Raw prawns, sliced cold and fanned out like sashimi, drizzled with lime juice and salt start the menu at new Mexican restaurant Chula. Sourcing prawns that are fresh enough to serve as ceviche takes making friends down at the market. Pink scallops are sandwiched inside tostadas with LP’s Quality Meats chorizo.
Chula’s seafood focus aims to teach diners that Mexican food is not all about heavy, cheesy dishes – it’s also fresh, light and connected to the ocean.
It’s been a happy homecoming for Peter Lew (Fei Jai, Barrio Cellar) and his wife Nicole Galloway, who reclaimed the old Hugo’s site opposite where their restaurant Barrio Chino used to be. “The Cross is going through a transition, but it’s home for us. We always wanted to reopen here … it felt right in our gut,” says Lew.
“The most important thing for us is for people to come in with an open mind. We’ve had some people ask, ‘Where are the burritos?’… ‘Where are the fajitas?’ We’re going out on a limb by doing these sorts of dishes,” he says.
The fruit salad, for example, is savoury. It’s explosively ripe and drenched in chilli sauce (salsa chamoy) with clouds of goat’s curd. “If you go to Mexico City, you get cups of this everywhere.”
A litmus test for Mexican restaurants is their guacamole. Here, salsa verde is folded into avocado, lime juice, oregano and coriander, with a sprinkling of pork crackling. On the side is a pile of maize shells that will usurp your knife and fork for the rest of the meal.
Arriving from Mexico City, chef Alvaro Valenzuela draws on the north and south – reimagining snacks he’d devour back home with his “beautiful grandmother” after school. One of his fondest memories is the Mexican street-food dish tlayudas, from Oaxaca. It’s like a crunchy pizza with a corn masa base.
Whole, de-boned snapper arrives bubbling from the 500-degree Celsius Jasper charcoal grill – spoon the flesh into corn tortillas.
Designed by Joshua Clapp (Steel + Stitch), the space was modelled on a typical grandmother’s house in Tulum. Earthy tones of wood and terracotta are softened by pinks, sunken lounges, linen and agave plants.
A square bar divides the room, with stools facing the counter where chefs rhythmically slice fish and bartenders shake Margaritas. Above is a shrine that resembles a balcony with treasures from Mexican travels. To the right is the best table in the house: flanked by cacti and a low-hanging wicker lamp.
Bar manager Reece Griffiths, also the founder of the Sydney Agave Cartel Facebook group, (formerly of The East Village), will counter the chilli. When it comes to Mexican spirits, there’s no one more knowledgeable. He manages Margaritas with delicate precision; with agave tequila and notes of peppers, tropical fruits and spice. The Al Pastor cocktail is done with guajillo chilli, agave tequila, charcoal-roasted pineapple, lemon and annatto oil. And the Mango Daiquiri is laced with indigenous ingredients including chamois chilli.
Chula opens this Wednesday October 11 for dinner.
Wed to Sun 5pm–10.30pm
Wed & Thu, Sun 6pm–12am
Fri & Sat 5pm– 2am