129-133 Redfern St
Redfern, NSW 2016
When I found Rico’s Tacos, I thought my Mexican drought in Sydney was finally over. And whilst that was definitely the case, I apparently don’t know what quitting while ahead means. After all, if there’s one good Mexican place in Sydney, then there’s bound to be more, right?
Like most people with their ear to the ground, I have heard of Tamaleria and Mexican Deli in Dulwich Hill, which until recently, was reputed to be the only authentic Mexican restaurant in Sydney. However I’ve never managed to make it out there, so it was just as well that Rosa Cienfuegos, the matriarch responsible, decided to open Itacate in Redfern. Although it’s meant to be a restaurant-ier take than the original, dining at Itacate is still a very casual affair. You can still get your fix of South American groceries, and both décor and service are limited, though they are also bright and cheerful.
I was originally rather upset I wouldn’t get to try Rosa’s famous tamales, as they were only a breakfast menu item here. To my delight, they had actually updated their menu just a couple days ago, and now you can get them around the clock! After consulting the staff, I decided to try the Tamal Green ($9), which was a traditional steamed corn dumpling, stuffed with chicken in a green tomatillo sauce. This was pretty good stuff, the fragrant corn masa pairing well with the tangy sauce. I was a bit surprised at how dry it was though; there were points at which I couldn’t even tell if I was eating chicken or tamale. A little more moisture, and this would’ve been perfect.
It was the tacos however that I was really keen on trying (and comparing with Rico’s). At 3 tacos for $16, I decided to have one of each, minus the vegetarian option. First impressions were unfortunately not great – these looked rather stingy and sad, especially compared to the lush offerings at Rico’s. One bite confirmed that this was indeed the case; both the Pastor and Suadero were as dry as each other, and the taste difference between the marinated pork and slow-cooked brisket were minimal. The Mexican Style Chorizo were easily the best of the lot, the crumbly sausage packing more flavour and moisture than the other two combined. What I think I was most disappointed with however were the tortillas. Although they come from La Tortilleria, a well-known and high quality supplier for many Mexican restaurants around Australia, they were heated overly aggressively in this instance, and ended up like everything else was so far – dry and unappetising.
Given the above, it was a welcome surprise when the Mole ($25) turned out to be absolutely awesome. The first thing that’ll hit you is the inky darkness of the sauce, courtesy of the generous use of of cocoa and spices. The resulting sauce is bequeathed a deep, earthy smokiness, augmented with just the right amount of heat. Blanketed over an entire chicken maryland (which to my utter surprise, was actually so tender and juicy that the meat fell away from the bone) and served with rice, beans, and tortillas, this is a hearty, traditional meal unlike anything else you’ll find in Sydney.
The portions here are rather small, but that meant that there was room left for the Flan ($8). Now this is no delicate fancy-pants dessert to be eaten with a silver spoon; this is milk and sugar and cream and egg yolks baked into a slab, soaked in burnt caramel sauce, to be eaten as fast as you can so you can go back for seconds before your cousin eats it all. It has none of that delicate silkiness of your traditional flan; in fact, I would almost describe the texture as a lumpy cross between cheesecake and sponge cake. Yet despite that, I actually really enjoyed how hearty the dessert was, and it was refreshing to have a flan that you could literally gobble down, instead of having to savour it a bit at a time.
There is no doubt that Rosa knows what she’s doing when it comes to cooking the food of her homeland, and Itacate definitely has the makings of something great. However, I think the translation of that cooking to the scale of a restaurant is where things fall short. There’s obviously no way to cook everything to order from scratch, but it feels as if everything was made way in advance, and in batches too large to maintain their freshness, and the quality of the food suffered as a result. Individually, the small compromises to each dish may not seem like a big deal, but they really do add up, and the ultimate feeling is one of sloppiness. I do still want to come back to try a few other things on the menu, but I will admit to tempering my expectations this time around.
Rating: 12/20 – i can’t believe i’m saying this but, skip the tacos, get the mole.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit