Recently I have joined a dinner club. It's like a book club but better and every six weeks we take turns introducing our little group of vegetarians and carnivores to a new restaurant. Last night, I had the pleasure of going to Casa Mexicana El Compa, a beautifully honest, if rough-round-the-edges Mexican cantina in Northbridge.
When we arrived at 6.30pm there were only a few tables taken and as we were a largish group, the lovely waitress pushed two plastic tables together and quickly rearranged the seats. We were dubious at the prospect of two people having to straddle the thick plastic legs but she assured us that if we had three tables we wouldn't be able to talk to people at the other end of the table. She was quite right, and after a mojito or two it's surprising what people are willing to do.
As the designated driver I elected to try one of the Mexican fizzy soft drinks ($6). While there were more exotic flavours (mandarin, guava, tamarind, lime) I chose pineapple, and it was like the 1980s had exploded in my mouth Pasito style. My friend ordered a Corona.
Are you sure you want a Corona ($8)?' the waitress asked delicately, in a very sexy accent. It was her polite way of suggesting that there were more interesting Mexican beers available. The final choice was Dos Esquis XXX Ambar ($8), revealed to be 'like Corona but more tasty'.
Other than the eight Mexican beers on offer ($6 to $16 for a Sol Caguama long neck) there are large number of cocktails (think Pina Colada, Margaritas and Mojitos amongst others, all $14), Mexican spirits ($12-$14) and tequila. Lots of tequila. In fact there is a wall of it ($10-$24).
One of the lovely things about the staff at El Compa, apart from their dreamy accents, is that they are not afraid to offer their opinion. If they think you should choose a different beer they will tell you. If you ask whether the fish or the prawn taco is better, they will tell you (answer: prawn).
On the down side, they can be a little distracted and sometimes service was a little patchy. But when they were there, they were lovely.
While waiting for the rest of the group to battle the car-parking trauma that is Northbridge on a Friday night, we ordered botana.
That's dips and snacks to you and me. With a choice of six at $9 each or four for $28 and a never-ending supply of corn chips, we chose the Pico de Gallo (tomato salsa: fresh cubes of tomato with a bit of a chilli kick), the guacamole (fresh, piquant avocado with lime), and the esquites (gob-smackingly sweet and tasty grilled corn kernels, thoroughly recommended).
We also ordered the tortas ahogadas, which was slow cooked pulled pork marinated in orange (carnitas) stuffed in a bread roll and 'drowned' in chilli sauce. Alas, we were told there was no pork. I could have cried as I had already set my sights on the carnitas tacos for mains.
Instead, we chose the frijoles charros, slow cooked black beans with chorizo and I am glad we did. Although I couldn't detect the chorizo it was one of the tastiest dips I had tried and I would have happily eaten it all night. Actually, I could say the same about all of the dips.
The rest of the menu is quite small. There's actually more booze options than food options. You've got to love that. But one of the most obvious (and welcome) things on the menu, was the determined absence of the melted cheese commonly slopped on top of fast-food Mexican. Here, the flavours speak for themselves.
Sopes ($10-$12) two corn tortillas with madre (beans, lettuces, sour cream, cheese and onion) which you can also have made with chorizo (sausage), tinga (slow cooked chicken with chipotle) or beef.
Quesadillas ($12-$14) two flour tortillas folded over toppings with melted cheese, with a choice of rajas (Mexican capsicum), nopales (cactus), chorizo or tinga.
Tacos ($7 each) which come with a range of fillings including those mentioned (carnitas, tinga, nopales, chorizo, beef) as well as pescado (fish), camaron (prawns) and a vegetarian option with potato, rajas, spinach and onion.
Are you looking back and forward trying to figure out what everything is? Nopales? Rajas?
This was probably the most difficult aspect of the meal: ordering. Not only the incredible choice where everything sounds delicious (or intriguing) and you want to try everything (at least once, anyway). But pronunciation of some of the items, when faced with genuine South American accented wait staff can be a little intimidating.
I gave it a red-hot Aussie go and massacred it, so much so that I ended up with a dessert instead of a drink. No worries, I like dessert.
There are three dessert options. At least I think there are three.
Under the heading 'postres' (desserts $10) there were three alternatives: a rice pudding (which I ended up with by mistake), crepes and one called pastel (lime, coriander and chilli). Hmmm. I think next time I will try this coriander and chilli dessert. It definitely falls under the intriguing category.
Suddenly we were informed by the kitchen that they did have the pulled pork after all. It was a curious development considering it would have needed to cook for hours, but I was happy it was back on the menu.
The food is really tasty, fresh and full of flavour. All of it. The least impressive on the night was the special, a Mexican 'lasagne' of layered corn chips, chicken and tomato ($12). It was yummy but not as interesting as the other options on offer.
I ordered two tacos: the prawns which were flambéed in tequila and served with orange and coriander, delicious, and the carnitas (pulled pork marinated in orange). The pork was soft and tasty and dotted with tiny diced apple, although I did have a large chunk of fat in my serve.
If you are a big eater, I would recommend at least three tacos or a serve of quesadillas or sopes and a taco. I could easily have eaten three or four tacos but then again, I am probably a bit of a glutton.
While the staff were always very friendly, there were a few mix-ups. Getting dessert when I ordered a drink. The person who ordered the special only received her meal when the rest of us had almost finished, and part of another person's meal didn't arrive at all. But when informed, the staff were genuinely friendly and apologetic.
The menu states that all the food is served mild on the heat scale. Of course, this is relative to what you consider mild. Each table is provided with three complimentary sauces to add heat if desired: a green salsa verde, a tomato borracha and an onion based habanera made with 'Mexico's hottest chilli's'. I tried two tiny pieces of the onion and lived to tell the tale, but I can image the fun that could be had after a few tequilas.
The plastic tables and chairs were a bit ordinary and the music was not the authentic Mexican tunes I expected. The pottery might not be to everyone's tastes and the Northbridge location might be off-putting to some but gee it was fun. I would definitely recommend a visit.