I hadn't really seen anything that quite resembled actual Mexican food in Australia until Lauren from Footscray Food Blog pointed out La Tortilleria in this month's issue of Gram Melbourne. What I mean by actual Mexican is tiny tacos, topped only with onions and a menu with no flour tortillas in sight. La Tortillera makes their own tortillas in the way of Nixtamal, a process that involves stone ground corn and dates back to the good old days of the Aztecs. My Mexican food options at the food store here consist of Mission wraps and Old El Paso products, so the more I read, the more I was DTF with these tacos.
La Tortilleria happens to be quite conveniently located for Charlie and I. We live on the Upfield train line, and this supposed south-of-the-border outpost is also located on said line. Just take the Upfield line to Macaulay, walk up Stubbs St. and schvitz (have you been watching Princesses: Long Island?) yourself with fear of shadow lurkers. Nah, it's really just a quiet street. La Tortilleria shone like a beacon of light when we approached.
I had called earlier in the day to see if we could book, as I suspected the place is getting quite popular after its Gram feature. Melbourne is full of foodies and Mexican is, like, so en trend. They said they were booked for reservations but had a section for walk-ins. I said, OK.
We walked in around 8pm and the front room was crowded. We were first offered only a spot on the counter. I hesitated, and owner Gerardo went on to repeat what I was told on the phone: there was a big table booked for 9pm, but we could probably have a table for one hour until then. He went to check on some things, and a girl came back and said sorry, no table. Upon a subsequent trip to the bathroom, I found the back room basically empty. It was like an abandoned two-top city back there. I think they were getting a little bit too excited for this big party. Anyway, the counter was fine, and we got to peer into what Charlie dubbed "la factoria."
This is where the ancient Aztec tortilla black magic happens.The menu boasted guac, quesadillas, tacos, sopes and gringas. We decided to just let Gerardo and his amigos (both Hispanic and Australian) choose for us. They kind of thought we were nuts when we went for the Amigos Share Plate for three instead of two though. Probably went home and told their families about the real life fat American customer tonight.
We got to chatting to Gerardo and learned quickly that he is, in fact, more than just a successful restauranteur. Yes, being the only source of real comida Mexicana in Melbourne is just his hobby! He dropped the company name of his day job, Deloitte, and mentioned previously living in Mexico City, LA and London before landing in Melbourne 3.5 years ago. When we tried the salsas, we decided Mexico's loss is certainly Melbourne's gain. We were presented a sweet mango salsa, pico de gallo and a smoked chili salsa and warned of the latter's heat. Chips were fried fresh from homemade tortillas, and were salted perfectly, even if some were a little too hard. We were invited to top up our own salsas at a stand close to where we were sitting.
Honestly, we finished this little baby chip portion in like 30 seconds and looked super obese when the waitress asked if we wanted more, after already ordering the share platter for three.
The tacos, tres al pastor y tres carne asada, pictured way up top, came first. The al pastor (pork) was the clear winner here. Moist, flavorful pork was complimented by juicy bits of pineapple and topped with onion. Add a little guac. Maybe some salsa. The steak tacos were less impressive. While the steak was cooked exceptionally to a nice medium rare, it was a bit bland. The tortillas were obviously masterfully made.
Gerardo must have assessed us as serious eaters, because he came over mid-meal and offered us some special sauce. "Can you handle the Mexican-style heat?" Turned out, we could. It actually wasn't that hot -- I believe Gerardo underestimated us.
A second platter showed up in timely fashion with three sopes (thick tortillas topped with chicken, beans, crema and lettuce,) and three quesadillas, one each of beans, cheese and chorizo. I liked the quesadillas; they were simple and tasty. I do have to wonder though if in that bean quesadilla there wasn't queso fresco, but the more readily available ricotta. The menu said soft cheese, so something tells me queso fresco hasn't made it over here yet. (Other taco places in Melbourne substitute feta, no joke.) I also enjoyed the sopes. The thick tortilla texture reminded me just a bit of the pupusas I've been missing from my El Salvadoran friends in Brentwood.
Of course, we had to finish the meal off with flan. My beloved. This generous portion graced my presence and was soon gone. :) Flan makes me happily catatonic so I have no further words on that.
My impressions of La Tortilleria vary. The place is clearly of expert status when it comes to making a damn good corn tortilla. The tortillas are preservative free, meat and eggs are free range and many of the menu items are vegan-able. Their salsas and al pastor were also near perfect. Oh, and it's BYO! But other dishes lacked a bit of seasoning like the carne asada and maybe the guacamole. La Tortilleria is certainly authentic and is a clear front-runner for the best Mexican meal in Melbourne, but, alas, it did not steal my heart from the bodegas and little restaurants of NYC and Long Island.