If your experience of Mexican food is only what you’ve found in Sydney, forget everything you know. If you want to try the real deal, there’s only one place to go – Marrickville Markets on the first or fourth Sunday of the month. There, past all the stalls at the edge of the lawn, you’ll find Rosa Cienfuegos in her pop-up restaurant, La Casa Latina. “When I came here and saw a burrito I was like wow, WTF is that? Nachos, chilli con carne? What is that? They're good but they're not Mexican.”
Cienfuegos and her family used to run El Cuervo, a Mexican restaurant in Enmore that closed after some confused reviews. “People said, 'This is bullshit. It's not Mexican food.' We were like, ‘We're Mexican, don't tell me this isn't Mexican’.” That was four years ago. Not long after closing, Cienfuegos was inundated with requests for homemade tamales (like a corn pudding made with masa, chicken stock and lard that’s steamed in a corn husk) and tacos (with corn tortillas). “The Mexican community has grown and most of the ones who’ve come are alone, they’re homesick and they want to feel like they’re in Mexico.”
After she cooked up countless orders for friends, friends of friends and eventually people she didn’t even know, Cienfuegos decided to start something. In May 2017 she had her first pop-up at La Casa Latina (a community centre that has previously held other Latin American events). “It was a horrible day, raining, really terrible. I thought no one would come, but it was packed. There was a big line outside and everyone was getting wet just waiting for my food.” That day it was fresh tamales, pambazos (chilli-soaked bread rolls filled with potatoes, cheese and homemade chorizo) and Mexico City-style tacos (the two most popular are slow-cooked brisket and annatto-marinated pork with pineapple).
Since then it’s grown enormously. On most Sundays, La Casa Latina is swamped, queues go out the door, the camp-style eating hall is almost always packed, and everyone else spills out onto the lawn. A band, often led by Cienfuegos’s dad (a famous mariachi musician) plays traditional tunes, there’s a salsa station offering lime, coriander and chilli sauce, and an outdoor charcoal grill where Cienfuegos makes fresh quesadillas and sopes (thick lime-soaked tortillas topped with black beans, cheese and meat) by hand.
The main menu has grown to cover the endless stream of requests Cienfuegos has received. “Many of the things I serve now I never even tried in Mexico. I had some Northern Mexicans saying: 'Can you make barbacoa Monterrey style’ (barbecued cow’s-head meat). [I said] ‘I've never been in Monterrey, but I'll make it. Come back next week’.” Some weeks it’s barbacoa, others you’ll find baked enchiladas; tostadas; Mexican bean soups with deep-fried tortillas, cream and avocado; or chile relleno (battered capsicums stuffed with queso fresco and served with rice, tortillas and stewed black beans). If you want something else, just ask. You might find it on the menu next time.
La Casa Latina is at Marrickville Markets, 142 Addison Road Marrickville every first and fourth Sunday of the month, from 11am until it runs out.