Louis Tikaram remembers.

He remembers watching the Mexican carpenters, plumbers and electricians who built EP & LP – the enormously popular Los Angeles eatery he helped launch as head chef in 2015 – break for lunch around food trucks slinging tacos and barbacoa. He remembers long nights at the restaurant bookended by trips to Coni’Seafood in Inglewood for shrimp aguachile (shrimp in a liquid seasoned with chilli, lime juice, coriander and cucumber), or the celebrated Guelaguetza Restaurante in Koreatown for its freewheeling Oaxacan meals of tlayudas (pizza-like tortillas), chapulines (crunchy grasshopper tacos) and mole. Most of all he remembers Sergio Gonzalez, bartender at EP & LP, who was something of a Rosetta Stone for Tikaram’s off-piste cultural adventures around Los Angeles.

“Mexican culture is so ingrained in everyday life in LA,” Tikaram says. “Serge and his brothers would take me out to places like Guelaguetza. And it was big – as big as Felons – and packed. You’d eat and drink and listen to music. It wasn’t just about the food, it was the whole experience.”

Mexican and South American food has been an itch for Tikaram ever since. He chats about preparing carne asada and aguachile for Hong Kong restaurant Ho Lee Fook’s fifth birthday celebrations. Or ceviche for a recent collaboration with Adam Wolfers and Alex Munoz Labart at Stanley, the Cantonese restaurant where Tikaram is head chef.

The nostalgia comes thickened by Tikaram’s inability to visit Los Angeles these past 12 months. But, more pointedly, by the fact Gonzalez unexpectedly passed away last year.

“His wife rang me in May and just said, “He’s in hospital with a brain aneurysm’,” Tikaram says. “Two days later, he was gone.”

All these memories inspired La Mexicana, a brand-new Mexican pop-up parked in the shadow of the cliffs at Howard Smith Wharves. In early March, Tikaram took to Instagram to announce La Mexicana and pay tribute Gonzalez.

“The other night, at 9pm, we put on a couple of his favourite songs, and we all got up and danced,” Tikaram says. “He used to love this song Suavemente [by Puerto Rican singer and songwriter Elvis Crespo], which isn’t Mexican, but it’s all about being a smooth operator, which Serge kinda was.”

The second, more practical reason for La Mexicana is to occupy another of Howard Smith Wharves’ many function spaces, under-utilised since Covid-19 began to limit the size of public gatherings.

“We had braised some lamb for a staff meal at Stanley, and we had some Spanish rice, and some salsa roja and pico de gallo. And [Howard Smith Wharves director] Adam Flaskas was walking by, so sat down with everyone for lunch. And he was just like, ‘This is so good. We should do something!’ Oh god, me and my big mouth,” Tikaram says, laughing.

La Mexicana isn’t that much to look at. The poky, pretty Citrus House function space has been given a simple splash of paint, its open-air dining area now populated by trestles dressed with plastic tablecloths, umbrellas and candles.

There also isn’t much on the plate, but that’s by design. What appealed to Flaskas was the simplicity of the food, and it’s been recreated here with zero pomp or circumstance. There’s guacamole and spiced corn chips; elotes (grilled street corn) with queso fresco, chilli, coriander and lime; kingfish aguachile with jalapeno, cucumber, red onion and crispy saltine crackers (yes, like the Saladas in mum’s pantry); and a lamb barbacoa served with Spanish rice and salsa de arbol. Feel like dessert? The single option is watermelon with fresh lime and Tajin (a Mexican brand of spice condiment).

That’s it, other than buckets of Coronas, a list of Margaritas, and a generously stocked back bar of tequila and mezcal. For non-drinkers, there are Jarritos sodas.

It’s simple, soulful and – perhaps unsurprisingly – already enormously popular.

“We opened the doors and the colour and the music and the smell of the food – people just flocked, whether it was for something to eat or just a drink and a boogie,” Tikaram says. “It’s about that vibe, and it’s infectious.

“It’s really tied into all my mates back in Los Angeles … Some other LA friends own Los Sundays Tequila, so we’re stocking that. And I want to put a Pepino Royale (a cocktail Tikaram shorthands as cucumber flavoured variation on a Margarita) on there. Serge used to make me one after work before we’d go out. There will be all these elements of him shining through.”

La Mexicana
Howard Smith Wharves, 5 Boundary Street, Brisbane

Fri 4pm–late Sat & Sun 12pm–late