Notwithstanding ’70s sensation Taco Bill, Mexican food in Melbourne can be divided into two distinct eras: before Mamasita and after Mamasita.
We once understood the cuisine as nachos drowning in melted cheese and sour cream. Now we know it’s so much more. It’s mole. It’s nixtamalised corn tortillas. It’s a plethora of indigenous chillies, the use of which stretches back at least 9000 years.
Though several other authentic voices have joined the choir since Mamasita started singing in 2010, options remain somewhat limited.
“A lot of people here are used to eating fast Mexican food – Tex-Mex chains like Guzman y Gomez,” says Julian Romero, owner of The Happy Mexican. “That’s precisely what I didn’t want to do. I wanted to bring food that actually tastes like Mexican food.”
Romero’s catering business of the same name has been selling tacos at festivals for about two years, and in July 2019 he opened a restaurant on Hoddle Street. Maybe you’ve seen it – and dismissed it – while stuck in one of the street’s notorious traffic jams. The kitschy sombreros, maracas and cacti emblazoned on the buttercup-yellow facade aren’t the most encouraging signs, but give it a chance.
Romero was born in Colombia and moved to Los Angeles when he was 16. From there he made frequent trips to Mexico City to see friends and relatives. The Happy Mexican’s chef, Jesus Rios, moved to Australia from Mexico six months ago. Together they’re producing an undiluted, down-home interpretation of Mexican cuisine akin to that once found at Fitzroy’s Los Amates (RIP) and still found at Kensington’s La Tortilleria (The Happy Mexican’s tortilla supplier).
Generously stacked tacos – two vegetarian, five not – are the main attraction, especially on Tuesdays when they’re $3 (half price). The carnitas sees pork marinated in orange juice and spices, then slow-cooked until it’s falling apart. Fatty lengua (beef tongue), a staple at Mexican taquerias, is fortified with full-bodied pasilla chillies. And squishy roast pumpkin plays nice with potato, capsicum, black beans and guac.
Fans of California-style Mexican should order a burrito. Rolled thick as a tube of Pringles, the flour tortilla strains with green rice, corn, black beans, cheese, salsa and your choice of sautéed mushrooms, roast chicken or slow-braised pork.
Until Frankie’s Tortas and Tacos opened in November, the Happy Mexican also had a local monopoly on tortas (sandwiches), pairing fried chicken and steak milanesa with refried beans, lettuce, tomato, onion and chipotle mayo.
Most dishes here are necessarily milder than in Mexico, one of just a few concessions made following some tough feedback in the first few weeks.
But while the food comes out quickly and always with a smile, this isn’t the most polished operation. There are just three full-time staff: chef Rios, Romero and his girlfriend Kelly Araque, who manages the place. Up until Christmas, Romero was still working a nine-to-five selling catering equipment while pulling nights at The Happy Mexican. If you go to eat, be kind and patient.
But also, have fun. Margaritas are 10 bucks on Fridays, tap beer is coming soon, and the mezcal and tequila selection is more than decent. This cheerful yellow room, with its weathered timber tables and old-timey photographs, isn’t the start of a new era for Mexican food, but it’s adding some much-needed breadth.
The Happy Mexican
108 Hoddle Street, Abbotsford
(03) 9416 4596
Tue 12pm–3pm, 5pm–9pm
Wed & Thu 5pm–9.30pm
Fri 12pm–3pm, 5pm–1am