350 Drummond St Carlton, VIC 3053
|Opening hours||Mon-Thu 4pm-11pm; Fri-Sat 4pm-1am|
|Features||Licensed, Bar, Accepts bookings, Gluten-free options|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||0450 651 247|
The tortilla is the thing. Just as rice is the most important element in sushi and a slow-risen dough is essential to fine pizza, the tortilla is key to a great taco. It must be sturdy enough to hold the filling but supple enough that you can fold it in your hand without it tearing. It shouldn't be overly big – but definitely not too small.
And the structural demands must not out-gun flavour. The tortilla should be a fine culinary partner for the filling, not just a vessel. Tortillas can be made from wheat flour or corn – both are authentically Mexican – but corn is king and that's what's served at Taquito, a new Mexican restaurant and bar.
Tortillas aren't just served here, they are made here, which makes Taquito unusual in Melbourne's Mexican landscape. Alec Villarreal, the Mexican-born owner, and Paul Clarke, his Mexican-obsessed New Zealand-born chef, make their own tortillas every day using a bespoke mixture of white corn meal (for structure), yellow (for flavour) and a secret supply of Victorian spring water. The tortillas are excellent.
They're best showcased in a taco flight, a platter loaded with four different tacos. Slow-braised lamb shoulder is shredded, loaded with chilli-tickled pickled onion and salsa verde: it's rich, sweet and sparky. Barramundi fillet is fried and laid over chipotle mayonnaise. Flavoursome, firm tri-tip (from the beef rump) is grilled and dressed with tomato salsa. Sweet roasted pumpkin is dolloped with avocado "crema" amped up with jalapeno. They're all good.
The taquito dorilocos are a tasty riff on a street snack that Alec would grab on his way home from school. In Mexico City, corn chips are loaded with pickled vegetables and salsas and handed over in a bag.
The restaurant version is a little like restrained nachos. Housemade corn chips are tossed in the kitchen's secret Dorito-style herbs-n-spices-n-cheese-powder seasoning, then dressed with pickled veg, chillies, melted cheese and tomatillo salsa. It's great for sharing, that is, fighting over.
Most cooking is on a char-grill, lending lovely smoky tinges to food and drink alike. Tommy's Margarita is a brilliant spin on a classic, garnished with a grilled jalapeno chilli that sets off the smokiness of the mezcal.
The grill is also responsible for the deep jamminess of the pumpkin on the vegetarian taco, and the char on the broccolini that's then dressed with tahini and spiced peanuts. This simple and sublime veg side is a showcase of vibrant local greens but the tahini is also a nod to the Lebanese influence prevalent in Mexico.
Taquito is in the two-part space that used to be Markov Place and Little Markov. The street-front bar is good for mezcal and craft beer (there's a bottle shop licence too) while the rear restaurant has a warehouse feel and laneway access.
It's simply but effectively decked out with cacti and herb plantings, most notably epazote, a Mexican sprig which lends its minty, tarry tones to the tomato salsa.
The Taquito team works hard to source some Mexican ingredients but authenticity isn't an obsession. This is a proudly Melbourne restaurant that taps into the spirit, energy and flavours of Mexico.
Maybe it's a bit like a tortilla: Melbourne's vibrant hospitality scene is the base; Mexico's rich culture is the exuberant topping.
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)