Most of us know Mamasita as the boisterous Mexican eatery that was so popular when it opened in 2010 the wait for a table could easily be an hour, maybe more. Hordes of hungry revellers would line up, pressed against the wall in the stairwell, negotiating their way through a menu of tostadas and tacos to kill time. For visitors, it wasn’t a trip to Melbourne without a stop – and a wait – at Melbourne’s first proper taqueria.
Almost 10 years later, things have changed.
“When we opened Mamasita we wanted the place to feel contemporary and modern,” says co-owner Matt Lane. “We’ve pared that back and taken it into a more nostalgic realm.”
On scaling that well-worn flight of stairs, you’ll notice the Mexican institution has a whole new look. The interior now nods to restaurants in Mexico City, whose design in the 1950s was inspired by the aesthetics of American diners.
“Checkerboard laminate flooring, simple padded bar stools and leather banquettes gave any restaurant an instantly familiar feel,” Lane says. “[Then] in the ’70s many of these restaurants were updated to colour palettes of brown, beige and burgundy. It’s these cues that we’ve modelled the renovation on.”
Structurally the space is fairly similar to the original. Grand old windows still look down onto Collins Street below, and the oversized monochrome print of a mamasita, which means “hot babe” in Spanish, still looks down on diners from the wall. But the terrariums and steel frames from the walls are gone. Underfoot you’ll now see black-and-white tiled floors, which Lane says are inspired by those he found in home kitchens and restaurants on trips to South America. They were a non-negotiable inclusion in his eyes.
“The first time I went to San Miguel de Allende, I stayed at Doce 18,” he says. “The entire outdoor area was made up of black and white tiles that crept across the patio and into the pool. I just loved that use and feel.”
And the room is more hushed – the acoustics are softer thanks to an elaborate acoustic ceiling installation.
“We felt it was time to make the space more comfortable, better sounding, and a place you’d want to linger for longer and say, screw it, I’ll try that extra añejo tequila for $50, why not,” Lane says.
There’s a new chef in the kitchen, too, Martin Zozaya, and a reinvigorated menu to match. Zozaya is Argentinian and moved to Mexico when he was nine. He says the new menu represents what’s happening in the food scene there now, but with a bit of a modern slant. Regionality is explored as the seasons shift, so you can expect beefier, heartier dishes representing Mexico’s north in winter, and fresh seafood dishes from the Pacific coast in summer. The menu also draws on Zozaya’s own heritage.
“All the tastes, flavours and textures … are from my own personal relationship with Mexican food,” Zozaya says. “This is why at Mamasita we create, not re-create.”
Rockling is lightly cured in a mix of coconut, tomatillo, mint and habanero for a fresh take on a classic Yucatán ceviche. Slow-cooked beef short rib comes with chiles toreados (jalapeños or serrano peppers that are chargrilled and seasoned with lime juice and salt), and a dish of creamy handmade burrata arrives atop a bitter dark mole.
“There’s been a real evolution of Mexican food in Mexico over the last five years, where you could once only find authentic dishes,” Lane says. “Now, what we’re seeing is the big players experimenting with different food elements from different countries and cultures, which has influenced the movement of modern Mexican today.”
For the Mamasita faithful, the chargrilled corn with cotija (a Mexican cow’s milk cheese), lime and chipotle mayo remains, and there’ll always be tacos and tostadas on the menu – perhaps with braised beef cheek, mole, thyme and guajillo (a type of dried chilli commonly used in Mexican cooking), or slow-roasted pork cochinita (a traditional Yucatán dish) with pickled onion and habanero.
If you’re looking for a traditional Mexican beverage to go with your meal, an in-house mezcalier – a bit like a sommelier, but for mezcal – is on hand to walk you through the extensive list of mezcals and tequilas on offer. Cocktail-wise, the Smoky Margarita is Peloton, dry curaçao, agave, lime and salt.
“We’re continuing to expand our mezcal horizons,” Peters says. “Whether it’s via micro-stashes that we bring back ourselves or that we get sent from Mexico.”
Perhaps the most exciting introduction to Mamasita’s new era is the option for tables of any size to book online.
“We do wonder why we didn’t do it earlier,” Lane says. “We still have a line on the busy nights, but it’s way less demanding.”
“Long gone are the days of turn and burn,” adds Peters. “We want our guests to relish their time with us.”
Level 1/11 Collins Street, Melbourne
(03) 9650 3821
Mon to Thu 5pm–10pm
Fri & Sat 12.30pm–11pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on July 27, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.