I have always wanted to be able to go to across the Atlantic for a casual Friday evening dinner. And now, it seems, this dream has come true – thanks to the team from District Dining at Surry Hills, who have revamped the struggling casual eatery to fit with the hottest of current Sydney food trends. No, it’s not a small bar in a basement (although the sangria and its companions on the drinks menu are as good as any in Sydney small bars right now). And no, it’s not an American-style eatery churning out sliders and hot dogs, although you’re getting warmer. Hop across the border to Mexico, where Sydneysiders are willing to forget about their Old El Paso mistakes of the past and embrace tortillas and tacos once more. There’s something so exciting about saying, “Let’s go to Mexico for dinner tonight tonight!” Especially when it requires only a bus ride rather than a gruelling international flight.
Now called simply ‘Mexico Food and Liquor’, the generous upstairs space just off Randle Street is unrecognisable compared to its District days. As with Sydney’s popular prohibition-themed basement bars, you are transported away from your current state the moment you step inside. A mural covers the wall, the eyes of the skulls staring down upon a table littered with tealight candles in glass vessels of varied shapes and sizes. I have to admit I’m a little bit impressed. Walking further inside, I am greeted by an elegantly dressed young woman with a wreath of red flowers delicately balanced atop her hair. The walls are decked with portraits of Frida Kahlo, Mexican- and Catholic-themed art. Globes inside cages and baskets hang from the ceiling, and the seating is a mix of benches, tables and banquettes. It’s a cluttered mess of décor, but it works. The waitress takes me over to the bar, where I am instructed to wait for my companions. Being no-bookings, and a busy evening, I won’t be seated until they’re here.
Settling in to read the menu, I am greeted enthusiastically by the bartender. Although he’s busy, he is happy to entertain me with banter about Sydney food trends and after a short conversation, has me shaking cocktails at the bar. It’s a good way to pass the time, and I’m a little disappointed when the girls arrive and we are seated. However, this could also be because we are at a three-seater that feels awkwardly like a schooldesk. Unwilling to entertain our concerns about the seating arrangement, the waitress saunters off abruptly without taking a drink order. However, we are soon attended to by a friendlier waitress who brings us a sweet and satisfying carafe of Sparkling Sangria ($35). It’s loaded with refreshing chunks of grapefruit, orange and lemon and goes down way too easily, yielding about two glasses each. The drinks menu is also loaded with tequila and jugs of Mexican cocktails. Don’t bother with the wine – let’s be honest it’s not why you’re here. It’s never a good sign when wines are simply categorised as ‘red’ and ‘white’. These suspicions are confirmed when I struggle through a glass of very sweet white wine later (served in a high-ball glass, and which I was promised was rather dry).
Refreshed and ready to order, we ask for one soft-shell taco each, a serve of the DIY guacamole, and a quinoa and wild rice salad. The menu affords plenty of other options, including meat dishes, salads and snacks. As anticipated in this casual share-food environment, the food comes relatively quickly. This I’m happy with, although I would have appreciated stronger coordination in the timing of the various aspects of our meal. The guacamole ($8) comes out at the same time as two of the three tacos, shortly followed by the salad. We ignore the tacos for now and set about attacking the guacamole and house-baked chips. Supposedly, the guacamole is accompanied by jalapeno, coriander and lime. There’s definitely coriander in there, and there might be some lime, but I’m not sure about jalapeno. It’s missing the slow burn that would be afforded by the addition of sufficient chilli, and needs more acidity to cut through the creamy monotone of flavour that is avocado. What’s more, the chips are also slightly underseasoned. I love the idea of this dish, but it’s better in theory than in practice. I’m sorry to say it, but El Loco does it better.
Since the third taco is still hovering somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, and the two of us are far too polite to start ours, we set about sharing out the salad ($10). The nuttiness of the quinoa and wild rice are perfectly balanced by small bursts of sweetness from pomegranate seeds and blanched green beans, and it is well dressed. It’s topped with chunks of queso fresco, a mild and crumbly white cheese that’s a little like mild feta.
Finally, the third taco resurfaces and we set about devouring them. Mine is a pan-fried fish taco with capers and candied olives ($6). It absolutely blows the El Loco equivalent out of the water. It’s sweet, juicy and fresh. Unlike the El Loco fish taco, which is dominated by the salsa verde (also the primary flavour on several of their other tacos), this is a beautiful balance of flavours. The braised beef brisket with green onion, chilli and papaya ($6) is nice but not outstanding. It’s a bit thick and heavy, although the coconut flavour comes through nicely. The grilled salmon special taco ($8) is spicy as promised by our waitress but still feels light and fresh, much like the fish taco. To finish things off, we order a carafe of the Mexico City Margarita ($20), which is salty, strong and absolutely zings with lime juice, salt and Agave nectar.
Overall, it’s a very pleasant experience with few hiccups for such a new restaurant. The space is warm, fun and has a great atmosphere and the food is exceptionally well priced considering the complexity and freshness of the ingredients. They do late night dining and are open seven days. So if you’re going to travel across the Atlantic for dinner, you may as well go to Mexico Food and Liquor.
Best bits: mexican street party vibe, quinoa salad, fish tacos, sangria jugs, breezy outdoor-indoor seating overlooking arundel street.
Worst bits: underseasoned and underwhelming DIY guacamole, any of the wines that aren’t in the form of sangria, awkward indoor seating.
A bit like: El Loco
Mexico Food and Liquor
17 Randle Street
(02) 9211 7798