Picture this: It’s Friday night and you’re hankering for good-quality Mexican food.
Perhaps Neil Perry’s latest venture, Bar Patrón, is a little out of the budget, but you’re after something slightly more complex than a foil-wrapped burrito on the fly. Where do you go to find an iteration of the cuisine that’s faithful, fun and flavourful all at once?
Compared to say Thai or Italian, the options for “true” Mexican food in Sydney are not as numerous as we’d like. There are innovators like Bad Hombres, creating vegan food in the vein of Mexican culinary traditions, and higher-end players like Mejico in Sydney’s CBD, where a plate of guacamole goes for $15.
Overall, though, fast food chains like Mad Mex, Zambrero and Guzman y Gomez dominate the Mexican space, and while we’re certainly partial to a Tex-Mex style street-food dish laden with sour cream and lashings of queso every now and then, these options don’t necessarily score highly in the eyes of Mexican cuisine aficionados.
Where are the dishes you’d normally scoff on the side of the road in Mexico City? The tamales (meat wrapped in corn-husk parcels) and the soft-shell tacos de suadero (a cut of beef or pork between the belly and the leg)? Where does one head for comida corrida (a quick, hot lunch), or for a plate of garnachas (small tortillas topped with meat, cabbage, salsa and cheese)?
Sydney-based Rosa Cienfuegos is a first-generation Mexican woman who runs La Casa Latina, a permanent fixture at Marrickville markets on the first and fourth Sunday of every month. The crowds and the scent of corn tortillas cooking on a pan will lead you straight to her.
La Casa Latina has been heralded as Sydney’s “only authentic Mexican street food”.
With an always-changing roster of offerings like baked enchiladas, Mexican bean soup and chile relleno (stuffed, battered capsicums served with rice, tortillas and stewed black beans), La Casa Latina has been heralded as Sydney’s “only authentic Mexican street food”; Cienfuegos seems like an obvious choice to ask about the dearth of Mexican restaurants in Sydney.
“Mexican ingredients are sometimes not easy to find, and people often end up buying them with distributors that charge you a bit more,” she explains. “Plus, I don’t think we are at the point in Australia where everybody wants to eat a random Mexican dish for lunch or dinner during the week, so this pushes chefs to keep making what sells better instead of adding more options to their menus.”
"They should be confident that our cuisine has a lot to offer – more than just burritos, fajitas and guacamole with random ingredients."
Add to this the fact that the 2011 Census only recorded 3255 Mexico-born people in Australia. Of that number, only 1151 were registered as being NSW-based.
Cienfuegos has been living in Sydney since 2009, all the while watching the city’s relationship with Mexican cuisine evolve. She ran a Mexican restaurant, Cuervo, with her father; it was here she cut her teeth on Sydney’s hospitality scene (“why would you need a licence to play music?!?”) and discovered that Sydneysiders weren’t quite ready for true Mexican food (“I can’t even count the times I had to explain we don’t speak “Mexican”, we don’t have chilli con carne or American cheese with jalapenos. It’s hard to explain what Mexican food is to someone who only wants a nachos plate.”).
Cuervo closed after just three years, but working there taught Cienfuegos everything she now knows about cooking, and about recreating authenticity from her unique perspective.
“Mexican restaurant owners and chefs should be a bit more confident to offer real options instead of trying to please the Tex-Mex demand,” she says. “They should be proud of being Mexican, they should be confident that our cuisine has a lot to offer – more than just burritos, fajitas and guacamole with random ingredients. It’s like, c’mon, guys, bring Mexican flavours to the top!”
Perhaps it’s the success of La Casa Latina talking, but Cienfuegos identifies a positive shift towards Sydney embracing not only Mexican food, but Mexican culture, too. Diners are coming around to ordering new and unusual menu items; Cienfuegos’ tamales are so popular she’s opened a tamaleria in Dulwich Hill late last year, stocked with a range of take-home tamales, corn tortillas, salsas and oaxaca cheese (AKA, the ‘mozzarella of Mexico’).
“When I came here the only places with “Mexican food” were the Tex-Mex chains,” she says. “That’s definitely changing, though. It’s always good to know the Australian population is craving for Mexican food, and I’m really happy to see more options here and there, even if they are not 100% authentic. Some things kick off slowly until they get to perfection. I might just take a couple of years to get there.”
It’d a good outlook for everyone – even if you’re a die-hard GYG fan (we won’t tell).
“The old days with non-spicy options and BBQ sauce for tacos is finally gone, and I can’t wait to see a proper taco stall in the streets with real flavours and good prices.”
463 Marrickville Road, Dulwich Hill, NSW, 0430 876 765
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