceviche, but also with fine sheets of pink tuna, Japafied with a wasabi pea crumb and a generous mountain of charred chicken and rustic tomato salsa (martajada).
The porktopus is proving the cultish table divider. Some love the base layer of salsa verde-soaked chicharones (pork crackling) beneath discs of octopus. The mushiness doesn't do it for all.
You may balk at $6 to $9.50 a tostada. And the sheer difficulty of eating that mountainous porktopus. Also the corn, coated in inky coconut ash mayo that stains your face, or the lunch-only tortas, filled with stewed tortilla chips (chilaquiles), lettuce, tomato and crumbed veal schnitzel that won't yield to teeth alone.
And yet even as I let the rest of a husky corn flan in its medicinal caramel-like glaze go back to the kitchen, making the tally of dishes I love to shrug at 60-40, I know I'll be back. Nothing could be more Mexican than risking it all for one great taco and tequila with mates.
Vibe: Welcome to Motel Mexicola, in Melbourne.
Pro Tip: Bring your drinking boots.
Go-to Dish: the green chorizo taco and the chilaca chilli ($5/$8)