Address: 5/92 Marua Rd, Ellerslie
Phone: (09) 580 2497

What greater compliment could you pay a business than to buy it? Aaron and Christine Ballard were so impressed by this little suburban Mexican eatery established 10 years ago by Jose Carlos de la Macorra and Maria Batiz that they bought it.

They had been regular customers when they lived locally and, when they returned from a stint in Melbourne, were delighted to get back there for lunch. Christine mentioned that she would love to have a cafe like this one and the owners said they were thinking of selling. Conversations began.

Under the new ownership, the place has expanded its formerly tantalising opening times. When I first went in 2007, they were doing 14 hours a week, Thursday to Saturday lunchtimes. Towards the end of his time, Jose Carlos was troubled by RSI in the shoulder that forced him to cut back even further.

Now they're open every day except Monday, and they're doing dinner Thursday to Saturday. By all accounts, it's heaving on the weekends.


Aaron says they have worked on the principle of not fixing what ain't broke. The place has been spruced up a bit and the folkloric grotesqueries such as Day of the Dead masks aren't quite so prominent, but there are plenty of cans and bottles of beans and sauces to take home.

More important, in the kitchen, they are doing it just like Jose Carlos used to. (He evidently helped with the transition, although they had to work hard to extract recipes from a man who cooked by heart, rather than the book).

The menu (chalked on the wall above the window, which makes it easy to miss and hard to read) is refreshingly full of words that may be unfamiliar to people whose experience of Mexican food is derived from chains whose names I refuse to type. There's an enchilada here and a taco there but there's a sincronizada (Mexico's answer to the toasted sandwich); a relleno (what vegetarian epicures call a stuffed pepper) that swims in a pool of tomato sauce, and something called an Aztec pot.

We couldn't get ceviche (it's a Friday and Saturday dish only) but what we tried showcased the fresh, clean tastes that distinguished Jose Carlos' commitment to cooking without fat and salt.

The guacamole was still agreeably lumpy - the house-made corn chips left the mouth tingling with chilli. Nogadas, named for the walnut that flavours the creamy sauce, were mild poblano chillis, stuffed with beef, almonds and cashews, and baked. My soft tacos were packed with big prawns and we washed it all down with fresh lime juice (in one of the pesky jar-type things; who decided you could improve on a glass?)

It had been too long since I renewed my acquaintance with this place and reminded myself how good Mexican food can be. It's a pleasure to report it's as good as ever.

Dishes: $4-$20