Olly Goes on a Taco Quest
There’s a tingle to tequila that feels like you’re drinking it with your spine. Save the salt though, I want to chase it with food. Unfortunately, what passes for Mexican in Sydney, where I live, seldom does it for me.
“What!?” you exclaim, “Everywhere in Sydney is a Mexican restaurant.” None of it comes close to what I crave. I want a straight up taco or a plate of refried beans and dirty rice, surrounding a wet burrito, or perhaps some Huevos Rancheros. “Shuttup Goldilocks!” I hear you say. Bear with me, like the juvey burglar I eventually find something just right.
For years the best we could do in Sydney was Cafe Pacifico, and while the tequila selection was impressive, I always found the food underwhelming; expensive, bland and small-portioned compared to the American cantinas it sought to recreate. There are more recent attempts at cantinas in Glebe that come closer, but still fall short with simple things. The Flying Fajitas Sisters served the single worst margarita I’ve had in my life. Unforgivable. For a quick eat, Guzman Y Gomez and Mad Mex were both a promising when they started. Guzman had an impressive selection of tacos, since greatly reduced, and Mad Mex initially did a great burrito. As they both opened more locations, the menus and ingredients changed, and they now fall short of even mall fodder in the USA – like La Salsa. It’s possible that Beach Burrito is now a cut above the other two chains, and I’ve had friends promise me I’d love it, but honestly the others have left me out of patience for chains right now, I’ll have to save it for later. Don’t bother asking about the flavourless crap at Cantina Mobile, you’d have to be drunk to enjoy it. I’ve dug the odd taco at both The Norfolk and El Loco, and I know it’s bar food more than it’s Mexican food, but for fuck’s sake stop putting mayonnaise on them. Yes, even if it’s ‘chipotle’ mayo. Adding insult to injury – the white corn Tortillas are conspicuously absent at the supermarket lately, so you can’t even roll your own.
The Tao of Taco
Nothing short of the real deal is going to satisfy me so, with a trip to LA coming up, it was fate… a Taco quest beckoned. I know there are whole blogs dedicated to the now hip food truck phenomenon. But the whole point of the truck is, it comes to you. Feels odd to be chasing one, and the nature of a quest is to see where the Tao takes you. Taco Tao, Tao Taco. Only one letter different, such a spiritual food. So perhaps I wouldn’t find the best, but I would find the best taco that was in front of me.
I got off the 14-hour plane trip having opted for bourbons and films instead of sleep. You just press a button and they bring you another! Bleary eyed 9am at LAX and my sister Clem said I could have anything I wanted to eat.
I said “Dirty Mexican and a Margarita.”
Clem suggested “They have Burritos at the Urth Cafe.”
Urrggg, welcome to Cali. I replied, “I want the real stuff”
Her friend chimed in “I love Urth… oh and Café gratitude where they have affirmations instead of menu items!”
With a twinkle in her eye my sister reiterated “It’s okay, we can go anywhere you want”.
Checkmate. I was about to stay with my sister for a month and I ain’t no fool. I chose to go to the Urth Cafe. It was significantly more expensive than the Mexican food I wanted, the service was lame, and it had the ambiance of a university cafeteria, sans sexy co-eds. I had a green tea latté while my sister and her friend glowed with the good they were doing for their souls and the planet by eating organic soup. I waited outside. I wished at that moment I was a smoker, so that, like a petulant teen, I could stand outside blowing decay on all the people going into that chia seed hell. I hate smoking. I love my sister and her nice friend. I had been awake a long time.
The next day I walked to the Mexican place, Los Tacos, in West Hollywood that the luminous LA babe Tenley Nordstrom recommended. I know you don’t normally walk in LA, but it was a quest. Next to a laundromat in a parking lot, it was far from fancy. The restaurant peddled a wide selection of differently named slop on the plate. I like all these slops more than any of the Sydney Mexican fare, but it does strike me as odd that at these little hole-in-the-wall places all these differently named combinations of meat, refried beans, dirty rice, tortillas, and sauce on a plate ends up tasting roughly the same. You’re really just ordering variations of texture. Having a preference for one dish over another is like having a favourite coloured M&M. I like the blue ones.
I had many variations of sloppy plate during my stay. The WeHo place and some other one in Silverlake were standouts, but there were others. At $5 for a whole meal including a Horchata drink – the place near the downtown Greyhound station was a winner. The Mexican TV was a nice touch. They seemed amused I was there at all. It’s not a neighbourhood where you wander aimlessly about, so I doubt they got many foreigners. I had my first glass of Horchata. The sweet semen-looking liquid is a spiced drink made out of some kind of <ahem> nut milk that has regional variants all over South America. I was initially worried they might be playing a joke on the gringo but it was much less like semen than that time I drank a Salty Lassi at an Indian joint… unless you’re in the mood for a Bukkake, don’t do the Salty Lassi, you’ll spit it out and barely refrain from punching the staff while you order a Mango Lassi instead.
As for Taco Stands, they just materialise. The drunker you are the more likely this will occur. It will be the best one or two bucks you’ll ever spend on food. If I listed Taco Stands I’d just be making an itinerary of where I indulged my alcoholism. You’ll do fine on your own. A friend mentioned his favorite taco spot to me as I was about to return to Sydney and it turned out that it was that first gas station shack I visited. Ha! To each their own. Boarding the plane back to Sydney I was happy to have had my fill of rice and beans, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I hadn’t found the taco that was just right for me.
Hotsauce Wizard Powers
So what did my quest teach me? Any Mexican is good in LA. I went to great places fancier than the ones I mentioned in this article but even the Ouveros Rancheros at an IHOP would shit on most stuff in Oz, and you’d get free drink refills. You ain’t gonna get that wonderful plate of carby slop in Australia unless you make it yourself. And you ain’t gonna get a $2 taco unless you brave one of the discount nights, ignoring the crowds – and the mayonnaise. But I don’t want that nouveux shit.
And the quest might have ended there, in LA, but recently a miraculous thing happened. I had been wishing so hard for a Taco Stand that one appeared at Tio’s. Tio’s is one of my favourite bars. They’ve even added a boozy form of Horchata to the cocktail list. It’s now my favourite Taco in Sydney by a long shot. If I seem cranky at all the other Mexican places, it’s misleading, they all do good barfood. It’s just that the food at Tio’s is much closer to eating actual So-Cal Mexican food. Clearly I have wizard powers.
I shouldn’t take all the credit though. Alverez and Sons Tacos at Tio’s is manned by Akira Alverez, the handsome crooner from La Macha Negra. I was worried that my judgment was swayed by how handsome Akira is, so, for the sake of objectivity, I took my Mexican mate Fernando with me. He said it was good, but definitely a Sydney take. Don’t panic, there ain’t no cheese on it, but for Fernando a taco should have a double tortilla, be smaller, with either meat or beans (not both). But he went on to say it was the best beans he’d had away from home, and he’s a guy who’s travelled and worked in Mexican restaurants. High praise. So If you’re in Sydney and you want the best beans out of Mexico you don’t even need to leave Surry Hills.
A bonus for me at Tio’s is the extensive range of hot sauces Alvarez offers. If you ask nicely he might pull out some of the pepper spray hot ones that he keeps under the counter. I’d recommend one of the Ghost chilli ones. They get stupid hot while still having the flavour of a sauce, some of the others just wind up being a hot, almost flavourless, pepper extract. Be sparing, I really dig that stuff, so there’s no shame in something much milder if you’re new to the rodeo. It’s the kind of sauce you might need to warn people if you kiss them a couple of hours later, it’ll at least still tingle. Maybe they’ll just think it’s the fireworks of true love, but a moustache ride could well lead to an ambulance ride.
If you dive right into the proper hot stuff and cry to Akira about it, he’ll hand you a cucumber to chomp onto, but any fool knows that water makes chilli worse, and you need dairy to neutralise it. Fernando swears salt does the trick, but we agree that water is a no-no. A cucumber is pretty much a big mouthful of water. I suspect Akira enjoys a chuckle when, full of bravado and ignoring all warnings, the uninitiated overdo it and then enthusiastically chomp down on a big green dick. But perhaps I have a devious mind and he’s just being helpful.
I ain’t no food critic, I just like Mexican food. Thanks Tio’s, for the Tacos and Tequila. It’s nice finally to have a slice of the things I miss from LA so close to home. If I were writing about bar/fast food in Sydney I’d have nicer things to say about some of those other places, but this was a taco quest! And I’ve found the taco that’s just right for me. Now if only I could get a plate of rice a beans.