Mexican wave: Touche Hombré has a funky fit-out, chirpy staff and a party atmosphere.
PICTURES \ DARRIAN TRAYNOR
If you’ve just woken up in 2012, you’ll find the dining scene radically altered. Possibly by a Mexican, but perhaps by people fixated with Latin America or the mid-’80s movie The Three Amigos.
I’m assuming your siesta began when Lynch’s restaurant in South Yarra was at its peak (about the time today’s 20-something diners were rejected by that anti-offspring institution).
And that your first taste of what we now call “modern Mexican” in Melbourne came from a quirky little place in St Kilda called Bluecorn. You might also remember when Taco Bill, our nation’s first clumsy but well-intentioned introduction to the cuisine, was on all your mate’s radars.
In the Mexican wave that has rolled across Melbourne’s dining landscape in the past couple of years, take note of city newcomer Touche Hombré, a deliberately grungy Los Angeles-style taco bar and diner that sports a sardonic moniker – “right back at you, buddy” – and delivers a message to the venues that have preceded it.
This two-month-old marketing coup has been designed, right down to the specially made neon signs, by the team that reinvented Lynch’s as The Millswyn 18 months ago; owned by Davis Yu, son of Ausvest Holdings property tycoon David Yu, and engineered by creative studio Maison Davis.
As you awaken to this fast-tracked, heavily marketed new world, you’ll notice that diners will queue for a table for almost as long as they’ll spend sitting at it.
That a group of pretty young things is more likely to get a table quickly than some of the other wannabes around them (actually, there’s nothing new in that). And that people will pay $7 for something to eat, but a heck of a lot more for a cocktail served in a recycled jam jar with a vanilla-scented straw.
If this all makes it sound as if I had a bad experience or disliked Touche Hombré, that’s not my intention.
Admittedly it took an hour to receive a phone call to say a table was available, despite an advised half-hour wait. (Touche Hombré, like its peers, does not take bookings. Diners are expected to line up, leave a number and return when phoned.) The venue was also ridiculously understaffed, but the “concept”, which includes a nightly DJ, graffitied walls, tables made of recycled timber from the former Princes Pier and chicken-shaped water jugs, is youthful, energetic and fun. A lot like the effusive, pleasant staff who just seemed too run off their feet to be able to take orders (and get them right), or top up paper water cups.
Column one of the three-column menu lists half-a-dozen sharing options from Totopos (tortilla chips) with guacamole, cheese, sour cream and spicy salsa that arrive in paper takeaway trays, to a wooden paddle featuring four classy little tostaditos – toasted white-corn chips topped with shredded crab meat, avocado and basil and dressed, given bite with zesty finger lime.
The flavours were pleasant, if a little bland. There’s also a dish of fatty lamb ribs spiced with merquen (a Chilean blend of dried cumin, pepper, salt and coriander), topped with fresh coriander and succulently sweetened with honey.
The second column, of nine tacos, offers variety at $6-$7 a pop. There’s a fabulous spiced pork combo filled with apple, sage and a nip of habanero chilli cream; a pleasant soft-shell crab taco that contained corn-cream, pea shoots, fresh lime and mint; and a disappointing beef meatball option with Egmont cheese and jalapenos that lacked flavour. The tacos are hand-sized, filled with a small portion of protein – chicken, battered fish, fried tofu, blood pudding – and loads of shredded greens and herbs. They arrive on paper-covered trays. There’s cutlery, if you want it, in wooden boxes on the table.
There’s an “el secreto” taco each day – “shhhh secret squirrel – ask ya waiter” that you won’t be told the contents of until you’ve eaten it. Ours was a crunchy, bright combo of a few battered school prawns, with chilli salt, guacamole and sweet pickle.
The final column belongs to ice-cream “sangas”. The menu offers three varieties at $7-$9, or a paddle with the lot for $18.50. It was probably the disappointment of the night. The fillings are more like firm cheesecake than ice-cream, and the spongy coating on our bland rice pudding and cinnamon sangas was pretty tasteless too. There was a chococolate and chilli peanut cookie version that our waitress was very enthusiastic about, but the cookie was too thick and cumbersome and the creamy peanut filling didn’t resemble ice-cream.
What did I like about Touche Hombré? It’s funky fit-out, chirpy staff and party atmosphere. What didn’t I like – the queuing and disposable vessels.
Would I go again? Probably not, but then I’m not a member of the demographic once banned at Lynch’s.
EAT ST, Sofitel Melbourne on Collins, on Tuesday, July 24 from 6pm.
Cost \ $155 per person Bookings \ 9653 0000
Email \ H1902firstname.lastname@example.org
Corner Lonsdale Street and Tattersalls Lane, City
Cuisine \ Mexican
Chef \ Josh Cunningham
Owner \ Davis Yu
Prices \ Share plates $6-$16; tacos $6-7; desserts $7-18.50
Open \ Tuesday to Saturday, 5pm-late; Friday, noon-3pm
Phone \ 9663 0811
The Verdict \ Worth a look
Ripped back to its bare bones – exposed and whitewashed brick walls and bare floorboards – this city building owned by the restaurant owner’s father has become a canvas for graffiti art and grunge decor. Neon signs, inspired by the bars of Los Angeles and New York and the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, add to the ultra-cool vibe. Furniture is rough-hewn and built from recycled materials, the staff wear cowboy-style braces and food and drinks are served in paper vessels or on wooden boards. Loud, slightly repetitive DJ-selected music bounces across the hard surfaces and big communal tables create a raunchy, dining-hall party atmosphere.