We meet brothers Julian and Christian Tan at their restaurant, Lucha Loco, on a Friday afternoon after a theatrical, booming tropical storm has left the streets of Singapore slick with rain. Fringed by an emerald-green garden, Lucha Loco is more than just inviting. Its location in Duxton Hill, an area filled with brightly painted terrace-style Chinese shop-houses once home to opium dens and brothels, is now the epicentre of stylish restaurants in Singapore.
Lucha Loco’s Mexican street-food menu is the result of a collaboration between executive chef Mario Malavaez, from Mexico City, and consultant chef Jason Jones, co-owner of Melbourne’s popular Mamasita. Jones travelled to Singapore two weeks before the restaurant opened to develop the menu and train the team, and continues to consult from afar. “Mario and Jason work really well together because Mario has that authentic flavour, and Jason is experienced – knowing how to tweak things to make them that little bit better. We would walk past the kitchen and see them having a ball in there – cooking and carrying on,” laughs Christian.
Those familiar with Mamasita will recognise the elotes – grilled corn with mayo, chilli and cotija cheese - at Lucha Loco, yet the culinary partnership has resulted in a very new menu. Dishes such as chiles rellenos (poblano chillies stuffed with zucchini, beans, corn, mushrooms and a pumpkin sauce) and bisteak con nopales (New Zealand rib-eye steak on cactus with chimichurri sauce) draw diners from near and far.
Lucha Loco isn’t the brothers’ first foray into hospitality. Julian, a trained chartered accountant, arrived in Singapore 11 years ago to work for Macquarie Bank. Christian, who worked in marketing, didn’t join Julian until a few years later when an opportunity in the hospitality business presented itself. Their first venture together, Tanjong Beach Club, opened at Singapore’s Sentosa Island in May 2009 and is now a landmark destination for expats, locals and tourists. A venue by the sea was a natural choice for this family of die-hard surfers who spent their childhood, “barefoot on the beach in Perth” (their youngest brother is Bondi-based photographer Eugene Tan of Aquabumps fame.)
The brothers’ move into Mexican cuisine may seem an unlikely formula considering their Australian-Malaysian background, but Christian insists that the zesty flavours are similar to the South East Asian palate. In just 18 months, Lucha Loco has accumulated a loyal following, with some guests dining there three to four times a week. “The spicy, punchy flavours connect with everybody,” Christian says, “especially here in Asia.” But what really attracted the brothers to Mexican fare was the spirit of fiesta. “We wanted to create somewhere that was vibrant and fun as soon as you walked through the door. Mexican is perfect. It’s festive and colourful. You sit people down at a table and ask who wants a round of margaritas. More often than not the answer is, ‘Bring it on!’”
The interior of the converted Chinese shop-house is warm and inviting, combining exposed brick walls and tall wooden tables with modern industrial fittings. It evokes the raw streetscapes of Mexico City, which the brothers fell in love with. “We did street-food tours, tequila tastings and visited the dramatic Lucha Libre professional wrestling arena,” says Christian about their research trip. References to the masked Lucha Libre aesthetic are found throughout the restaurant’s decor. In fact, the masked Mexican wrestler has become a mascot of sorts, and can be seen hurtling across the top of the menus. The location is, “just far enough away from Marina Bay and the financial centre for people to feel like they’ve gotten away,” says Christian. “It’s green, it’s relaxed, there’s nice, warm light and we’re just on the top of the hill. We’re really happy with this location.”
Lucha Loco’s Mexican fiesta atmosphere has become familiar here in Australia, but is a obvious (yet welcome) contrast to Singapore’s straight-laced reputation. The support for the restaurant is indicative of the city’s flourishing dining culture, and of the locals’ enthusiasm for new tastes and flavours. Small bars and restaurants pop up each week and the skyline is constantly evolving. “The dining scene has become more world class,” says Julian. “Five years ago Singapore lacked good, casual dining options and interesting bars, but now there are loads of bars and Australian-style cafes.” It’s an exciting time to live in Singapore as young professionals embrace their new playground. Streets are filled with pedestrians on weekends and people spill out into the street come nighttime, a phenomenon it’s plain to see the Tan brothers have had a hand in. Look out for their new venue, Super Loco, at the river location of Robinson’s Quay in July of this year, complete with an Al Pastor stand, Mexican gift shop and late-night taqueria.
15 Duxton Hill, Singapore
(+65) 6226 3938