“I’ve always been in love with Oaxaca,” says Manuel Díaz, the executive chef and co-owner of Nu’u by Nativo. “Ask any Mexican where the best food in Mexico is, and they’ll tell you Oaxaca.”
Díaz grew up in the Mexican state, as did his wife and business partner, Diana Farrera. Nu’u – which they opened last Friday as a follow-up to their popular Pyrmont taqueria, Nativo – is a love letter to their Oaxacan culture.
Oaxaca is in the country’s rugged south, where mountain chains collide before giving way to lush valleys and the vast Pacific coastline. Couple that unique geography with the fact that the state has some of Mexico’s largest Indigenous populations (over 50 per cent of the entire country’s Indigenous language speakers live in the state) and you get a culture – and especially a cuisine – that’s distinct from the rest of the country’s. At Nu’u, that makes for a menu with a lot of dishes that the general public may not recognise.
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“Opening a Mexican restaurant is a very hard challenge,” says Díaz. “There are all these programs on Netflix talking about street food and tacos and everything, so people have expectations – and you have to convince them to go against those expectations.”
Díaz’s food makes for a compelling argument. The chef’s early career included time working under the auspices of legendary chef Patricia Quintana in Mexico City, as well as at Michelin-starred kitchens in the south of France. Since moving to Sydney with Farrera, he’s worked as executive chef at Bar Patron and as group executive chef at Milpa Collective (Carbon, Sonora, Santa Catarina).
Menu highlights include the memela del mercado, a jumble of bone marrow beans, pork shoulder and grated queso fresco on a disc of grilled maize dough; the tetela, a snack of grilled masa filled with salsa and slow-cooked pork; and the tamal de la costa, which sees the Mexican classic loaded up with grilled Moreton Bay bug. Tacos placeros, hefty enough for two, are the only tacos on the menu, with flavours changing every couple of weeks.
Mole, one of Mexico’s oldest sauces and a point of Oaxacan culinary pride, makes a handful of notable appearances. First as an accompaniment to a wedge of crisp pork belly served with peaches and mezcal molasses. Then served over the enmoladas, grilled chicken tortillas with a peanut and garlic crumble. Díaz’s mole uses over 40 different ingredients, including four kinds of dried chillies; 15 different spices; and a careful balance of banana, bread, nuts, seeds, plantains and Oaxacan chocolate.
Mezcal is one of Oaxaca’s best-known exports, and the smoky agave spirit is the star of the drinks list at Nu’u. Farrera is a mezcal expert, and each of her signature Mezcalina cocktails – from the sweet Princesa Donaji to the floral Matlazihua – is excellent. There’s also a range of house cocktails, including a Spicy Margarita that genuinely brings the heat (staff will offer you a shot of sweet agave nectar if you need to mellow the drink a notch). Farrera works with small-batch Oaxacan mezcaleros and specialist importers to source the rarest mezcals available, so there’ll always be a new mezcal to drink neat.
As soon as we get into spring, those drinks will be best enjoyed in one of Nu’u’s two outdoor areas. There’s the front balcony, which seats eight, and a covered back terrace too. The rest of the 60-capacity space is split across two floors, plus a chef’s table.
Nu’u means land or ground in Mixtec, a group of Indigenous Mesoamerican languages spoken mainly in Oaxaca. The fit-out – with its camel-coloured walls, tan floors and tiling, cinnamon-hued banquettes, and rattan chairs – nods to the concept with a warm, earthy colour palette. And handmade wares by Indigenous Mexican artisans abound – from wood-carved figures to clay crafts and woven pieces.
Nu’u by Nativo
29 Glebe Point Road, Glebe
Tue to Thu 5pm–10pm
Fri & Sat 12pm–late