It was during Adele Arkell’s first trip to Central and South America that she fell for the street food scene. Wherever she went, she specifically remembers being struck by how crucial it seemed to take the time to create a base full of flavour.
“You walk into a taqueria and you’re given a tortilla – hand rolled in front of your eyes – and a simple cut of meat,” she says. “But then you get to the bank of condiments and the dish is transformed. There’s green and red sauces, dried chilli, coriander, limes, the works. It doesn’t really matter what’s underneath when those mind-blowing vegetable sauces are on top. People go in just to buy sauces by the bag.”
This discovery became the foundation for Arkell’s own business, Radio Mexico, on Carlisle Street in St. Kilda, where 15 different varieties of chilli have been carefully selected for their individual flavour profiles, and marinades are intricately created with up to 20 different ingredients.
“Salsa is so important,” says Arkell. “If done right, it’s veggies chopped up into a healthy liquid salad that can easily be a meal. The way we approach our menu is to start with the sauce and build from there.”
It’s this method that informs Radio Mexico’s newest dish. On the surface it’s a pulled pork and black bean dish with a salsa of cactus and radish. But to Arkell, her concoction of a veggie-packed marinade with annatto – a red spice derived from the seeds of the achiote tree – two different chillies and apple-cider vinegar, represents their place of origin.
“These are authentic Yucatán flavours,” says Arkell. “It’s the way I love to eat Mexican food – a big scoop of black beans, lots of pulled pork, and the pickled cactus and radish. Everywhere you go in Mexico you have the option to eat cactus, or nopales as they’re called. You blanch them, braise them and then pickle them – they’re delicious, and textural like fresh green beans.”
Arkell takes the same detailed approach with Radio Mexico’s pork. “You have to get the right cut and trim the fat,” she says. “We use the shoulder, and then slow-cook it overnight. The beauty of this style of cookery is that it’s incredibly slow. There’s a perception that Mexican food is just slapped together. It’s very complex, with specific ingredients in the marinade to get it just right.”
To the naked eye, black beans might look like a simple mix of dark shapes. But Arkell sheds light on a little-known preparation secret about the underrated legume.
“A good mix of black beans is enriched with lots of veggies – there’s peppers, onions, garlic and spices,” she says. “We slow-cook ours over two days and, while you never see the vegetables, they all come out when you taste it. I eat some every day. You’d never know how much work goes into it.
Hungry and south of the city? Radio Mexico’s black bean with pork and pickled cactus is available now, only via Deliveroo.
If you’re northside, try Biggie Smalls’, Piggy Smalls, featuring pork belly, chilli jam, kewpie mayo, pickled-carrot slaw and spring onions. If you’re in the city, try Belleville’s Jack Cheddar and Truffle Mac & Cheese (with bacon-Cheezle crumbs).