Mexican cuisine has evolved in Australia, with eateries high-end and casual taking its distinctive original flavours to new heights. We take a look behind what's driving this new wave of authentic venues and share the best Mexican restaurants in Australia to put on your hit list.
In the 11 years since Pablo Galindo Vargas emigrated from Mexico City to Perth, the chef has witnessed a transformation of Mexican cuisine in his adopted country. “When I came, there was a lot of Tex-Mex,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of fried hard-shell tacos with lettuce and sour cream. It’s not bad, I like it. But it was a bit ’80s.”
Galindo Vargas arrived in Australia at a time when a wave of chefs and restaurateurs were beginning to take Mexican food in a new direction, introducing traditional dishes and flavours, from spicy tamales to rich, unctuous moles. “The food became more authentic over the years, especially with places like Mamasita in Melbourne,” he says. “We started to have an evolution in the food.”
Now a resident of Sydney and, with Chilean-born chef Liber Ostorio, the owner of a fleet of Mexican restaurants both in Sydney (Carbón, Taqiza, Sonora, La Palma and Calita) and Mexico City (MUX), Galindo Vargas says Mexican food is about to make another big leap in Australia. Over the next few months, his and Ostorio’s company, Milpa Collective, is opening three new venues in the NSW capital – Casa Mérida, Santa Catarina and Londres 126. Each restaurant will anchor its menu in the food of one of three gastronomic regions – the Yucatan Peninsula, Oaxaca and Mexico City – and give diners a culinary roadmap to a cuisine often represented in this country as a bland riff on Old El Paso-style tacos and enchiladas. “We’re taking Mexican food to another level. What we’re going to do with our new restaurants, it’s cool, it’s upscale. We’re making them more like the restaurants in Mexico.”
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The Mexican tide is especially concentrated in Sydney, where there are larger Latin and South American populations, many seeking a genuine taste of home. Some eateries are nestled in beachside locations with dishes that reflect those of coastal Mexican climes – tacos with cured fish and fresh coriander, for instance – while others have taken up residence in CBD laneways with food that could be found in upmarket quarters from Campeche to Sonora, complete with hard-to-find (read: expensive) mezcals and tequilas sourced from micro-makers.
“Most of the people who first came to us were Mexicans, I won’t lie,” says cook and author Rosa Cienfuegos. She runs Tamaleria in the Sydney suburb of Dulwich Hill and, in May, opened her second eatery, Itacate, in Redfern, offering homemade tamales and tortillas, as well as ready meals and pantry items, such as locally handmade tacos and chillies imported from Mexico.
Australians are becoming more open to authentic Mexican flavours, she says, but some still find it challenging. “It’s important that you know what we have in Mexico – the real tacos, tortillas, tamales,” she says. “In Australia we have to make the food quite mild, with spice that doesn’t burn the mouth. We don’t have octopus with a three different flours taco – that doesn’t exist.”
Galindo Vargas agrees but says that it’s been difficult to import the exact Mexican ingredients into Australia and replicate the true taste of his homeland. To that end, he has gone some way to addressing the problem by opening MUX, a restaurant in Mexico City’s lively Colonia Roma food district.
“The reason for doing that is I’ll have product control with the buyers in Mexico,” he says. “Everything for our restaurants will come directly from there and we can now bring in things that we weren’t able to bring in a couple of months ago, especially from indigenous communities.”
The trend for all things Mexican extends to Perth, where the beachy La Cabaña has taken a coastal approach to its food. “People often think Mexican food is a lot of cooked, rich elements but we’ve gone for a Baja style with freshness and zesty flavours,” says Madi Fay, one of a trio who opened the eatery in South Fremantle in the fateful month of March 2020. “Australia had that Tex-Mexstyle Mexican but we’re introducing new flavours and dishes.”
The formula seems to be working. “It’s been more popular than we could have imagined.”
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The best Mexican restaurants in Australia
Buzz is building around this street-food-focused taqueria that opened in Melbourne’s Seddon in May. Delving into different regions around Mexico, Súperchido (the name means “super cool”) offers some offbeat selections, including birria de res Jalisco, a speciality of, yes, Jalisco, featuring slow-cooked Angus beef with salsa roja and tortillas for dipping.
Rosa Cienfuegos launched this casual restaurant and deli in inner-city Redfern this year and lovers of everything Mexican couldn’t be happier. Cienfuegos, author of the Comida Mexicana cookbook and well-known in Sydney’s Mexican community for her Dulwich Hill eatery, Tamaleria, makes all her food by hand using traditional recipes. Her tamales are legendary and the tacos are hand-pressed locally for the freshest taste. Itacate is like a trip across the Pacific without leaving Sydney.
A sister venue to the hugely popular Latin-inspired Tequila Mockingbird in Paddington, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, this CBD laneway restaurant brings Mexican flavours into a high-end setting. Canadianborn chef John Frid blends native Australian flavours – muntries, saltbush and bush tomatoes – into a menu that draws on classic Mexican flavours. Try butternut squash tostada with chilli pasilla, salsa pipián, charred avocado and Davidson plum for a modern take on the cuisine. The space occupies two floors of a heritage building that nudges Mexican towards fine dining rather than street food.
Of the three new restaurants that Milpa Collective is opening this year, Londres 126 is perhaps the most intriguing. Named after artist Frida Kahlo’s Mexico City address, the concept is to bring some of that city’s liveliness and artistic spirit to Sydney. The 60-seater, set to open this month, is part of a food precinct being built around Quay Quarters Tower, a new skyscraper on Bridge Street in the CBD. Milpa’s Pablo Galindo Vargas says he’s been influenced by the stories of Kahlo and her partner Diego Rivera and the legendary parties at which they hosted artists from around Mexico. Londres 126’s menu will be based on Mexico City’s street food and the cocktail list built on a selection of wild agave mezcals and tequilas sourced from small outlets.
With its front-row view of Bondi Beach, this tiny eatery luxuriates in one of the best locations in Australia. Part of the Milpa Collective group, Calita brings the flavours of the Baja Peninsula to Sydney in plates such as kingfish ceviche with grilled pineapple and canchita, and slow-cooked octopus with chorizo, potato and chipotle mayo. The vibe is Bondi meets Tijuana, with the menu focused on house-made tacos and botanas (share plates).
Having evolved to bricks-andmortar after starting life as a food truck, Eat No Evil, this Western Australian taqueria has become a crowd favourite for its sunny atmosphere and fresh, easy menu. Chef Ben Foss and his business partners, Madi Fay and Jarrah Stevenson, have created a beer-garden-style setting across from South Beach in Fremantle, with the bonus of pumping music, lively food and cold beers. Go for tacos with coconut-battered local fish, black chipotle mayo and pickled cabbage or a raw beef tostada with seaweed salsa verde, horseradish, coriander and red chilli.