Eating tacos in Australia


by Sally Wilson; pictures: Sally Wilson and Raph Rashid

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We’re in the middle of the back dunes of Robe, a small coastal town known for its crayfish and endless summers. Four-wheel drives pummel past on the sealed road behind us, all headed to the beach. This is Australia: dusty mudflaps, kids with zinc plied across their noses, eskies and tell-tale roof racks balancing an assortment of surfboards, wet suits and fishing rods. In the midst of this, Tom Davidson —a local and surfer himself— pulls two nectarines from a tree in the orchard to the rear of his property. He sizes them up, hands one to me and bites into the other. “Welcome to The Cantina,” he says laconically.

The[1][2] Cantina, as Tom calls it, is the spiritual home of Cantina Kick hot sauce and it comes into view like a mirage: a sun-worn cantina on the southern coast of Australia, surrounded by tequila agaves and a collection of broken surfboards. A souvenir Mexican flag stirs into action overhead and a line of empty deck chairs call out to the thirsty. We’re 8,163 miles from Mexico but it feels like a bit of Baja California has made its own way here.

“The Australian avocado industry wasn’t ready for the Mexican food craze to hit,” Raph Rashid, Melbourne’s food truck pioneer, tells me. It’s early on a Monday morning and we’re talking in the shopfront of his commercial kitchen in Brunswick, just as the suburb is stirring. Cars and trams roll down nearby Sydney Road, past the closed doors of pubs that in a matter of hours will start serving beers by the 10-ounce “pot” (a distinctly Melbourne-sized glass). For Raph and his twin Taco Trucks —which took the streets in 2011— a steady flow of avocados, corn and chipotle is fundamental to the made-to-order menu he offers onboard. His tacos are handsome, three-bite numbers with fillings that revolve around what’s available and what’s achievable in a busy truck kitchen. The classics are made with battered fish and coleslaw, potato and salsa verde, and chicken, corn salsa and chipotle mayonnaise. Eat them all and you have something reminiscent of Australian summertime favourites: fish and chips and chicken and chips, with a Mexican twist. “The flavour that kind of clicked from the start was chipotle,” says Raph, “it was an ingredient that Melbourne hadn’t experienced before. But the smoky taste is remarkably close to bacon, which we love”. Bacon and eggs, skinny jeans, the sight of the Taco Truck pulled up alongside a park at dusk with its service window popped out: they’re all visions that say “Melbourne” to me. On a warm night you’ll see people camped cross-legged on picnic blankets —slapping away mosquitoes and smelling of coconut Le Tan— with their heads tipped sideways at that magic angle that signals you’re amongst taco eating experts. [3][4]

The “Mexican” dish that started it all for Raph and many other Australian kids in the 80’s was a cardboard container of half-moon shaped corn shells, which started a family dining revolution. “My first encounter with ‘Mexican food’ was probably those ghastly all-in-one taco kits, which were popular while I was growing up,” says Raph. Like him, I remember my family making hard shell tacos on Sunday nights with beef mince and packet seasoning, chopped up lettuce, sliced tomato and grated cheese. “It was presented as Mexican food to us at the time, but it was definitely more about American pop culture.”

One of the hurdles to making Mexican food in Australia is the availability of ingredients. This is where Mary Carmen Díaz has worked bona fide miracles by supplying Australia with staples like epazote, corn husks, cajeta and all number of dried chiles direct from Mexico for over ten years via her Sydney-based import business: Fireworks Foods. “I see myself as an importer of Mexican culture,” Mary Carmen says. “I try to promote Mexican traditions here and to change the myth that Mexican food is bland and cheesy, which was the common misconception when I first arrived.” To start, Mary Carmen shipped a tortilla machine to Australia and the nation as a whole quickly responded; she began delivering fresh tortillas de maíz all over the country. But that level of enthusiasm makes it sound easy. “Australia is an island continent and has strict regulations to protect the unique fauna and flora. Mexican products that can be freely imported into the US, for example, can be difficult to import here.” People in the food industry speak about Mary Carmen reverentially for this reason. She’s broken ground to bring impossible-to-source Mexican ingredients to the land down under, and her work is paying off. “Slowly people in Australia are enjoying Mexican food for what it is. I’ve been able to contribute by introducing Australians to more authentic Mexican food,” Mary Carmen explains. [5]

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I’ve been asked many times whether Mexican food in Australia is really Mexican. That’s a complex question to answer, which makes me reflect on two things: firstly, what is Mexican food? And secondly, what happens when cuisines migrate? These questions, particularly the first, open up a can of worms. Is any food, outside its country of origin, truly authentic? Is it even meaningful to apply the concept authenticity to food migration? From where I stand, the result of food migration necessarily mirrors what happens when people cross borders: styles of eating intersect; local environments and ingredients intersect; laws intersect; cultures intersect and change happens, sometimes with remarkable results. “Of course there are always going to be lost in translation moments,” says Adele Arkell of popular restaurant Radio Mexico in Melbourne, “but what I think we do well is to localise Mexican food. We want to get the concepts of Mexican food across and convey the subtlety and softness of Mexican food that Australians aren’t necessarily aware of. This is more than just a food migration, it’s a true cultural exchange ."  [6] [7]

At Radio Mexico the totopos are hand cut from fresh tortillas and fried on site. Hundreds of limes are juiced on a manual citrus press for hours a day. “We can’t achieve the flavours we want unless we put energy into the simple things,” says Adele of the great food prep happening in front of us between three kitchens. There’s a stand-alone taquería as you walk in —an axis point for the whole restaurant— with two chefs working the grills. Pyramids of husked corn occupy any free shelf space around them and from the hustle servers emerge with plates of Mexico City-sized tortillas supporting Mexico City-sized proportions of cochinita pibil, beer-battered fish and BBQ pork belly (Adele’s take on a classic al pastor, topped with pineapple and a dusting of chicharrón). There’s a more traditional kitchen catering for the a la carte side of the menu out back, where they’re making platos fuertes like mole verde de pollo, albóndigas de res and side dishes of black beans and pico de gallo. Upstairs, opposite a private dining room called Esmeralda, is the prep space where chiles get deseeded and avocados are scooped. The downstairs bar is known to produce 500 margaritas on an average Monday. Things certainly get busy at Radio Mexico and by six o’clock you’ll find lines of people waiting outside on Carlisle Street. “We get people coming in for a quick beer and taco or sitting family-style for three hours and chatting over slow rounds of share plates with cajeta pie, tequila and café de olla for dessert,” says Adele. “That’s the beauty of eating Mexican-style. The food brings people together whether it’s over a short lunch break or in a more leisurely way.” Their cajeta pie is a good example of how Mexican flavours are being served up on plates in Australia: it’s a version of pecan pie, made with the in-house goat’s milk reduction, chopped pecan nuts and topped with a very Australian meringue crust.

It’s surprisingly easy to eat Mexican-style in Australia. There are inevitable challenges in expressing a colossal cuisine like Mexican outside its borders, but the migration of tacos and tostadas de atún across the Pacific is a very welcome one. Perhaps the authenticity test comes down to one simple question: would it work in Mexico? For all the Mexican food I ate in Australia on this visit home my answer is a big yes. Parked on Calle Colima every Thursday night with his truck, I think Raph would sell out of tacos. I think salseras full of Cantina Kick would empty in a sitting at El Parnita and bottles would fly out the door at the supermarkets. People would be prepared to wait for a table at Radio Mexico if it suddenly opened its doors in DF, Tijuana, Oaxaca or Querétaro. I think that is a real sign of food exchange.

[1] Tom and his mum Jill Davidson are makers of the southern hemisphere’s finest hot sauce: Cantina Kick. Their salsa picante is handmade using dried chiles imported from Mexico. “We started making hot sauce after returning to Australia from California, where we got a taste for Mexican flavours. I wanted a great hot sauce but could only find Tabasco or Tapatío here, so we decided to make our own. Cantina Kick exists simply because we like making and eating Mexican food,” Tom tells me.

[2] Tom and Jill’s recipe is guided in part by the Australian palate, which accepts heat but prefers balance. “We experimented with an arbol-only salsa initially, but found it was too hot. We added guajillo chiles as a way of rounding out the sauce without altogether sacrificing the kick.” For reference, their 150mL bottle of hot sauce is located on the colour spectrum somewhere between the smoky red of Valentina and the roasted orange of Cholula. Taste-wise it’s deep and adaptable. You can fling it on everything from Australian-style BBQ steaks to machaca con huevo. 

[3] Raph’s cooking is inspired by Mexico but made and eaten in Australia, which means his kitchen is an innovative one. “Quality avocados, even corn, can be scarce at times. Every now and then we’ll get some fresh tomatillos for a salsa, although generally we have to use the canned stuff. I think these challenges are good to work with. We can be innovative about what Mexican food becomes in an Australian context,” he says.

[4] For the Taco Truck, innovation means lamb tacos assembled on white corn tortillas with pomegranate seeds, chiltepil and yogurt; or soft shell crab versions with jalapeño vinaigrette —crab claws poking out from the lip of the tortilla in palpable surrender. Raph wrote about Mexican food in a book called Hungry For That, which was released in Australia in late 2014. It’s an ode to eating with family and friends, with recipes designed to make you fling your doors open for a spontaneous fiesta.

[5] Mary Carmen hails from Colonia Electra on the outskirts of Mexico City and moved to Australia in 2000. “At the time there weren’t many Mexican food products on the market of the quality I was used to back home,” she recalls. “Mexican food trends have arrived here via the US and in that sense the Mexican cuisine is slowly becoming part of mainstream dining.”

[6] Radio Mexico is beginning to fill up on a Saturday afternoon as the sunshine turns the appetites of St Kilda’s beach-goers sharply towards tacos and cervezitas. We have our refreshments in hand —frothy milkshakes flavoured with house-made cajeta— and we’re talking about eating food in the Mexican capital. “I was walking around Mercado San Juan in September last year and came across a little mole place called Fonda Adela. I sat down and ate an incredibly complex dish of slow cooked meat, strong with vinegars and at least four different chiles,” Adele recalls.

[7] Adele feels that “Mexican food is a deeply layered cuisine and mole is just one embodiment of that. But outside of Mexico the cuisine really suffers because it’s so easily translatable by the franchise model, where they remove all those layers and make it sloppy. At Radio Mexico we are trying to do service to a cuisine which was diabolically misunderstood in previous decades. I see it as a gift that the beauty of Mexican food – with its focus on vegetables, hand preparation and ancient roots – has finally reached our shores”.