If your only experience of Mexican food is a greasy bowl of nachos at the local pub, Rosa Cienfuegos wants to teach you a lesson.
“Nachos are not Mexican!” she tells me. “The first time I saw nachos, I was like, ‘What is this?’ We would never eat something like that in Mexico!”
Cienfuegos runs a pop-up Mexican restaurant on the first Sunday of every month at Sydney’s Casa Latina – both to teach Australians to embrace real Mexican food, and to serve Sydney’s existing Mexican community.
Cienfuegos’s food journey began working in her family’s restaurant, the now-closed El Cuervo Cantina in Enmore, Sydney. “My dad, who is my hero and mentor, ran a Mexican restaurant and I worked there with him. We had the restaurant for three years, but it wasn’t financially viable.” Still, the restaurant had a huge following with the Mexican community – at the time, Rosa says, it was the only authentic Mexican place in Sydney.
“I often cooked for our customers at private events, and after the restaurant closed, I was doing it more and more. Eventually that got so busy that I thought, ‘Why don’t I do a pop-up once a month?’ I noticed that Australians, too, were more willing to try different South American foods, and I wanted to open it up to them, too.”
For six years, Rosa cooked exclusively for the Mexican community in Sydney, but for the past three months, she’s been hosting her increasingly popular pop-ups at La Casa Latina, which is housed in an old demountable at Addison Road Markets in Marrickville.
The dearth of real Mexican food, she says, is down to simple economics. “In Sydney’s Mexican restaurants – even with Mexican owners – there’s not really Mexican food. And I understand that – the Mexican community is small and they can’t sustain you! So you need to get Australians in, too, and they want fajitas, nachos, all those foods that are really Tex-Mex, not truly Mexican. Real Mexican food is very different. Our food is much simpler – we don’t add heaps of toppings or fillings like you do in Tex-Mex dishes.”
The pop-up also sells quality Mexican dry goods, like Tajin, the cult seasoning that’s sprinkled on fruit and vegetables, goat’s milk dulce de leche, crunchy deep-fried tortillas and a range of hot sauces.
Cienfuegos has recently come back from Melbourne, where she hosted a pop-up similar to the one she runs at Marrickville. “I was very surprised at how popular it was. In Sydney I’m quite well-known, but in Melbourne, nobody really knows who I am. So it was great to see so many people there.”
Cienfuegos does all the cooking herself in the lead-up to the event, and says she doesn’t want any help. It’s part of Mexican tradition, she says, to cook alone or only with one other partner. “It sounds a bit crazy but that’s what we believe!” She makes around 150 tamales for each event, which alone take her two days to cook.
“The food doesn’t really change much as people want the same things, it’s what they come for. People love the tamales, because it’s very hard to find those anywhere else. They’re my number-one seller. There’s always soft tacos, and I did a soup that was very popular over winter.” While she might add the odd dessert – like a chilli-spiked hot chocolate over winter – Cienfuegos admits that dessert “isn’t really my thing. Mexican people are savoury people!”
While she laments the lack of true oaxaca cheese here – it’s not allowed to be imported as it’s unpasteurised – Cienfuegos says that she’s been delighted with the response from the Sydney community. “It’s great to see so many people from outside the Mexican community come down to eat. I do wish Australian people would embrace more authentic Mexican foods. I’d love to see something like gorditas become more popular here – they’re so good. They’re a small, thick corn tortilla filled with pork and then deep-fried. We add spicy sauce or cream on top and it’s just delicious.”
And while the food is important – of course – Cienfuegos says that her pop-up is more about giving the community a chance to come together.
“The Mexican community is quite small in Australia – only 2000 of us in Sydney, probably. So I think it’s lovely to have an event where we all get together once a month. Even if you don’t know everyone, you can get to know them. You can connect with Mexico again.”
Contact Rosa via her Facebook page or on 0430 876 765. Rosa’s Sydney pop-ups will be held on 4 September, 2 October, 6 November and 4 December. On 16 September, there will be an event, open to the public, at the Marrickville Community Centre to celebrate Mexican Independence Day.
Love Mexican food? Look out for Pati's Mexican Table, starting October 5 on Food Network Australia. Born and raised in Mexico, and now living in the US, Pati Jinich shares her travels, tips and recipes for food to share with family and friends.
You can find these pickles at pretty much every taqueria and taco stand in Yucatán, Mexico. They’re super easy to make and are a great addition to tacos, sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs as well as fresh seafood.
Did you know one of Mexico’s most adored tacos – pineapple-marinated pork cooked on an upright rotisserie – is a descendant of Middle Eastern shawarma? Having tacos al pastor with a "garden" of onion, cilantro (coriander), pineapple and salsa is a Mexico City original.
The ancho chilli, a dried poblano chilli from Puebla, is one of the most common varieties of chilli in Mexican cooking. Tamale batter is made from a corn-based dough called masa. It is spread over corn husks, then wrapped with meat and mole. Usually, tamales are made in large quantities for special occasions and sometimes, there’s a tamale-making party called a tamalada.