Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Las Señoritas at Mamasita

Address: Level 1/11 Collins Street Melbourne, Victoria, 3000

Phone: (03) 9650 3821

Opening Hours:
Monday to Wednesday, 12pm until 12am
Thursday, 12pm until 12.30am
Friday, 12pm until 2am
Saturday, 5pm until 2am
Closed Sunday and public holidays

"If you're deaf and have lost the art of conversation you might like Mamasita," or at least that's what food critic Stephen Downes wrote for taste.com.au. Extremely harsh, don't you think? I disagree with Downes, and while I do believe Mamasita is slightly overrated, you would be crazy not to see the method in this Mexican madness.

Mamasita is located at the top end of Collins Street, where The Recorded Music Salon was once found. However before you see the  'Mamasita' sign, your field of vision will undoubtedly be blotted by the queue, which snakes out the front door and down the street. My dining companions will assure me that this particular post is long overdue, but I am simply sticking to a theme; it's lateness is  directly in proportion to the amount of time we had to wait in order to to be seated at Mamasita. The line outside this Mexican marvel, which has been the subject of excitement since it opened early last year, has not shrunk in the slightest. We arrived at around 5.50pm.

As the eager eaters flooded through the doorway and up the stairs, the front of house lady greeted us matter-of-factly, "Well done on getting here so early, there will only be a 45 minute wait. Please leave me with your number and we will call you when your table is ready. If you miss our call, we will call again once. If you miss this call, we will give your table to the next people in line." She was not so much rude as she was coldly efficient. A place this popular must take such precautions to ensure smooth operation and fairness to all.

The key is to arrive at Mamasita expecting a wait. This way you can plan your evening and not be disappointed. We went around the corner to Madame Brussels for a cocktail (or three) and exactly 45 minutes later, the phone rang. We made our way back and ascended the stairway to mayhem. The place was so full there was barely a moment to take in the layout. At the top of the stairs, there is a bar to the right and some larger wooden tables to the left. Beyond them is the kitchen, and behind are more tables. People sit on wooden stools with black cushions, which complement the windowsills and decor.

Like everyone else, we were sardined into our seats. We competed for conversation as we rubbed elbows with strangers and unavoidably overheard the minutiae of their lives. The Mamasita mascot, (Mamasita translates roughly to 'sexy woman') poses frozen in black and white, her stillness mocking those who are left helpless in the hysteria surrounding this buzzing institution.

The almost manic, noisy atmosphere is certainly the reason behind why Mamasita receives mixed reviews. It is not meant to be a quiet, sit down dinner restaurant but it is meant to be an authentic experience of Mexican food, without the hygiene issues. Nevertheless, the scrumptious food more than compensated for the overwhelming ambiance.

We browsed our menus and attempted to translate the Spanish to something we thought we understood, all the while becoming distracted by the map of the train system in Mexico on the reverse side. As we 'oooh-ed' and 'ahhh-ed' at the food, we were also provided with a drinks menu. Being a bar as well as a restaurant, there is an extensive range of tequilas as well as Spanish beers, micheladas, margaritas and a comprehensive wine list. Although beverages are rather pricey, people in the food industry tend to clock off after work and make the most of late-night dining at Mamasita, indulging in a drink to help to wash down items from the 'Taqueria menu.'

As for the food, it is worth noting that everything on the menu is gluten free (the Mexican staple is corn) and it comes out as soon as it's ready. With rumbling stomachs, the ordering was soon delegated to the person who had visited previously. She began every sentence with, "Oh you just have to try..." and then proceeded to over-order, much to our delight. 

We didn't need tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole, but we sure as hell got them anyway. Although they certainly had a fresh quality about them compared to the usual Mexican chain restaurant fare, it was the traditional tang of the spicy salsa that really hit the spot. The guacamole helped to cool the tongue after the salsa, and we switched back and forth between the two until it was all finished.

Perhaps the highlight of the meal arrived prematurely. But unlike those risque billboards about performance, the street-style elotes were one of the tastiest starters I have encountered to date. The charred corncob on a stick is brushed with chipotle mayonnaise and covered in a fine but generous sprinkle of queso fresco, a creamy cow's milk cheese. Topped off with a squeeze of lime, every bite releases a strong burst of flavour. Make sure you have a napkin ready; this one can get pretty messy. If nothing else, you are guaranteed to get corn stuck in your teeth.

Next came a wooden board with four tostaditas de maiz in a line. These warm, fried tortilla disks were topped with sweet corn, black beans, epazote (a Mexican herb that is actually poisonous in large quantities), jalapeno salsa and queso fresco cheese. Unfortunately they disappeared in just over a bite each, but that left plenty of room for what was to come.

I wasn't really sure what to expect when we ordered Tacos de Pescado, or fish tacos. After biting into the handmade corn tortilla, I was pleasantly surprised. Following the initial zest of the lime, the grilled fish was melt-in-the-mouth tender and packed full of flavour, owing to the achiote (annatto seed) paste and bright red onion salsa. The dish was light and a moreish alternative to the meatier versions.


To accompany the fish taco, we ordered quesadillas de queso, a vegetarian option consisting of two soft tortillas stuffed with two cheeses and jalapeño salsa. It was lightly fried so the quesadilla had a lovely crisp quality, a nice contrast next to the smooth, melted cheese.

To follow was the enchilada y mole verde. Aware that 'verde' meant green, I was chuffed to find the goat's cheese and spinach stuffed tortillas were drenched in a heavy, green sauce, or 'mole.' Topped with orange flower petals, it was as rich on the tastebuds as it was on the eyes. The most exciting part of this dish was cutting into the soft tortilla, which released the oozing, smooth goat's cheese, accompanied by a well-balanced amount of spinach. 

For a palate cleanser, we ordered the ensalada de nopales. This bright cactus salad came with red peppers, green beans, queso fresco and lime. The cactus was quite soft and reminded me of something that, unfortunately, came from a can. It was an interesting taste nonetheless and the crunchy beans balanced the textures of this otherwise fresh salad.

Finally, we had come to the end of the savoury segment of our sybaritic soiree. Although everyone raves about the hearty, old-style Mexican fare at Mamasita, I was most impressed with the exquisite desserts. Perhaps not surprisingly, we ordered all but one on the menu. 

They came out together, and my jaw dropped, only to close again once I had shovelled in the sweets. In a black bowl sat two perfect spheres of decadent chocolate and cinnamon sorbet. The cinnamon cut through the rich chocolate while the smoothness of the dish was spiked by spicy, chilli-infused praline toffee that adorned each globe.

We also savoured flan de menta con caramelo. It resembled a perfect creme caramel, but after the smooth vanilla aroma hits the nose, it is quickly replaced with the sharp tang of fresh mint. It's enough to make you salivate just looking at it!

Last, but certainly not least, we enjoyed quinoa blanco y negro. The title pays homage to the colour scheme of the dish. The black and white quinoa base provided a sweet background to the fresh figs buried within the warm pudding-like dessert. The candied pecan nuts and stewed figs added an interesting mix of textures. 

The service was admirable considering just how busy the restaurant was. Althought there was no time for warmth, the waitstaff were attentive and efficient, ensuring the food was ordered and brought to the table as quickly as possible. This is especially important after patrons wait such a long time to dine in.

I enjoyed this meal immensely, despite the hectic atmosphere. However as mentioned, you don't come to Mamasita unless it is for the incredible food, which is fresh, full of flavour, and justifies all the fuss. While I am usually the first to complain about ridiculous waiting times, Mamasita is definitely worth a visit. How can you not go and eat at a place that has received this much hype? 

If you can gather together a group of eight, you can book a table; a brilliant way to avoid the tedious process involved in getting into such a popular eatery. Undoubtedly, the reason Mamasita has been packed since its doors first opened is because you truly won't find anywhere else like it in Melbourne. If you need an extra person to make up your table booking, I'll gladly tag along.

Mamasita on Urbanspoon

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