Some substance beyond Sydney's Mexican mirages

Sydney's love affair with Mexican food has produced establishments of varying quality and authenticity, but recently opened Mexico Food and Liquor is a convincing experience.

Australia's favourite food blogger Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, visits the new offering from District Dining restaurateur Warren Turnbull.

It probably feels like a moot point to tell any Sydneysider that the city is in the throes of a love affair with Mexican food. It seems to be everywhere you turn, there’s Mexican cuisine. New places pop up constantly. Some are better than others, some are more authentic.

Mexican food is easy to do badly. I can recall one recent awful meal at a restaurant where our soft tacos were swimming in half a centimetre of water and the beef was completely bereft of flavour. Thankfully, we had forgotten to bring a camera on this impromptu visit and spared them the bad review.

Some places, like Mexico Food & Liquor, try a little harder. This is Warren Turnbull’s new restaurant, replacing the recently closed District Dining at the same location. Turnbull began his Mexican love affair with a version of Mexico in Auckland in his native New Zealand.

A colourful wall with murals and fresh flowers ushers you in and a comely skull beauty looks down at you from her perch above the greeting station. No inch has been left undecorated – the walls are covered with picture frames, deity figurines, Day of the Dead artworks and Mexican movie posters. If you’re waiting for friends because you’ve turned up early, that means lots to rest your eyes on and ponder.

Graph for Some substance beyond Sydney's Mexican mirages

Plenty of love has gone into the décor at Mexico Food & Liquor

At Mexico, there are no bookings for lunch or dinner. I sit at the bar surveying the various tequila as I wait – apparently there are over 80 premium tequilas. After a few minutes I am led to the restaurant’s outer section which looks down onto busy Central Station on Chalmers Street.

The menu is easy enough to negotiate, with a neat list of food on the left hand side and the remaining two thirds of the menu taken up by drinks. The prices are reasonable and portions are ‘sharing sizes’.

We start with jarritos, Mexican soft drinks in alarmingly bright neon colours. Even though the colours look startlingly artificial, the mandarin jarrito does actually taste like mandarin (unlike, say, Fanta, which doesn’t taste like oranges). We also tried lime and pineapple which weren’t bad, but the mandarin was the most like the actual fruit.

The restaurant is busy and it’s about 25 minutes until we get our first bites of food. First to arrive are the house made corn chips with a salsa roja. The chips are crispy and thin and the salsa isn’t bad, although there doesn’t appear to be much heat, spices or garlic in it at all. The menu states that the hot sauces on the table are to add heat, although with chilli such an integral part of Mexican cuisine, I do wonder why it isn’t just included in the food.

'DIY guacamole'

'Do-it-yourself guacamole' with warm flour tortillas $8

The ‘DIY guacamole’ is served in a little jar. You’re supposed to squeeze in some lime and mix it up, which isn’t really DIY as it’s mostly already made. We spread it on the four flour tortillas that come in the serve, which are warm and very soft. It’s not bad, but it too hasn’t got a lot of flavour so we add some salsa roja and the chilli sauce provided.

A serve of three tacos arrives next, each in an enamel-covered metal bowl. The first one we try is the caramelised lamb soft taco with pomegranate, chilli, pepitas and jalapeňo mayo. The caramelised lamb is quite caramelised and almost a little burnt in parts. The chillis and pepitas add heat and crunch.

I must admit that my favourite taco is the vegetarian one, which is filled with black bean crema, eggplant pico de gallo, zucchini and queso fresco. The combination of flavours and textures is perfectly balanced and moreish.

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