SYDNEY, Australia — The windows at Bar Patrón by Rockpool frame one of the world’s greatest views: the Sydney Harbour Bridge lit up in all its glory.
As I sat at the bar facing this twinkling wonder, drinking an obligatory but one-note margarita, I pondered how much money I’d be willing to spend on a proper Los Angeles street taco. In that moment, the price I settled on was $120. Give or take.
I’d been driven to this valuation by Bar Patrón’s al pastor tacos. They are better than most Australian tacos in that the tortillas are freshly made and pleasantly pliant, but are nonetheless wildly disappointing thanks to bland, dry meat and salsa that tastes of cumin and water.
“Tasteless” is a word often used hyperbolically, but it applied to many dishes at Bar Patrón.
Mexican food in Australia is an easy target for those of us who have eaten widely in Mexico or California or almost anywhere else in the Americas. Australia’s proliferation of terrible burritos — usually imbued with some kind of fruity salsa and mayonnaise or aioli — is a lesson in what can happen to a cuisine when it is taken completely out of its cultural context. The Mexican population here is relatively tiny. The types of restaurants that usually pop up to give a community a taste of home — and provide the basis for a cuisine to grow naturally in a new location — have not had the chance to develop here.
A recent boom of fast-casual burrito chains and trendy taco and tequila outfits have raised the bar considerably, bolstered by Australians’ heartfelt enthusiasm for the cuisine. But the most influential Mexican food brands in Australia have historically been Old El Paso and a restaurant chain called Taco Bill. (No, not Taco Bell, Taco Bill.)