In so many respects, Australian food is better than American food. Often it's fresher, healthier, more creative and is served in less-insanely sized portions. But aside from cheap pizza by the slice, we lag terribly behind the Yanks when it comes to Mexican food. Specifically, the Californian approach to Mexican food, which features more fresh ingredients like avocado, coriander, lime, fresh salsas and slaws. It's a cuisine perfectly suited to the Aussie taste and climate, so to me it seems like a glaring hole in the market that no one is making it here. Worse still, we're all raised on Old El Paso and no-one seems to realise the supriority of soft over hard shell tacos. They taste better and they don't disintegrate in your hand after the first bite!
There are a handful of canny locals taking advantage of the niche. Melbourne's Taco Truck, from the Beatbox Kitchen guys, gets it. And if you're a Sydney kid you'll no doubt have discovered the amazing soft-shell tacos at the Newport on Cleveland over summer. Side note: how much is Redfern going off these days? But up here in Brisbane, a mate and I set ourselves a mission: to find good Mexican in Brizvegas.
Our first trip was to Tuckeria (421 Brunswick St, the Valley), which is inspired by the style of food served up in The Mission district of San Francisco. That's where this started for me, to be honest - a neon Friday night at Taqueria Cancun two years ago with my SF friend Bobby. Strings of intricately cut-out coloured paper decorations, freshly fried corn chips in a plastic basket, spicy fresh salsa, and a transcendant prawn burrito I've been trying to find the equal of ever since. Haab, back in my Williamsburg hood in NYC, came close. Could Tuckeria? When we finally arrived after plenty of online research, the restaurant itself was slicker than I expected, served up next to a Grill'd in the Brunswick Central shopping complex. But the food delivered on its promise.
Soft shell tacos in twos and threes, dressed with fresh salad, a wedge of lime and your choice of meat - I had the prawn (above). My companion had a chicken quesadilla which prompted her to perform those eye-rolling, grunting spasms of gastronomical delight. It worked out to about $20 each for our meals, beers and home-cooked corn chips with guacamole. Coriander is served complimentary with anything but you have to pay for other extras like guac, sour cream, jalapenos or beans and rice. The servings were generous (though more prawns would have been nice) and it was delicious but still left us feeling healthy. We rated it 4.5 sombreros out of 5.
Our next stop was Guzman Y Gomez, a chain that's nothing new in Sydney but we'd heard raves from a fellow Mex-loving Brizvegan. Tucked away amid the many delicious options at Emporium, G&G was pumping on a Sunday lunch time. Lots of people were coming in for takeaway - you can order ahead online - and we did have to wait a little while for our order. Could have been that I'm-starving-timewarp though. My barramundi burrito ($10.50 + extra for guac) was mild and tasty, with a nice balance of rice and black beans and cheese. My mate had a range of soft-shell tacos (3 for $10.50) which she enthusiastically endorsed, though she regretted getting a vegetarian one when she tasted the spicy chicken and steak chipotle options. Comforting and filling, but still G&G didn't have the zingy freshness of Tuckeria. 3.5 sombreros out of 5.
We always planned for our next stop to be Mad Mex (Brunswick St Mall in the Valley), but the mission has taken on some urgency with rumours that they are currently pimping a one kilogram burrito. Word is, if you can eat the entire, $18 thing you will be rewarded with a T-shirt. "Does the shirt actually say 'I just ate a one kilo burrito',?" asked a friend. "It would be too embarrassing to wear it in public." Au contraire, Sarah. Au contraire. I can think of few life achievements I would more happily broadcast emblazoned across my chest than "I just ate a one kilo burrito". And luckily, a T-shirt is a look that lasts longer than the meat sweats that would doubtless accompany such reckless overconsumption.
Changing tack for a second, did you know that Todd of The Selby has now turned his lens and artistic eye to producers and preparers of food? His photographic essays on the homes of creative folk have long been a must-see, and The Edible Selby is no different; only more likely to make you hungry rather than burn with jealousy over art-stuffed Manhattan apartments and Auckland seaside studios. There are even short films, like this one on Rockaway Taco which I can't wait to check out this American summer...