I've got this theory that the best cuisines come out of conflict. All over the world the really amazing tastes are born out of poverty and the cultural necessity of different ethnic groups being forced to get along. The sublime Franco-Vietnamese flavors of Saigon, the Cajun fun-times of Louisiana, the way the cheese-eating surrender monkeys of the Basque country can squeeze twenty different delicacies out of a pig, all of them are fine examples. They are all good, but all of them pale in comparison to what Mexican chefs can do with scraps of corn and beans. A true Creole cuisine, a blending of indigenous and European elements that has been simmering and evolving since the 16th century, Mexican food is unstoppable. In November 2010, Mexican cuisine was added by UNESCO to its lists of the of world's "intangible cultural heritage". Who are you to resist it, huh?
"What sorcery is this?" My brain demanded of my tongue the first time I tasted real Mexican, which was in LA, of course, and I have never stopped craving it. After the joyless fusion of Tex-Mex and old-el Paso taco shells that I grew up on, a new style of Mexican has finally arrived to fill Melbourne's insatiable culinary abyss. There are places to invest in a whole new experience, like the truly brilliant Mamasita, or a more downscale, but equally delicious crop of places opening all over Melbourne. A whole range of place that serves real, authentic Mexican that will punch through the back of your head without hurting your wallet.
131 Chapel St Prahan
Level 2 Dining Hall Melbourne Central
Mad Mex take the idea of a simple Baja California style cantina and transplant it into the heart of Melbourne Central, where the wildly popular chain have just opened their second store after their flagship Victorian effort in Chapel St. You line up and order from a range of classic Baja Mexican dishes: burritos, tacos and quesadillas, which are made according to your tastes from a range of condiments and extras, then you take your meal back and weep quietly into your nachos at the sheer beauty of it all.
The emphasis is on good food done well. Authentic, slow roasted and grilled meat and bean bases are tricked up with scoops of fresh, light vegetables that punch through the wide selection of flavorful salsas. A little like the food itself, this place runs on a few ingredients done perfectly. Good service, a simple self explanatory menu that takes you from gringo to gauche in a few bites and a neatly performed cultural implant that puts a local spin on the cheap and cheerful cuisine of dear old Baja.
The Retreat (Mariachi Mondays)
280 Sydney Rd, Brunswick
The Retreat Hotel is a bit of an institution in old Brunswick town. It's a serviceable pub with a big bear garden and is shabby and retro enough for you to take your macbook down and work on your screenplay without batting an eyelid. It's justifiably famous for being the kind of place you can settle down for an afternoon beer and then stagger out twelve hours later, but has recently earned a different kind of notoriety for its kitchen. I remember being startled buy the range and adventurousness of the menu here, so it was a excited when they announced the advent of Mariachi Mondays.
Have you ever wanted to be serenaded by two guys playing a Mariachi version of The Eagles' Hotel California while you chow down on a mushroom and bean taco? Of course you have! What's wrong with you?
The theme for Mariachi Monday is cheese. In the air; in the food, the Retreat puts on a very tongue in cheek homage to Mexico, but are deadly serious about the food. Try the quesadilla (black bean, tomato and cheese, with whipped goats cheese and avocado). The big surprise here is not only the quality of the food turned out by the humble pub kitchen, but the number of winsome vegetarian choices. Most items come with a rich mix of mushroom beans and rice, with generous dollops of cheese and guacamole.
48 Smith St, Collingwood
For some time now, Collingwood has been gentrifying, and the delicious upscale eateries have been creeping in. Trippy Taco (get it) is not one of them, it was there in the beginning and it'll be there long after the endtime. The decor remains wonderfully tacky, the walls face-peelingly bright, the menu cheap and delicious.
Nearly everything on the menu revolves around black beans tarted up with some guacamole, salsa, cheese and lime. I recommend the special quesadilla with black beans and a hint of goat's cheese followed by the basic burrito, which is a monstrous thing filled with salsa, salad, beans. Nearly everything on the menu is vegetarian, and there are plenty of gluten free options for the insufferable hippy in your life.
Some dishes are clearly inspired by a puff of the old whacky. The dessert menu of Nutella melted over a tortilla with chili for example, or the sweet corn dumplings served with ice-cream, bananas and maple syrup.
838 Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn
The original, and some say, still the best. High Tech Burrito was an enclave of zesty deliciousness in the stuffy wasteland of the endless boring dinner party that was food in the '80s. As far as I know, this was the first gourmet burrito joint in the world. It was created for people who wanted an alternative to unhealthy fast food without sacrificing flavor. It started in San Radael, California, with a clean open kitchen, and churned out burritos for one dollar.
The Australian imprint takes the fundamentals of real, rustic style tortillas and burritos and takes them in wonderful new directions. It's Mexican by way of the world, you're just as likely to find a spicy Cajun or a surf and turf flavored burrito as the Burrito del Baja. You'll also find classic burritos on the menu, along with a wide array of salads and kids options. There are vegetarian and vegan options and there's room to personalize and customize your choices. The emphasis here is on health without sacrificing taste or affordability.