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DONALD Trump might be a little uncomfortable with Mexicans around him but the Singapore food scene would surely welcome them given how Mexican restaurants are proliferating here even without natives helming them. Joining long-time establishments such as Margarita's, La Salsa, or Cafe Iguana over the last year is a wave of at least six new casual Mexican restaurants, both authentic, such as dive bar Chimichanga, or fusion, such as Korean-Mexican joint Don't Tell Mama.
However, most of them do not have a native head chef working in the kitchen. In fact, Chef Luis Rodriguez - one of the few Mexican chefs in Singapore - who currently runs the kitchen at the contemporary Mexican restaurant El Mero Mero at CHIJMES, while doubling as general manager of taqueria brand Senor Taco, estimates that there are less than five in the entire country.
He reasons that this is simply because the two countries are on opposite ends of the world: "I've tried to bring some of my friends here, but out of 10 people, only one or two would even consider it. They hesitate to venture out, first of all. Flights tickets are also expensive - at least S$1,800 - and it takes three days to fly here. To go to Europe, sometimes they can find flights for as little as S$800."
Chef Rodriguez adds: "Secondly, they hesitate to come to an Asian country because of the difference in culture. To be honest, I think (Singaporeans) are more familiar with occidental things than (Mexicans) are with oriental things."
But what exactly is authentic Mexican cuisine? Even the Ambassador of Mexico in Singapore, Rogelio Granguillhome, is hard-pressed to come up with a definition, saying it is too vast and it goes beyond the usual suspects such as tacos, burritos, or spiciness.
"Mexico is a large country that spans almost two million square kilometres. Every region in the country has a unique style of cooking, with distinct tastes and flavours," he explains. "The many flavours and textures have been put together over the centuries. Like 'Mole' is a dish that is similar to curry and known to have many variations - it can be sweet, salty, and spicy, all at the same time."
Hence, having a Mexican chef in the kitchen doesn't necessarily mean you are getting a taste of the country simply because it is too broad to pinpoint.
However, using Mexican ingredients - a lot of which can be found locally - is a way to preserve the cuisine's authenticity and some restaurants are importing specific ones directly from Mexico.
Chef Rodriguez is one of the few who enjoys economies of scale when it comes to flying in his own ingredients since he supplies them to three separate outlets. The company even runs their own tortilla factory at Food Xchange @ Admiralty, where they make their own tortillas with imported Mexican flour.
For other standalone restaurants, one workaround method is to turn to fusion, so that certain ingredients can be substituted with those that can be found here.
That was what the folks behind the newly revamped FIX Cafe at Balestier are doing. By incorporating a local influence into their Mexican fare, sourcing becomes easier, and at the same time, their food is more accessible to the general public's palate.
Director of kitchens Mervyn Phan says: "Some chillies are hard to find, along with other Mexican ingredients, so we had to play around with the ingredients since it was expensive to get them flown in for ourselves. Quite a lot of the (local) flavours work well, like we use local dried chilli (kung pao) and chinchalok chilli for instance."
Similarly, Jonathan Yang of the popular three-year-old Californian-Mexican joint Muchachos at Keong Saik has an easier time sourcing for ingredients compared with traditional Mexican restaurants because his fusion style has already been tweaked when it travelled from Mexico to California.
At the same time, he notes the majority of Singaporeans may not be familiar with what Mexican food should look or taste like so certain things can be substituted.
In fact, our lack of exposure to traditional Mexican food is also the reason why some places choose to focus on the more common varieties of street food like tacos.
Joy Chan, co-owner of the two-week-old Mexican dive bar Chimichanga, says that when she was asking around before deciding on the cuisine for her eatery, most people were more open to the recognisable dishes from Mexican cuisine as opposed to the less common ones.
"People were not that receptive to trying certain things because they were not very sure what they were. So a casual, introductory Mexican menu was a safer option for us than anything else from South America," says Ms Chan. "But for all its unfamiliarity, I'm sure Mexican cuisine will be more accessible eventually. People are travelling more and more after all, so it's only a matter of time."
Playing it safe
36 Dunlop Street
Opens Mon & Tue, 11am - 11pm, Wed to Sat, 11am - midnight
Tel: 6293 3314
CILANTRO, avocado, chilli, chipotle, and lime were the ingredients that co-owner of two-week-old Chimichanga, Joy Chan, worked with to create the menu.
As first-time F&B owners - Ms Chan runs the dive bar with creative agency Insurgence - they've chosen to play safe and launch it with conventional Mexican dishes and bar bites such as jalapeno pops (S$10), chipotle wings (S$10), and patatas fritas (S$10). The tacos (S$10 for three of the same variety) and quesadillas (S$10) feature three options for fillings - carnita pork with pico de gallo (fresh salsa), spicy chicken with pico de gallo, or shrimp.
Down the road, Ms Chan hopes to expand their menu, first by offering a popular Mexican hot chocolate brand Abuelita, and eventually using Mexican cocoa in both their savoury food and desserts.
Giving it a local twist
31 Ah Hood Road
HomeTeamNS-JOM Clubhouse, #01-07
Opens Mon to Fri, 11am - 3pm, 5.30pm - 10pm, Sat, Sun & public holidays, 11am - 10pm
Tel: 6256 1484
SOMETIMES, the most prudent thing to do is to stick to what you know best, so when the Singaporean owners of FIX Cafe in Balestier wanted to revamp their eatery to serve Mexican food, they decided to mix it up with some local influences and components. Not only does that help them maintain their Halal certification, it also makes the food more accessible to locals, and the ingredients easier to find.
For instance, director of kitchens Mervyn Phan included chinchalok (fermented shrimp paste) in their tomato salsa, and local dried chillies in their enchiladas, instead of the more traditionally Mexican poblano chilli. Dishes such as the chicken fajitas include achar (S$18), while the prawn and lime fajitas are spiced up by kimchi (S$22). Even their signature dessert - the bunuelos with ice cream (S$8) is glazed in gula melaka instead of the usual sugar syrup.
Getting a facelift
320 Tanglin Road
Opens Tues to Fri, 11am - 10.30pm, Sat, Sun & public holidays, 9am - 10.30pm
Tel: 6836 5528
AFTER seven years of serving modern American cuisine at its Phoenix Park location, Spruce was recently rebranded to make way for a new Texan-Mexican concept, and is now known as Coyote. It was born out of founder Danny Pang's personal love for the cuisine after a trip to California, followed by a serendipitous meeting with their current chef Jihardi Amin, who has experience training under a native Mexican chef at a Mexican restaurant.
The menu features dishes such as chorizo y papas (S$19) - grilled chorizo with potato wedges, spicy tequila wings (S$17), a signature papaya cod fish (S$38) served with kerabu salad, frijoles (beans) quinoa, and papaya sauce, and of course, a variety of tortilla-based items such as enchiladas, quesadillas, and tacos.
When Korean meets Mexican
Don't Tell Mama
52 Tanjong Pagar Road
Opens from 5pm - midnight daily
Tel: 6221 2007
As far as unlikely marriages go, Korean kimchi and Mexican quesadillas seem like quite the odd pairing, especially since both countries are located on opposite ends of the globe. Yet somehow, a wave of Korean-Mexican fusion restaurants has managed to gain a following in both the US and Korea, and the ripple has already found its way to our local shores.
One of them comes in the form of Don't Tell Mama - named after a tongue-in-cheek reference to visiting a bar and hiding it from your parents - a Korean-Mexican fusion bistro at Tanjong Pagar by the Redz Group, which also runs the Korean fried chicken brand Chicken Up. Owner Luke Yi was born in Korea, but lived in countries such as Australia before coming to Singapore and eventually starting his F&B company. His restaurant serves straightforward casual Mexican fare with Korean components, such as a beef bulgogi salad served with fresh salsa and guacamole (S$16), and quesadillas stuffed with sauteed kimchi, mozzarella cheese, and chicken (S$14).