I could not contain my curiosity and recently stepped into 'Cantina Mobil'. This latest addition to the every-expanding Sydney Mexican food scene, is a mere two doors down from the firmly established Mad Mex in Darlinghurst. It's also just around the bend from the ignominiously-named Zambrero's, a place whose name has as much similarity to the Spanish spoken in Mexico as does the food it serves.
But I digress.
Cantina Mobil's fit-out is catchy. Keep in mind, subtlety is not the realm QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants) operate in. Their idea of nuance is generally the swat-you-across-the-face-with-a-theme kind. They prefer to bulldoze their way into your sensibilities, like someone shouting at you to get your attention. QSRs use bold, primary colours—yellows, reds, blues, bold and bright enough so that you won't stay too long, with the music usually verging on the belligerent and the lighting evocative of a gas station. All things considered, Cantina Mobil's fit-out is therefore on the subtler side, you're meant to see the place as a stationary truck. If Petrol brands make you nostalgic, then you'll love the stools, fashioned from old gas cans to remind you of the mobility you've been missing. Otherwise it's fairly spartan, a simple menu board on the wall, some carefully chosen traffic signs, "Loading Zone" or some such thing, and assorted cacti on the large table, the little plants in the service of some allusion to the Sonoran desert, perhaps.
It was 6 PM and I was hungry-curious. There were 5 people waiting for food at the centre table. I stepped up to the counter designed to look like the side of a truck to place an order. I asked what kind of tacos were on offer. Three kinds, came the reply: Beef, "Smoky Chicken" and Pinto Bean. These were served in either a crispy or soft-shell tortilla, I was told. While I decided, the amiable lady regaled me with the story of their evolution. "We started out as a food truck roaming the streets of Sydney…"
I hadn't asked, but it was nice to know there ostensibly was a human on the other side of the counter and not an employee who has been drilled into acting like a corporate drone. Still, as I fished for a $5 fin to pay for my 'smoky chicken' taco I couldn't help but briefly contemplate the words "We started out as a food truck roaming the streets of Sydney…" It sounded somewhat self-congratulatory in an insidious, vaguely epic way; as if Cantina had weathered the vicissitudes of time immemorial, perhaps sharing some of the challenges that Gilgamesh faced. Hmmm.
I also speculated as to why the chicken was described as "smoky".
My contemplative reverie was interrupted by the guys in togas. The Committee had come out and they were yelling, No! No! No! "Cantina and a few others received their food truck license from Sydney council just a few months ago!", the bearded one exclaimed. "In other countries operating a food truck is no big deal. In Sydney, it is our version of putting a Rover on Mars", said the guy with the long hair and the stain on his toga. "…And the fact that these 10 licenses were granted on the vote of a 'food expert", added the last one.
Whew! When I start hearing voices in my head, it usually means I need a drink. Tequila often takes care of that. Unfortunately, none was in evidence. Neither was beer. Damn. There goes the Cantina name. In Mexico a Cantina serves beer at the very least (food, optional.) However, what this ersatz Cantina did offer that day for beverages was Mexican soft drinks. If you've never tasted a Mexican pop drink, think of the top-selling soft drink brands in the world…now add about twice the sugar content.
"…And now we have this location and a headquarters…" continued the amiable gal behind the cash register.
Right. Back to the here and now, as Eckhart Tolle says. Meanwhile, I had been entertaining myself watching the guy (yes, 1 guy) assembling the food for everyone there, one person at a time. Group of 5 waiting for their burritos.
"Usually when we finish at 3:00 AM we are SO exhausted!" added my new friend as she handed me the change. I began to worry, but there wasn't more. Having delivered her branding urban myth, she went about her business.
I glanced to the left, where the one-man cooking machine was assembling burritos. He wasn't exactly cooking though, as there was no cooking equipment in evidence. The magic presumably happens in the back.
I decided to take a seat. This gave me an opportunity to further immerse myself in the proletariat ambience of the place. Surprisingly good music, otherwise, strictly utilitarian. Nothing much on the walls besides signs pertaining to traffic and the menu… I watched, but tried not to stare as the group of five received their burritos one at a time. There was no one else in the place. After a few minutes, I heard my name called out. I stepped up to the window and The Guy handed me my takeaway taco on a yellow napkin. A napkin. (!) Paper plates would presumably hamper mobility.
How was the taco?
Flavoursome in a nondescript sort of way. It tasted a bit like chili-con-carne out of a can, in that meaty but ambiguous, slightly sweet/slightly spicy, 'mystery meat' kind of way.
While the meat was shredded, whether it was Chicken or something else, well that seemed debatable. The inescapable reality for me was that the dish contained no discernible Achiote flavours, the main flavouring listed on the menu. As it happens, there was an Achiote tree that grew right next to my grandmother's house, back in the island known as the "Pearl of the Caribbean". As a kid, I often saw her grinding the little red seeds with which to colour and flavour foods. I think of it as "Poor Man's Saffron".
The money shot: Soft taco meant flour tortilla—not even warmed. Flour tortilla. Let me say it again: Flour Tortilla! The fact is, you could travel the width and length of Mexico and you will not find tacos made with flour tortillas (nor will you find mincemeat used at taquerias). And these were not only flour tortillas but they were straight out of a plastic bag, doughy textured, still somewhat cold, flour tortillas. Had they at the very least been good quality, well maybe… But the inexorable point is that a taco in Mexico—and in the US, for that matter— is served on a corn tortilla. CORN, not flour. Fresh Corn tortillas are available and sold commercially (and online) here, in Sydney. Why these folks choose to use flour makes me shake my head.
As I chewed… no, actually—as I masticated (funny thing about chewing something you're not crazy about; you become acutely aware of the mastication process, every compression of the jaw thus becomes a conscious effort. A different form of being in the moment…) Well as I masticated I couldn't help but conclude the taco wasn't awful, but it certainly wasn't MEXICAN. More along the lines of "Mexican-like"… "Mexican-ish".
The bottled salsas by the pick-up window did not encourage confidence in the culinary prowess or ambition of the enterprise. No self-respecting Mexican eatery would serve only bottled condiments but they seem part of the trend here. Someone decided serving bottled salsas is hipper, so why bother with the real thing. In Mexico, you'll find bottled salsas, yes, but even the humblest Comedor makes their own salsas. For authenticity in this place, the closest thing customers could get was to wash down their food with Mexican soft drinks.
On the next visit there were a few more folks in attendance. This time I dragged along my pal and former neighbour in Mexico. I ordered a beef taco, he, a bean burrito. We were informed there was no BYO. Some story about wanting to remain open until 2 AM ensued. When they called my name for the taco (Chipotle Beef, allegedly) and the burrito I was surprised that this time they served the taco in a paper boat. The burrito was simply handed to us, wrapped in aluminum foil with what I can only think was intended as a stylish tail.
The Bad News: my "Chipotle beef" taco was utterly bereft of any actual Chipotle flavour. Mind you, the word Chipotle is the modern corruption of Chil-pocle, which is a Náhuatl (Aztec) word for smoked chillies—Chil (chilli) poctli (smoke). The chillies in question were and continue to be Jalapeño, which are ripened and smoked. (The Jalapeño's thick skin prevents it from drying in the sun the way other chillies do: it tends to build condensation and rot from the inside out—instead of drying. The Aztecs thus smoke-dried it, giving the chilli its most salient characteristic—SMOKE—aside from its natural heat.
So back to the beef taco, where there was no smoke and absolutely nothing to get fired up about. The components were meat—of questionable quality, cooked for who knows how long, and under what circumstances; a nice row of previously frozen or canned corn, and shredded lettuce on the other side of the beef. As a garnish, there was a squeeze-bottle pattern of Cantina Mobil's so-called "Chlli con Queso"—a product of a fertile imagination no doubt, with bad syntax presumably appropriated from the Chili con Carne canned product—but one you're not apt to find at a taqueria in Mexico.
The burrito was simply not worth writing about. Beans, lettuce, some kind of slightly sweet/spicy sauce along perhaps with the ubiquitous yellow squeezable "Mexican cheese" product. Their 'Chili Corn' has nothing to do with the grilled [white] corn cobs found on the streets of Mexico, save for the fact that kernels are involved.
It's one thing to appropriate the bird stamp that the Mexican Government uses for all products made in Mexico, but it's a bit of a pretentious travesty to serve food that is so far removed from the actual reality of Mexican street fare, that something so far from the truth is called "Mexican Street Food". Or as my Aussie mate who lived 15 years in Mexico (nearly twice as long as I) lamented, "Why is it that something so natural to the streets of Mexico (and so essentially simple to prepare) is so easily destroyed in the translation?"
He didn't say it loudly. Had he done so, the room might have gone silent and everyone gone home.