"Mexican food is all about corn," says chef Juan Carlos Negrete. "It's like Italian food, where pasta has many shapes — the same with corn, corn has many shapes."
If it's pressed into a small disc, it’s a tortilla. If it's stretched into a more oval form, it's a huarache. Slightly thicker? Call it a gordita. Filled with something? You're looking at a tlacoyo.
"These corn preparations, they change with shapes and sizes — just like pasta would," he says.
That's why Negrete's Sydney eatery is named Maíz: it's Spanish for corn, the ingredient that's foundational to Mexican cuisine. The name also comes from the Indigenous Taíno people and translates to "what sustains life".
The restaurant is currently located in the inner-west suburb of Newtown, where it opened in January — but the business began mid-2020 when the chef teamed up with his partner Freija Brandie, sister Marissa Negrete and brother-in-law Carlos Levet to run a Mexican market stall in Summer Hill.
They deliberately kept tacos off the menu. Negrete, who was born in the northern Mexico city of Mexicali, explains, "Everyone's doing tacos and margaritas. It is Mexican food, don't get me wrong, but there's so much more out there.
"We really wanted to push what the perception of Mexican food is."
So the team began with just three types of three sopes. "We thought that sopes was the closest to a taco without being a taco," he says. Negrete defines this Mexican staple as a "corn-based tartlet" that's typically filled with beans, vegetables and meat, and generously topped with salsas, pickles and more ingredients. "We describe it as like the cousin of the taco."
Their first menu featured breakfast sopes filled with scrambled eggs and salsa roja, chicken tinga sopes (made with chipotle-marinaded meat) and a vegan option inspired by the markets themselves.
While walking around, the chef came across the condiment-maker Drunken Sailor Canning Co. and was struck by its pineapple jam with rum and coconut — it reminded him of the classic al pastor taco, which is cooked with spit-roasted pork and pineapple. Negrete also discovered another local stall, Mama Liu's, which specialises in northwestern Chinese chilli oil. He combined these flavours with a key Mexican ingredient — hibiscus flowers — which flavour a popular iced tea known as agua de Jamaica.
"In Mexico, it's common to discard the flower and throw it in the bin," he says. But the chef cleverly repurposed it for Maíz's menu. "We use that as the base of the sope, we cook it off with caramelised onions and we add a little of the marinade, which is usually used for our al pastor tacos. That's how the dish came together."
It was a hit at the markets and today it's a bestseller at the restaurant — even if the recipe has changed.
"Now we do our own chilli oil using 10 different Mexican chillies," he says. "Let's see if I can name them all: we have pequin, chipotle, cascabel, morita, ancho, mulato, basila, guajillo, habanero …"
He laughs and admits defeat. "I always miss one."
Before opening Maíz, Negrete was working at Mexican restaurant Sonora in Potts Point — an experience that was (literally) close to home. Sonora is named after the northern Mexican state that borders Baja California, where Negrete grew up. Northern Mexican cuisine is known for its use of wheat tortillas, instead of maize-based ones.
"I brought my grandmother's recipe," he says. "We were doing over 1,000 tortillas a week."
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the restaurant industry last autumn, he was let go from Sonora. But it meant he could start Maíz with his family a few months later. And while sopes were the stars of its market menu, now that Maíz is a proper restaurant, it has expanded its scope far beyond that.
"We really wanted to push what the perception of Mexican food is."
Here, you'll find tlacoyos — something that's rarely seen on Sydney menus. "It's one of the oldest dishes in Mexico actually. The Aztecs used to do it a lot. It's corn-based, it's like an empanada filled with beans, cheese or other legumes," he says.
It's an especially meaningful dish for him, because it sustained him during his culinary degree in Puebla in central Mexico. "You'll get packets of five tlacoyos for a dollar or two," he says. "I used to eat a lot of tlacoyos when I was a student." Negrete often stocked up on blue-corn versions at the local market and relished the cheap feed. It's "the equivalent of mee goreng" for Mexican students, he says and laughs.
Another Mexican specialty at Maíz is chilaquiles, which he describes as corn chips tossed in salsa. "Traditionally, you eat them as a breakfast dish with eggs and chicken on top of grilled meat," he says. "A lot of Mexicans say that this is the perfect cure for hangovers."
Then there are tortas — the only menu item not made from corn. "It's very similar to a banh mi from Vietnam — it has a similar story. The French came to Mexico and brought the baking culture and the same thing happened in Vietnam," Negrete says.
"When I was growing up, every Saturday was a torta Saturday." It's like Australia's weekend ritual of having a bacon and egg roll, but "way better".
"A lot of Mexicans come into the kitchen to say: 'thank you, you've really made feel like home'."
While Maíz is ruled by its no-taco policy, the team made an exception for a recent special: the taco placero. "I thought if we were going to have a taco on the menu as a special, it's going to be this one," says the chef. His supplier had poblano chillies in season, which can be stuffed to make chile relleno. This reminded him of the taco placero vendor he'd see during his student days. This giant taco is named after the plazas where it's typically sold. It's wrapped in a cone and filled with beans, rice, boiled eggs, salsa and a whole chilli relleno. Some people put schnitzels in there. It's a big taco," he says. "Instead of them serving you a whole meal in a plate, they serve it to you in a taco."
Maíz sold a version made from a hand-pressed tortilla, stretching 30 centimetres wide.
It's clear that Maíz is built from big collections of memories of Mexico — whether it's the Pancho Bakery concha pastries that evoke Mexican breakfasts or the quesadilla with longaniza (house-made chorizo), inspired by the kind Negrete ate on mountainous roads.
But his Mexican version of Vegemite is a uniquely Australian addition to the menu. It originates from his days at Three Blue Ducks in Bronte, where he created an alternative to the classic salty spread back in 2017. His current Maíz version is more like a Mexican mole, and gets its punch from plenty of chillies and sesame seeds. He serves it with a quesadilla and avocado — influenced by the classic brunch move of serving toast with Vegemite and avocado. "I thought, I'm going to Mexican-ise this."
Maíz is developing a dinner menu, which will include posole and other soups, but in the meantime, Negrete is floored by the responses to his take on Mexican brunch, particularly from people who migrated here 30 years ago and think the chilaquiles taste like their mums' ones.
"A lot of Mexicans come into the kitchen to say, 'Thank you, you've really made feel like home'."
415 King Street, Newtown, NSW
This beef stew is so easy to make and yet so full of flavour.