Mesa Verde

There are FAR TOO MANY STAIRS to get up to Mesa Verde. It’s right at the top of Curtain House, basically hovering just next to Rooftop Bar, and I was very pooped and very thirsty by the time I reached the seventh dang floor. “Why didn’t you just take the lift Hayley.” DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE TRYING TO GET INTO THE LIFT?! Impatience won out over laziness, at least I slightly worked for my tacos.

Yes, tacos! Mesa Verde is, like basically everywhere in Melbourne, devoted to Mexican food. Now, I’m at a point where I’m pretty suspicious of the Mex-food bandwagon, a lot of it is very samey from venue to venue, and the feeling I often have is that there’s not a lot of thought gone into it and most of the time it just tastes like variations of Chipotle. But Mesa Verde’s iteration seems thoughtful, and enthusiastic, and most importantly everything tastes pretty darn great.

Tacos! There’s two vegetarian options, firstly the grilled house-made queso with pumpkin and zucchini, and second the black beans with toasted pepita salsa and cotija cheese. Firstly, they feel properly filling and decadent enough to warrant their $7-8 price tags (which very few Melb tacos do), and are fancy enough in terms of ingredients to not come across as basic, but also don’t feel like they’re reinventing the wheel for the sake of it.

Chilaquiles, which the menu describes as “just like nachos”, are comprise of salsa verde, beans and mozzarella on top of corn chips. They pretty much are nachos! I’m not quite certain why they need the name change particularly since traditional chilaquiles, after a google, appear to be far more about having your tortilla chips or fried strips swim in a big pool of salsas or mole with egg, pulled chicken or refried beans. This seems a smidge like being a little pretentious for the sake of it. They’re great nachos, call them nachos!

I was also witness to seeing one of the varieties of queso fundido brought to the table, which was a LITERAL dish of melted, gooey cheese, served with little rounds of warm tortillas. It was stretchy cheesey glory that was a wonder to witness. Sadly, it was not vegetarian-friendly (although everyone got VERY EXCITED about the fact it also contained chorizo and tequila, very “what a time to be alive” for meat-eaters I imagine), but the other two options available are apparently vegetarian! I am intrigued by the one that involves nopales (cactus) and pickled mushrooms, because GOODNESS. Enough for a return visit alone food-wise, clearly.

Yet while the food at Mesa Verde is pretty solidly delicious, it takes a firm backseat to the cocktail menu. This is a place worthy of going to just to DRINK.

I knew I was going to order the Cheat Bureau as soon as I clocked its ingredients – Lapsang tea-infused bourbon, pear Calvados, with date and maple syrup – because SERIOUSLY look at that combination, like I wasn’t going to want to discover what that tasted like. And it all, somewhat surprisingly, works extraordinarily well – the honeyed fruit of the Calvados holds most sway, but the Lapsang adds a smoky tenor to things, while the sweetness of the date and maple floats along the top of your mouthful. Very complimentary, very very clever.

The Costa is one of four negronis available at Mesa Verde, and is composed of Le Venenosa Raicilla, Campari, sweet vermouth and an orange twist, served in a heavy whisky glass with one round ice block keeping everything chill. Like all good negronis the alcohol hits you like an aromatic truck – it’s a hefty drink, all swirling with citric notes, and is enough to get heady and lost in. A proper lingering beverage to savour.

Lastly, I had a Neill’s Julep – Whitley Neil gin, rhubarb bitters, mint with a plum pisco float – because I do get this strange rush of nostalgia when it comes to mint juleps as their crushed ice base makes me think of slushies. This one wasn’t as hedonistically overwhelming a drink as the other two, which arrested all senses, but was an enjoyable one nevertheless – I particularly enjoyed the tartness of the rhubarb rubbing up against the gin.

Sure, the cocktail menu at Mesa Verde may take the slight overenthusiastic pretension present in their food menu and ramp it up to the nth degree, and you may pay handsomely for it, but for me it mostly worked to provide an extremely happy time. I honestly can’t wait for the next chance to drag friends who haven’t been there before – I need to see the looks on their faces upon first sip of a Costa.

Mesa Verde

Level 6, Curtain House

252 Swanston Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9654 4417

www.mesaverde.net.au

Touche Hombre

I’m starting to feel like if I decided to eat Mexican every night for a year, I would not run out of new places to go to each night, such is Melbourne’s love affair with everything you can put in a tortilla. I managed to tick off another major player in the Mexican scene in the company of Jen and Zoe, as we tackled the neon auspices of the very popular Touche Hombre.

To start with, a serving of guacamole is essentially mandatory. Touche’s version is rather fancy, not only being augmented by frilled coriander leaves, but also whisper-thin slices of radish and pearls of pomegranate. It certainly created a bit more excitement to ladle onto a tortilla chip that usual.

I have rhapsodised here before about my unending excitement for ‘corn-onna-stick’, which Jen also knows about only too well and backed me up in my desire to have the elotes callejeros, which consisted of entire corn cobs slathered in butter, grilled and then covered in pecorino cheese and tajin. While the sticks used are in no way structurally load-bearing, and I would recommend that Touche Hombre get in someone with engineering nous to design a more sturdy stick, the corn itself is in no way flawed, all chargrilled smoky, buttery goodness with the drifts of cheese giving a good proper salty tang to proceedings.

The serious business at Touche Hombre is centred around their $5 tacos, of which there are about ten or so varieties, two of which are vegetarian so in the name of science I ordered both of those. The taco de tofu was filled with a slab of chargrilled tofu with chimmi churri mayo, shredded carrot and radish curls and coriander. Everything was fresh, the chimmi churri does the heavy lifting of making sure that there’s a good whack of spiace and flavour involved, which is often the downfall of a tofu-based taco, so this was very satisfactory indeed.

The taco de batata contained cubes of caramelised sweet potato, creamed corn, spring onion and mint. I actually didn’t realise there was creamed corn in it until after looking up the description post-meal, so that’s interesting.  This one wasn’t quite as pleasing as the tofu one, but still interestingly put together and, most importantly, packed with complimentary flavours.

Despite initially thinking that a $5 taco ran the risk of being tiny and not terribly flavourful, Touche’s versions were, while compact, bursting with ingredients that don’t run into cliches of Mexican cooking. My one quibble is that neither the tofu or the sweet potato fillings were very hot – each taco was lukewarm at best, so if you’re looking for a warming taco you might be a bit disappointing (considering summer is here, it’s a thought to file away until autumn anyway).

Alongside the tacos I had a cool glass of horchata with 1800 coconut tequila. I’m not normally one for milky-looking alcoholic beverages, but given that horchata is made of ground almonds and sesame seeds it was delightfully nutty, and avoids the bloaty feeling you may get with boozy dairy drinks.

Despite having already tucked into an impressive array of food, it ain’t dinner unless you finish with dessert. Zoe and mine’s eyes lit up at the sight of the choc-chilli peanut ice-cream sanga that was delivered to a neighbouring table. A fat disc of vegan peanut ice cream is sandwiched between chocolate biscuits (a bit similar to the texture of yo-yo’s), and dusted in chocolate-chilli powder that actually has a reasonable kick to it, unlike many chilli-utilising desserts. The peanut ice cream was just ridiculous – rich and creamy, it was hard not to end up squawking over it like a vulture going “MINE MINE MINE” in order to snatch all of it for myself. Zoe and I managed not to come to blows over it, just.

We also ordered a coconut rice pudding with blackberry chutney. Ordinarily I love rice pudding over most other things, its such a wonderfully comforting dish for me, but everything had paled in the face of the peanut ice cream sanga. Just order the sanga. In fact, waive entree and main meal and just order three sangas. Is that going too far? But it’s SO GOOD.

I was a little worried initially that Touche Hombre might be prove to be one of those places that is all about the image without much substance beneath, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the food has some serious chops. It’s definitely taken it’s place as my preferred venue for Mexican in the CBD, so take that glowing recommendation and get there now, scoot!

Touche Hombre

233 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne CBD

Ph: 9663 0811

www.touchehombre.com.au

Trippy Taco

Time for the airing of a dark, shameful secret. Despite being a native Melburnian, and being a Melburnian vegetarian for nearly twelve years, I had until recently… wait for it… NEVER BEEN TO TRIPPY TACO.

I’ll wait a moment for all the shocked Melburnian veg*ns to pick themselves up off the floor and have a significant moment to recover on their fainting couches.

I know I know, it’s just that Gertrude Street is SO OUT OF THE WAY of my ordinary ramblings that I’m basically never in the vicinity of it. But, on this particular day I had just finished getting my hair cut on Johnston Street (random plug: Little Buddha Hair! Saya and Mike are aces, let them style your noggin!), I felt in the mood for a walk and just happened to wind up on Gertrude Street and remembered that I was thus in the vicinity of VEGGIE MEXICAN GOODNESS.

It isn’t a terribly big place, and I have heard tell that visiting at prime meal times can become a bit of an access nightmare, but at 3 in the afternoon everything was ducky, had no problems ordering or getting a seat. It’s a pretty expansive menu, too, with all the usual corn tortilla’d suspects – burritos, quesadillas, tacos, taquitos (“Yeah I want some taquitos!”), even tamales.

I wanted to try at least two things, as this was a first visit, so I went with a snack size serving of the tofu asada tacos (so that’s one taco as apposed to the meal size’s two), comprising of house made corn tortillas with cheese, rather spicy grilled tofu cubes, shreds of iceberg lettuce, slices of oh so fresh avocado (avocados are at their absolute best right now, it’s amazing), a varied salsa and a wedge of lime to squeeze over. The tacos are served open, and are far too generous to be folded over and eaten by hand, but frankly attacking them with knife and fork is more satisfying to me than the inevitability of spilling half the contents all over myself. And you would not want to spill these tacos, they are very fine tacos indeed.

Thorough only one taco, the snack size is pretty darn filling, especially if you team it with something else. Having long been aware of the apparently god-like properties of the chilli salt-encrusted Trippy Fries, I simply had to order a basket (yes, HAD TO, it was mandatory). These came out so covered in chilli salt that mere contact with them will turn your fingertips bright orange, but they are tasty and they are spicy and I can well see why they have such a devoted following.

Trippy Taco is all that the years of effusive blog posts promised me that it would be: an efficient purveyor of vegetarian and vegan Mexican food that is generous, well flavoured and immensely satisfying. I’m just kicking myself that it took me so darn long to experience it.

Trippy Taco

234 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy

Ph: 9415 7711

www.trippytaco.com.au

Chingon

Tacos, tacos, tacos! Everyone loves tacos! So much so that clearly there’s a market in setting up a restaurant that, apart from a few beverages and a salsa or two, only offers its customers tacos. This is the deal at Chingon.

Out for a family togetherness dinner, the Blintzes took our places sitting on Chignon’s rooftop dining area. I had no idea this area existed, having only eaten in the front dining room before, but yes, wind your way out the back, up the staircase over the Cadillac (um, yeah, there’s a Cadillac in the back dining room), and you emerge into quite a nice, albeit rustic space.

We started off with the only dish on the menu that isn’t tacos, the fire-roasted salsa with guacamole and corn chips. While others baulked at the charred corn kernels floating in the salsa, I absolutely loved it, with the fact that it lent both texture and intensified smokiness and sweet notes. I’m normally far more of a guac person than a salsa person, but I was steadfastly ignoring the very good guacamole here in order to load as much salsa onto chips as possible.

On to tacos. There was quite a bit of waiting time between salsas and tacos – I believe the kitchen here is quite teeny, and they do make everything to order, which gets a bit of leeway sympathy from me, though I’d be curious to see what it’s like on a bursting at the seams evening.

Now, a note that unless you specify that you’d prefer them served separately, you will end up getting your vegie tacos served on the same platter as the meat ones, so if meaty cross-contamination worries you, be vocal.

The single vegie option (out of only six options all up) comprises of charcoal roasted corn, capsicum, cubes of baby squash, guacamole, salsa and feta, wrapped in soft, light brown, handmade corn taco tortillas. With that charred smoky tang that characterises the food here dominating, they’re very tasty, very more-ish tacos, with a nice level of chilli heat that gets you buzzing but doesn’t fully overwhelm. They are also deceptively filling little beasties – you can get four for $20, and they definitely sate a hungry tum.

For drinks there’s only non-alcoholic beverages available, although you can BYO your own wine. I had a toronja, which is freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice, sugar and water. This was a perfect refreshing offset to the heat of the food, and also from the warm evening sun. Mum exclaimed happily over her limonada (freshly squeezed lemon juice, sugar and water), saying that it was basically a very good version of old school lemonade. They probably are a touch expensive at $7 each, though, considering what they are.

As an ex-waitress who has a whole mental binder filled with horror stories about customers constantly wanting you to do the impossible or change things that ends up throwing the whole kitchen out of whack and leaves you inwardly screaming at the sheer entitlement of some people, I can’t help but admire a place like Chingon that says up front “This is what we do. We only do this. We do it well, and if you don’t like what we offer and how we do it, there’s the door.” This reversed sense of entitlement coming from a restaurant’s end is liable to drive some customers completely up the wall at facing a bunch of rules and having any greater sense of choice taken away from them, but I actually found the simplicity of it refreshing. It is certainly nice to have the option of somewhere like Chingon around, a place where you know what you’re going to get, that may be very simple in concept, but is well done and, most importantly, satisfying. So cut the crap, and have a damn taco.

Chingon

413 Swan Street, Richmond

Ph: 9429 5695

www.chingon.com.au

Newmarket Hotel

Sometimes Muffin and I go on food missions, where we basically go on reconnaissance to restaurants to test and see whether they’ll be suitable for future celebratory dinners. In this case Muffin wanted to see if the revamped Newmarket Hotel would be a suitable venue to take her family to for her birthday dinner. And me, well, all I needed to hear was that the menu was Mexican-influenced and I was all on board.

The first impression of the fitout is that the Newmarket is sliiiiiiiick as all get out. Pub look on the outside, living in a gorgeous terrarium on the inside. Now I want to live in a gorgeous terrarium, particularly if the food is as good as it is here (clue: REALLY FUCKING GOOD).

Our starter was the guacamole with salsa fresca and tortilla chips. Sounds simple, but it was simple done well. The guacamole was slightly chilli-spiced, and it was all together very snackable, I couldn’t stop nibbling even after other dishes hit the table.

I was far too overexcited about the prospect of sampling the BBQ corn on the cob with chilli and queso fresco, and had indeed been telling anyone who would listen at work that day that I was having corn-onna-stick for dinner. Alas, this particular corn on the cob does not come onna stick, but it does some with finger bowls! Which is good, because otherwise you’d make a filthy mess of yourself what with all the tasty sauce. The corn was beautifully charred to the point of having a very more-ish quality, it was lucky Muffin swiftly took the other half because I was ready to gobble it up too.

Being me, I had to make sure that there were some potatoes in the mix, so I made sure to order the triple cooked bravas potatoes with two sauces. The unidentified sauces were a brown, smoky one that was probably some variant of barbeque sauce, while the other was white and reminiscent of kewpie mayonnaise. Whatever they really were, they combined with the crisp squares of potato into a quite sophisticated take on a staple.

Balancing out the potatoes was the quinoa, broad bean, pecorino and mint salad (though I have a feeling that there wasn’t any mint and that it had instead been replaced with some other herb). This was a fab palate leveler as well as a tasty dish in and of itself, the nuttiness of the quinoa all nicely complemented by the herbs and broad beans. I really love grainy salads and this was a very good representation of the type.

After all this sharing we decided to sample a quesadilla each. I went with the blue corn quesadilla with spring vegetables and asparagus. This was like a little delightful slice of spring, all greens jumping brightly off the plate, with the hint of summer approaching in the levels of chilli heat involved. Beautifully plated and flavoured, THIS is what fancy Mexican inspired food should be like.

Muffin had the quesadilla with huitlacoche, wood BBQ mushrooms, spinach and jack cheese. I’d never tried huitlacoche before, and Muffin was kind enough to supply me with a taste. It’s very nosey, similar to when you eat a delightfully stinky cheese and all the pungency attempts to escape through your nose. Which is probably an obnoxious experience for some people, but for me just amps up the savoury factor.

We had a little rest and then decided to tackle a shared dessert together, because really how could you not? The caramelised date and banana cake with peanut butter parfait was HEAVEN. Unlike a lot of sweet dishes that combine two differing elements in taste and consistency together, this wasn’t an exercise in contrasts. The cake and the parfait were perfect together, you couldn’t eat one without the other.

We didn’t get a chance to try the Newmarket’s cocktail menu, which was a shame as from our seats adjacent to the bar we were treated to viewing the preparation of all kinds of delectable-looking beverages, it was quite a show! (Probably helped that all the bartenders were capslock level HANDSOME) We’re pretty keen to go back just for cocktails and nibbles; it’s nice that it’s a multifaceted venue in that you don’t just have to treat it as just a sit-down dinner place.

Reconnaissance achieved, you will be pleased to hear that Muffin did indeed take her family back to the Newmarket for her birthday, and it received rave reviews all round! She also sent me a drool-worthy text message detailing everything that they ate, which made me draw two conclusions: 1. The internet is truly poorer for the fact that Muffin does not have a food blog of her own, and 2. That I need to go back in order to experience the pear cazuela. Melty chocolatey pear heaven, you are destined for my face.

Newmarket Hotel

34 Inkerman Street, St Kilda

Ph: 9537 1777

newmarketstkilda.com.au

Fonda

I was a little bit sad to discover that Fonda isn’t named after Henry Fonda. Can you imagine a Henry Fonda cafe? I can, and it’s GLORIOUS. There’s going to be a lot of design features based on 12 Angry Men. People with capital, hook me up, I can make all your Golden Hollywood-themed restaurant ventures come true.

But we are not here to talk of actorly Fondas, we are here to talk about Mexican Fondas. Specifically new Richmond eatery Fonda, which has taken the current Melbourne-wide craze for Mexican food by the horns and is pumping out simple tacos and burritos for rampaging hoards of foodies, all of whom seem to be repeating the phrase “Authentic Mexican!” with scary fervor (anyone else starting to develop a twitch whenever the word ‘authentic’ is used in food criticism? I sure am. Apart from the problematic nature concerning the subjectiveness of a word like ‘authentic’, I’m mostly annoyed that it seems to have become a stand-in for the word ‘good’. Authentic and good aren’t synonyms! And if you use authentic in place of good you sound like a ginormous snob and cause me to want to go eat a cornucopia of homogenized processed crap just to spite you. Because I’m horrible like that).

Anyway, bygones, let us sail onward! Aimee, Lucy, Amelia and I spent a sunny lunch at Fonda sitting at one of their outside tables. We were quite lucky to get a table at all, as the place seems to be constantly packed. Interaction with staff is kept to a minimum, there is no table service and you have to order at the inside counter (meaning that you have to make sure one of your party is camped on your table at all times, lest a desperate group of hipsters snatch it away from you while you’re looking for a menu).

Lucy and I got the vegetarian tacos, all green with cubes of zucchini and squash, scads of peas and a drizzly sauce of unknown herby provenance with a very slight presence of jalapeno, dusted with a delicate frizz of grated ricotta. We were fascinated by the texture of the soft corn taco shells, all cross-hatched and rough in our hands. They were clearly comprised of fresh produce, and came very quickly out of the kitchen, which is always heartening. I would think that anyone expecting ZING! from their tacos may find these examples a touch boring. But Lucy and I both found them to be incredibly tasty!

Amelia went with a fish taco, which had little crumbed strips of battered fish in them, which was a bit of an impressive sight. Like Lucy and myself, she thought everything was fresh and tasty, but baulked at the small size, especially in consideration of the price ($5 for veggie, $6 for fish). They certainly weren’t comparable in size to, say, Mamasita’s tacos, which are larger at around the same price, although I’m of the opinion that, taste-wise, Fonda dishes up the better taco (THAT’S RIGHT, I’M JUST FULL OF UNPOPULAR OPINIONS TODAY).

Indeed, the twin issues of portion size and price were collectively our biggest quibbles with Fonda. We’re not denying the quality of what is being served up, it just seems like everything should be a touch cheaper based on the size of portions. The tacos are quite titchy in particular, and even the more expensive and, one would assume, more filling burritos have small stage presence. Aimee’s chicken burrito (around $12.50-$14 from vague memory) had clearly high quality ingredients, yet seemed dwarfed by the plate it came on. Even the chips we ordered, covered in a thick and delightfully spice-laden chipotle sauce (seriously, that sauce is a winner, Lord of the Fries should poach it), were deemed to be of too small portions by Aimee and Amelia, considering their $5 price tag.

The only thing I personally felt to be a steal price-wise was the $3.50 charred corn or, as it should be called, corn-onna-stick. I LOVE CORN-ONNA-STICK. Half a cob of corn lightly basted in a slightly chilli-ish sauce, grilled and then sprinkled in more of the fluffy shaved ricotta. I probably could have eaten about ten of these quite happily. MORE FOOD ON STICKS PLEASE.

I wandered back to Fonda for a second visit last night with Rob to experience what their take-away service is like. While the food was much slower this time to make it out of the kitchen (I think we waited around 20-25 minutes, though we were told that there was to be a 15 minute wait initially), the staff seemed measurably more cheery and personable than on my first visit, and my veggie tacos were just as good the second time round. Rob was so pleased he could get a burrito without cheese (Rob has cheese problems. I know, it’s a sad affliction) that I think he was pretty happy on that score alone. Wait aside, I think take-away is probably the best way to experience Fonda if you find the space a little too bustling.

So, in conclusion, Fonda’s portions are on the small side and you’d probably be quite right to question the price of things, and it’s too frantic a place to truly relax in, but the food is fresh, competent and, sometimes, fast. Most importantly, it tastes pretty damn fine! And I’ll forgive a hell of a lot of sins if in the end the food is delicious. It’s definitely worth trying out at least once if you’re curious, and if you end up not being too keen, well, they’ve got half of Melbourne trying to get through the doors, they’re not going to notice if you slink sheepishly away.

Fonda

248 Swan Street, Richmond

Ph: 9429 0085

Bluecorn

It was a lurvely sunny Sunday, and the Boy and I were stuck for something to do. We’d slept in, eaten toast and tea for brekky, and the long afternoon stretched before us with not a plan in sight. What to do, what to do…

Well, being us we immediately thought of filling our bellies (why neither of us are the size of houses, I’ll never know), and I was in the mood for Mexican, so we decided to mosey down to St Kilda in order to sample Bluecorn, which had been peaking at the top of my “I NEED TO EAT HERE OTHERWISE I WILL SIMPLY PERISH!” list for quite a long while.

It’s a bit of a shame seeing as I was so excited that Bluecorn turned out to be, well, not bad by any means, but slightly disappointing.

I had the goat’s cheese quesadilla with sesame eggplant, black beans, sweet corn, tomato, melted cheese on top, sour-cream and a chipotle-infused sauce, and a coriander based pesto, served in a purple tortilla and a big dollop of guacamole too. That is easily the longest ingredient description for a single meal I think I’ve ever written.

The Boy had the vegetarian burrito with black beans, sweetcorn, capsicum, jalapenos, cheese, sour cream, guacamole and probably some other stuff that I’ve forgotten, it was as jam-loaded with ingredients as my quesadilla.

We also got a side of  chilli-infused chips, which turned out to be baby potatoes cut in halves and sprinkled with spices and served with sour cream. These were quite nice, but am I the only one starting to get a little tetchy with the fact that a lot of places are advertising ‘chips’ on their menus, but what you get instead are potato halves, or cubes? They’re not chips! They’re potato bits, or potato bites, or whatever other name you can come up with, but they’re not chips! They lack chip-ness!

Anyway, back to the quesadilla. Honestly, as a dish it made me feel quite overwhelmed, and not the good overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to start with the dish, it felt like there was a whole heap of different elements thrown together without any real cohesion. This is an issue I get stuck on a lot lately, I don’t like feeling that there hasn’t been any considered thought going into a dish, and a chef has kind of just thrown everything they have on a plate. And the sad thing is, when all the components were isolated they were quite lovely: the sesame eggplant was smoky and subtle, the quesadilla ingredients were all fresh and tasty, I was particularly into the black beans and the goats cheese. But as a meal, these components just didn’t connect with each other, and there was so much I probably only ended up eating half of it (and me leaving food on a plate is so rare it should be considered endangered).

The Boy felt a little similar about his burrito, that there was just so much to deal with that it was a little daunting. We came to the conclusion that although the food at Bluecorn is by no means bad (and indeed, if you like getting a giant plate of grub that is fresh and overflowing, you’re going to love it), but it’s food style is just a little too all-over-the-place for, well, mostly me. Oh well, win some, lose some.

Bluecorn

205 Barkly Street, St Kilda

Ph: 9534 5996