Sydney’s newest Mexican restaurants and taquerias are drawing on the complex and flavourful classics of regional Mexico to challenge the traditional Australian experience of the cuisine.
Emboldened by the city’s growing culinary curiosity, new venues such as Pyrmont’s Nativo and The Rocks’ Taqueria Zepedo are stepping outside of the Tex Mex or Cal Mex mould championed by popular chain restaurants.
Maiz head chef and co-owner Juan Carlos says he wouldn’t have been able to recommend a single Mexican restaurant in Sydney pre-COVID.
“Mexican restaurants weren’t daring to do the real thing, they were just scratching the surface of what Mexican food can be,” Carlos says.
“As a Mexican [from Baja California], I would go to these restaurants and think, ‘Yeah, it tastes good, but it doesn’t trigger any memories, it doesn’t speak to my Mexican heart’.”
“In the last year people are definitely daring to do more authentic stuff. There’s a whole new generation of Mexican restaurants that are showing people the real thing and now that they’ve tried it, they won’t be able to go back.”
Demand for Maiz’ sopes (corn flour shells with toppings) saw the eatery evolve from market stall, to brunch spot, to dinner service within just two years. Carlos says the key to making good Mexican food is “making everything from scratch”. 
“The ingredients are very simple but there’s a lot of slow cooking, burning, blending and toasting that goes into building up the flavours.”
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That commitment to flavour sees Nativo head chef and co-owner Manuel Diaz cook every taco fresh to order, using pork slow cooked in banana leaves and beef birria that has undergone three cooking processes (charcoal grill, slow cooking, sous vide).
“We have to give the ingredients the time to develop and find their flavour,” says Diaz, who trained under the late “mother of Mexican cuisine” Patricia Quintana at her Mexico City restaurant Izote. 
“We’re not like other taco places, where they just have big batches of pre-prepared meat and tortillas in the oven and ready to go.”
Alejandro Huerta Carrillo is the co-owner and head chef at Glebe restaurant No.92, where he serves freshly pressed tacos using imported masa (maize flour), a difficult-to-source product using up to seven varieties of Mexican corn. 
The Mexico City native, who formerly worked at Noma (named The World’s Best Restaurant in 2021), says the Tex Mex influence “wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t authentic”.
“We don’t eat nachos in Mexico, it’s not on any menus. Burritos do exist, but only around Sonora (a northern state), and they’re very different from the ones you see here. They don’t use any rice, or pickles, or cabbage,” Huerta Carillo explains. 
“Little by little, Sydney restaurants are taking that risk by moving away from what people think Mexican food is.”
Iron Chef winner Claudette Zepeda, who grew up on the border between San Diego and Tijuana, says she’s seen Mexican cuisine “steadily grow” in Australia since her first visit in 2019.
“I love to see people becoming more adventurous in their eating. They’re more open minded to the diversity of who we are as a culture and a country and a microclimate,” she says.
Taqueria Zepeda
Co-owner Claudette Zepeda is bringing the “grit and punchiness” of northern Mexican food to Sydney with her pop-up taqueria. Zepeda says the menu, which includes tongue tacos and costras (crispy fried cheese), steps away from the “Australian Mexican food” Sydneysiders have become accustomed to. “The average taco in Sydney probably isn’t what you’d see in any taco shop within the northern part of Mexico,” Zepeda explains. “But everyone should have a one-bite-rule. You can’t say you don’t like it until you try it.”
Shop 21 Playfair Street, The Rocks; taqueriazepeda.com
Nativo
Nativo head chef and co-owner Manuel Diaz is trying to recreate the sense of community he felt at the neighbourhood taquerias of his childhood in Oaxaca. “I want to see people’s faces when they eat my taco and know they like it,” Diaz says. “That’s why I became a chef.” The Pyrmont taqueria is serving a small, specialised selection of tacos and antojitos (snacks) that combine traditional Mexican ingredients with native Australian flavours such as lemon myrtle and finger lime. 
Shop 6/45-55 Harris Street, Pyrmont; nativomexican.com.au
No.92
For head chef Alejandro Huerta Carrillo, tacos are “one of the most important elements of Mexican cuisine”. While he takes great care to ensure each taco is prepared with fresh, authentic ingredients, he isn’t afraid to take risks. At No.92’s Taco Tuesday event on November 8, Huerta Carillo has invited chefs from across Sydney to join him in creating “unique and different tacos that people will eat that Tuesday and perhaps never again in their lives”. The once-off, $75 set menu includes ox tongue, beer battered sardines and cured scallop.
92 Glebe Point Road, Glebe; no92gpr.com.au
Maiz
There is a noticeable lack of tacos on the menu at Newtown restaurant Maiz. “We wanted to show people that Mexican food was more than just tacos,” says co-owner and chef Juan Carlos. Instead, there are tetelas (triangular blue corn pockets), huaraches (thick pressed tortillas) and sopes, each of which showcase the versatility of corn. “As a Mexican chef living in a foreign country it’s important for me to be able to share my culture through the lens of cooking,” Carlos says. 
415 King Street, Newtown; maizstreetfood.com 

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