Review: Mexican Cafe, Auckland CBD

By Peter Calder

Address: 67 Victoria St West, Auckland
Phone: (09) 373 2311
Rating: 3/5

Despite serving up rather bland fare - with plenty of hot sauces on the side- the Mexican Cafe is fun, cheap, cheerful and does a great creme caramel. Photo / Michael Craig
Despite serving up rather bland fare - with plenty of hot sauces on the side- the Mexican Cafe is fun, cheap, cheerful and does a great creme caramel. Photo / Michael Craig

They take bookings at the Mexican Cafe only for groups of eight or more - except on Valentine's Day. Isn't that soooo romantic? If you want to impress the girl, you must take her to a restaurant that stocks 80 kinds of tequila and serves flatulent black beans with pretty much everything.

I didn't take the Professor to the Mexican Cafe. She is just not that easily impressed. Instead I took a couple of buddies who are very easily impressed by the phrase "I'm paying". And as we climbed the staircase from Victoria St, lined with plaques playfully remembering past staff members, I couldn't help wondering how many millions of footfalls had polished the steps bare over the years.

The place celebrates its 30th birthday in early July, though it was around the corner in Albert St for the first couple of years. Founder Bruce Glover has been at the helm that whole time - some achievement in an industry as fickle as the restaurant business - after falling for the charms of Mexican cuisine while working as a chef in Amsterdam in the 1970s.

There's a heap of bad Mexican food in this city: the sensational Mexican Specialties in suburban Ellerslie is a stellar exception, El Camino is Kingsland always seems busy when I pass it and the two-branch Mexico chain takes what looks like a thoughtful approach to tapas-style dining, though I have yet to try it. As for the rest, you'd do just as well to buy some sort of kit at the supermarket.

The Mexican Cafe doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the also-rans because it's such a damn fun place to be. This is the kind of cheap and cheerful joint that Lonely Planet users are directed to, and it does for Mexican what the late, lamented Caravanserai up by Real Groovy used to do for Middle Eastern food.

The authentically gaudy decor - Mexican style will never be confused with Danish or Japanese - features multi-coloured ribbons and tassels dangling from the ceiling. The walls are festooned with pictures, including daybills for Mexican genre movies, fake number plates and the obligatory Frida Kahlo portrait.

It's all agreeably down-at-heel - I suspect the varnish wore off the top of the table we were seated at some years ago now - and, I have to say, it is not a Valentine's Day destination.

We got in the groove with a shared jug of margarita, slushy as it should be and decently strong without being a toxic assault on the central nervous system. We slurped as we worked our way through the menu and the complimentary corn chips and salsa and, in short order, our selection of entrees arrived - a generous glob of guacamole, a ceviche and a calamari salad.

It was here that the major theme of the evening became obvious. The guacamole was creamy but quite devoid of the kick that makes it the prince of dips. The menu said it contained onion and jalapeno but it would have taken a scientific analysis to confirm this. Likewise, the ceviche, that dish of marinated raw fish that is a coastal classic everywhere from Chile to California, lacked oomph: the coarse-fleshed fish - was it trevally? - had been dressed with lemon rather than lime juice. Again, the zing tastes like chilli and coriander were more of a whispered rumour than a confirmed fact.

The same went for two of the mains: the shredded chicken in the quesadilla was dry and unseasoned and the battered fish bites in the fish taco (the only fish option) were a bit of a joke, really.

Doubtless this blandness is part of pitching the food at the widest constituency they can and there are plenty of hot sauces on hand, including the reliable Cholula, whose makers plainly believe that a sauce should impart flavour rather than being some sort of test of biomechanical competence and virility. But Mexican food can be more tasty than this without being frighteningly piquant.

On the plus side, all the accoutrements, such as salad greens, were deliciously fresh and they do a great job of the Mexican classic dessert, the creme caramel they call a flan.

So it's middle-of-the-road Mexican, really, which is no bad thing so long as your expectations aren't higher. And a restaurant doesn't get to the ripe old age of 30 in this town without doing something right.

Verdict: Middle-of-the-road Mexican

- Herald on Sunday

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