With such a torrent of Mexican-inspired eateries opening in Melbourne over the past 12 months, food lovers will note two things that are true of every new trend in food. The first is that competition only serves to widen the gap between authentic eateries and their fashionable counterparts. The second is that the tide will eventually turn and come back around and only the best exponents will still be in town when it does.
With the freshly opened Acland St Cantina, chef Paul Wilson immediately suggests that he’s in no rush to strike while the iron is hot. Rather, he’s in it for the long haul. Indeed, for Wilson, the secret to a successful menu lies in connecting with the culture at the food’s core.
On a recent trip to Mexico, Wilson discovered an intriguing food story based around the role of breakfast in the Mexican family context. “What I learnt is that breakfast is a really important part of Mexican food culture,” he says. It shows in the breakfast menu at Acland St Cantina, which features dishes that delve far deeper than the standard breakfast burrito. “You see families feasting in the mornings and then feasting late at night,” he continues. “And in the day, they just graze on street food.”
On the trip, Wilson fell in love with Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ka), a small city on the southwest coast of Mexico, and much of his breakfast menu now comprises Oaxaca favourites. “Oaxaca was where we made the most food discoveries. It was very much about villages and real people, eating with their loved ones. The food on the street was geared up for people going to work, and it was all centred around the markets,” he says.
In fact, it was in Oaxaca that Wilson developed much of his drinks menu, adding the agua de horchata (a local rice water mixed with cinnamon) and the atole of mango and pineapple, a masa-based fruit drink commonly served with ice, street-side in Mexico.
While it’s sometimes hard to convince Melburnians that you can have breakfast without toast, Wilson says that the bollos at Acland St Cantina is a fine substitute. “It’s a Mexican roll that’s inspired by the French,” he says. “It’s a roll with the interior pulled out, then it’s toasted and filled with frijoles and topped with avocado leaf and queso fresco, which is a deliciously salty cows milk cheese,” he says.
Along with traditional favourites like breakfast burritos, tacos and quesadillas, Wilson adds some more obscure recipes that he discovered while eating in Oaxaca, of which the huevos Oaxaca is his personal favourite.
“There are a lot of ducks in Oaxaca and they make all of their egg dishes with duck eggs,” he says. “They layer tortillas, fried eggs and a spicy tomato sauce, then you add spicy chorizo or bacon and finish it with avocado.
“But I had to make ours a bit smaller, because the portions are massive in Mexico,” he laughs.