While Mexican food in Australia is regrettably weighted towards the formulaic and fast-casual, two new restaurants in the greater Byron Bay area may help to shift the balance.
Chef Evan White (late of Brisbane's now-closed Coyotito) and partner Amelia Stokes are looking to expand diners' vocabularies with Chupacabra, the eatery they opened in July with the team behind Byron Bay's Barrio and Harvest Newrybar. At the white-walled 70-seat restaurant in Suffolk Park, a short drive south of Byron Bay, White aims to paint a more regional portrait of Mexico, with an emphasis on coastal flavours and ingredients.
"Mexican food has become very trendy but I still feel that people are using the idea of Mexican as opposed to actual Mexican cuisine," he says
The chef spent what he calls the infancy of his career in Mexico "working in small, hole-in-the-wall places" along the Yucatán Peninsula. There, he mastered classic dishes like cochinita pibil and tikin xic, along with the art of making corn-flour tortillas by hand, a skill that's come in handy now that he and his team make up to 800 each day.
"Tortillas are very basic at heart," the chef says. "But getting the consistency and pressing right involves a lot of technique, labour and love."
At Chupacabra, diners might begin the day with chilaquiles, a traditional breakfast dish of fried tortilla chips topped with salsa verde, frijoles and a fried egg, alongside a blend of Mexican coffee roasted locally by Moonshine in Federal or a cold-pressed juice of watermelon and dragonfruit.
In addition to Yucatecan specialties, the lunch menu also features familiar favourites like tacos al pastor, Oaxacan cheese quesadillas and a daily ceviche. At dinner, a handful of family-style plates are added to the mix such as flame-grilled octopus with savoury salsa macha or smoked duck breast paired with a mandarin-habanero sauce.
The kitchen sources produce from Picone Exotics, a one-hectare plot in Tyagarah that grows more than 240 foreign varieties, including the yellow sapotes, nopal cacti and Seville oranges that lend a distinctly Yucatán taste to the menu.
As for the drinks, Chupacabra dials up the fun factor with an array of mezcal and tequila options and a rotating selection of frozen Margaritas, as well as cocktails (mezcal Negronis and classic Margaritas) and natural wine on tap. The wine by Jilly Wines is made exclusively for the restaurant.
Meanwhile, Josh Lewis and Astrid McCormack are doubling down on the success of their small yet mighty Brunswick Heads fine-diner Fleet, taking over the town's sole Mexican restaurant and opening with a fresh look and menu in October.
"We weren't thinking of opening a restaurant at all," McCormack says. "But we've always loved the site, and there aren't many casual night-time options in Brunswick."
Though the duo remains mum on the details for now, expect a spirit-focused drinks list by Fleet bar manager Robert Mudge, a collaboration with Yulli's Brews, the installation of a charcoal grill in the kitchen and a possible chilli-planting program at nearby Boon Luck Farm.
What to name the 40-seat venue, however, is still a topic of fierce debate.
"We didn't decide on Fleet until the eleventh-hour," McCormack says. "I'm hoping we will have the same luck with this one."
*Chupacabra, Shop 12a, 3 Clifford St, Suffolk Park, NSW, 0448 077 401, chupacabra.com.au. Open Mon 7am-3pm, Tues-Sat 7am-9pm, Sun 10am-6pm.