Joining long-time establishments such as Margarita’s, La Salsa, or Cafe Iguana over the last year is a wave of at least six new casual Mexican restaurants, both authentic, such as dive bar Chimichanga, or fusion, such as Korean-Mexican joint Don’t Tell Mama.
But what exactly is authentic Mexican cuisine? Even the Ambassador of Mexico in Singapore, Rogelio Granguillhome, is hard-pressed to come up with a definition, saying it is too vast and it goes beyond the usual suspects such as tacos, burritos, or spiciness.
“Mexico is a large country that spans almost two million square kilometres. Every region in the country has a unique style of cooking, with distinct tastes and flavours,” he explains. “The many flavours and textures have been put together over the centuries. Like ‘Mole’ is a dish that is similar to curry and known to have many variations – it can be sweet, salty, and spicy, all at the same time.”
While using Mexican ingredients – a lot of which can be found locally – is a way to preserve the cuisine’s authenticity and some restaurants are importing specific ones directly from Mexico, some standalone restaurants substitute certain ingredients with those that can be found here.
That was what the folks behind the newly revamped Fix Cafe at Balestier are doing. By incorporating a local influence into their Mexican fare, sourcing becomes easier, and at the same time, their food is more accessible to the general public’s palate.
(Related: Does Chinese food go well with rum, bourbon or whiskey?)
Director of kitchens Mervyn Phan says: “Some chillies are hard to find, along with other Mexican ingredients, so we had to play around with the ingredients since it was expensive to get them flown in for ourselves. Quite a lot of the (local) flavours work well, like we use local dried chilli (kung pao) and chinchalok chilli for instance.”
(Related: How to pair sake with meat.)
In fact, our lack of exposure to traditional Mexican food is also the reason why some places choose to focus on the more common varieties of street food like tacos.
Joy Chan, co-owner of the two-week-old Mexican dive bar Chimichanga, says that when she was asking around before deciding on the cuisine for her eatery, most people were more open to the recognisable dishes from Mexican cuisine as opposed to the less common ones.
(Related: Cape Town, South Africa is a must-visit for serious foodies.)
“People were not that receptive to trying certain things because they were not very sure what they were. So a casual, introductory Mexican menu was a safer option for us than anything else from South America,” says Chan. “But for all its unfamiliarity, I’m sure Mexican cuisine will be more accessible eventually. People are travelling more and more after all, so it’s only a matter of time.”
How about some Mexican this week? Here are four restaurants to try:
36 Dunlop Street
Tel: 6293 3314
Cilantro, avocado, chilli, chipotle, and lime were the ingredients that co-owner of two-week-old Chimichanga, Joy Chan, worked with to create the menu.
As first-time F&B owners – Chan runs the dive bar with creative agency Insurgence – they’ve chosen to play safe and launch it with conventional Mexican dishes and bar bites such as jalapeno pops (S$10), chipotle wings (S$10), and patatas fritas (S$10). The tacos (S$10 for three of the same variety) and quesadillas (S$10) feature three options for fillings – carnita pork with pico de gallo (fresh salsa), spicy chicken with pico de gallo, or shrimp.
Down the road, Chan hopes to expand their menu, first by offering a popular Mexican hot chocolate brand Abuelita, and eventually using Mexican cocoa in both their savoury food and desserts.
2. Fix Cafe
31 Ah Hood Road
HomeTeamNS-JOM Clubhouse, #01-07
Tel: 6256 1484
Sometimes, the most prudent thing to do is to stick to what you know best, so when the Singaporean owners of Fix Cafe in Balestier wanted to revamp their eatery to serve Mexican food, they decided to mix it up with some local influences and components. Not only does that help them maintain their Halal certification, it also makes the food more accessible to locals, and the ingredients easier to find.
For instance, director of kitchens Mervyn Phan included chinchalok (fermented shrimp paste) in their tomato salsa, and local dried chillies in their enchiladas, instead of the more traditionally Mexican poblano chilli. Dishes such as the chicken fajitas include achar (S$18), while the prawn and lime fajitas are spiced up by kimchi (S$22). Even their signature dessert – the bunuelos with ice cream (S$8) is glazed in gula melaka instead of the usual sugar syrup.
320 Tanglin Road
Tel: 6836 5528
After seven years of serving modern American cuisine at its Phoenix Park location, Spruce was recently rebranded to make way for a new Texan-Mexican concept, and is now known as Coyote. It was born out of founder Danny Pang’s personal love for the cuisine after a trip to California, followed by a serendipitous meeting with their current chef Jihardi Amin, who has experience training under a native Mexican chef at a Mexican restaurant.
The menu features dishes such as chorizo y papas (S$19) – grilled chorizo with potato wedges, spicy tequila wings (S$17), a signature papaya cod fish (S$38) served with kerabu salad, frijoles (beans) quinoa, and papaya sauce, and of course, a variety of tortilla-based items such as enchiladas, quesadillas, and tacos.
4. Don’t Tell Mama
52 Tanjong Pagar Road
Tel: 6221 2007
As far as unlikely marriages go, Korean kimchi and Mexican quesadillas seem like quite the odd pairing, especially since both countries are located on opposite ends of the globe. Yet somehow, a wave of Korean-Mexican fusion restaurants has managed to gain a following in both the US and Korea, and the ripple has already found its way to our local shores.
One of them comes in the form of Don’t Tell Mama – named after a tongue-in-cheek reference to visiting a bar and hiding it from your parents – a Korean-Mexican fusion bistro at Tanjong Pagar by the Redz Group, which also runs the Korean fried chicken brand Chicken Up. Owner Luke Yi was born in Korea, but lived in countries such as Australia before coming to Singapore and eventually starting his F&B company. His restaurant serves straightforward casual Mexican fare with Korean components, such as a beef bulgogi salad served with fresh salsa and guacamole (S$16), and quesadillas stuffed with sauteed kimchi, mozzarella cheese, and chicken (S$14).
Adapted from The Business Times.