The interior at Mamasita
In the restaurant world, first impressions count for a lot, if not everything, and the first two impressions of Mamasita concern the food – which is amazing despite being Mexican – and the noise, which is also amazing. Just to be clear here, the former observation is a positive, the latter is not.
Since Mamasita opened at the Tijuana end of Collins Street some months back, the place has been packed solid. Which suggests that when the cooking is this good, customers will always rank hunger above hearing loss on their list of life priorities. Call me old-fashioned but I like to hear stuff, especially conversations with friends. So having endured one dinner here where we resorted to Auslan to communicate, this time around we arrive towards the end of lunch hoping the hordes will have thinned. No such luck. We’re stuck on the stairs waiting behind a group of six, all staring hungrily through the hacienda-style wrought-iron grill at a simple space of booths and bar stools, plywood and pendant lights, where Melburnians are feasting and shouting with a gusto seldom seen in this city. It’s mostly the corporate lunch crowd, so it seems unlikely they’re high on Mamasita’s grapefruit margaritas or three dozen varieties of agave tequila.
I suspect the mystery mood enhancer is in the food. Possibly it’s the feel-good chipotle, a smoke-dried jalapeño that’s used liberally in dishes such as elotes, skewered and grilled corncobs coated in creamy cow’s milk cheese and chipotle mayo with a squeeze of lime to accentuate the palate-popping flavours. Every meal should start with this.
Chipotle Braised Goat
I doubt it’s the crab tostaditas, a serve of four canapé-sized fried tortillas topped with picked crab, avocado and habanero. They look pretty and taste pleasant but are no match for, say, the eye-rolling loveliness of a soft taco filled with melting duck steeped in orange and fennel, or the pazole, a soup-for-one of shredded pork and hominy (a type of white corn) with side serves of radish, coriander, lime and broken tortillas to add at whim. For a small bowl of soup, it is remarkably rich and dense, simmering with chilli. There’s a similar blissful heat in the three cuts of goat, studded with toasted almonds and served on a roasted sweet corn paste roughly resembling curdled cream. It’s not the most beautiful plate to look at but the combination of the earthy spiced meat, roasted nuts and creamy corn is irresistible. Most likely because the goat, like the corn, is smothered in chipotle and by now I’m convinced it’s some form of Mexican happy dust. I wonder if Customs knows about this stuff.
The dud of the day was a bullhorn chilli stuffed with a baby-food mash of wild mushroom, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, coriander and epazote. I don’t think I’ve ever had epazote before; apparently it has a pungent, almost petrol flavour, but I can’t pick it from the oozy vegetarian mush. The upside is that it reduces flatulence and so comes in handy with the excellent side dish of baked black beans we’ve ordered.
In such a frantic space you’d expect service to suffer but, for the most part, the black-and-crimson-clad staff deliver on time. Their patchy menu knowledge is another matter though, and the wine service is faintly insulting at these prices. When diners order a glass of wine from a bottle – and pay $10 and more for the privilege – they deserve to see it poured at their table. Before Mamasita I always thought Mexican dessert was an oxymoron, but given the menu has been so surprisingly great, we’re inspired to order the warm black-and-white quinoa pudding with fresh figs. (In fact, the figs aren’t fresh – it’s the middle of winter after all – but dry ones soaked in hibiscus syrup.) The pudding comes in a glass and if you squint at it from the side, the different coloured, densely packed quinoa grains look like Pebblecrete. Texture-wise, it’s like eating crunchy tapioca. Flavour-wise it is ambrosial, and that’s not a word I use often for fear of sounding even more like a tosser. But this warmed grain pudding infused with coconut and condensed milks, cinnamon and orange zest and topped with flowery figs and sugared pecans is so gorgeous I almost shout with joy. Perhaps that’s why it’s always so noisy in here.
Mamasita, Level 1, 11 Collins St, city
Cuisine \ Mexican
Chefs \ Jason Jones
Hip pocket \ About $120 for two, with (modest) drinks
Open \ Monday-Wednesday noon-midnight; Thursday noon-12.30pm, Friday noon-2am, Saturday 6pm-2am
Highlights \ Most of Jason Jones’ menu; taqueria dishes served until the wee hours
Lowlights \ The deafening racket
Bookings \ Only for groups of 8-10, for set-menu dining 9650 3821
We rate it 7.5/10