It seems Mexican food is now back in fashion, or at least that's what I'm inclined to feel given the popularity of hot spots La Cholita and El Publico, plus the friendly take away versions like Zambreros. So it's unsurprising that another Mexican restaurant has opened up, this one with the tongue twisting name - Big El's Latin American Fusion. Let's call it Big El's for short.
Big El's is situated at the old Sake Bar, which is the old Harry's Bar and about a million other venues. It seems that this site has had some bad luck over the years. Hopefully for these guys they'll make it work.
Though I drive along this street all the time, I didn't actually know what Big El's was until it was one of the Dimmi/Urbanspoon offers that boasted a 50% discount on food. Naturally the bargain hunter inside me prompted a swift booking.
When the night of our booking rolled round, we arrived for an early dinner sitting at 6.30pm on the dot. Immediately we take notice of the decor, which is bright and warm, with great use of wood and funky paintings by a local artist that are funky and modern. You can see that they've kept some of Sake Bar's decor though, with the wooden grid windows and doors, plus the actual plates etc that the food are served on have cherry blossoms on them.
Skull water bottle
As soon as we're seated our waitress immediately brings out some water, with crystal skull heads as the bottle and absinth jars as the cups. It's a pretty cool detail and works well with the Mexican theme of the restaurant. I like that the cups they bring out have ice in them to ensure a nice chilled drink.
We place our orders after about ten minutes. The menu is quite simple, but the dishes sound pretty good. We pick the Ceviche ($18), Tortilla Chiplets with Chilli Con Queso ($6) and 5 soft tacos ($30). We're not sure if that's enough food but our waitress doesn't say otherwise so we assume we'll be okay.
The ceviche comes out almost immediately. The menu describes it as raw salmon cooked in citrus and herbs, served atop a crispy tostadita. I'm not quite sure how I felt about this. The salmon is a little chunky and clumsily cut, the citrus flavour strong with lime. There's none of the herbs promised in the menu, but there is some avocado with red onion sprinkled on top to enjoy with the fish.
I do like using the tortilla chips to scoop up the salmon, especially the big crunch that follows with each mouthful.
Soft shell tacos
With our order of 5 soft tortillas, we get to pick 2 meats, 2 salsas and 3 sauces. I let Jeremy make the call on these so he chooses Big El's crispy chicken and the Mexican slow cooked pulled beef. The salsas chosen are the Chipotle Citrus Salad and Black Bean & Cilantro Salsa. And finally for the sauces he opts for the Chipotle Mayonnaise, Jalapeno Garlic Relish and Twin Chilli roasted Paprika Sauce. So many options!
The tortillas are the proper kind, handmade with masa harina. They work really well with the fillings we've chosen though I soon cotton on to the fact that a lot of the fillings are pretty damn spicy. A little to much with some items for me to handle! Especially the chipotle citrus salsa, I end up having to avoid that one.
The pulled beef is my favourite out of the two meats. It's nice and tender, with a good level of seasoning and flavour. The best combination for my palate I work out is the beef, guacamole, black bean salsa and chipotle mayonnaise.
I love guacamole but sadly this one fails to meet the mark. I like a punchy, textured guacamole with a good kick of citrus and salt. This one was a little more mushy, with no distinct flavours shining through. Not unenjoyable to eat, but not as I would have expected for a Mexican restaurant.
Chilli con queso
The final dish that arrives on our table is my favourite for the night, the tri-coloured chiplets with chilli con queso dip. At first I think that the chips aren't three coloured, but after closer inspection I realise there's two different yellow ones and then the darker blue version. They're all extremely crisp and snap satisfyingly when I bite down.
The chilli con queso is delicious. I'm a big fan of this dip in general, with the cheesy chilli combination and this one has just the right combination of ingredients to shine. It's extremely moorish and I could have happily snacked on this all night. It does have a bit of a chilli kick, but nothing that blows my lid off (unlike the salsa previously mentioned).
When we've finished the food that's arrived Jeremy and I are still a little hungry, but we're reluctant to order more instead we're keen on getting tutti frutti for dessert. We also realise that we've finished our meals in 30 minutes from arrival to bill. We're not fast eaters at all, but I guess the speed of delivery in the orders arriving at our table left us with a reasonable amount of time to feast away.
In all I mostly enjoyed our experience at Big El's. There's definitely room for improvement - namely in the flavours and also I think their pricing needs reconsideration as their standard menu price is a little higher than what it should be. As a regular at La Cholita and El Publico, I think that Big El's plays it quite safe in their menu.
I'm not anything close to a chef or an expert when it comes to food, but nothing we ate seemed any different from what we produce at home when Jeremy and I decide to knuckle down and really cook from scratch. I think I may have had bigger expectations for our dinner than I should have.
But that said, I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the dinner at Big El's. It was relaxed, cheap (thanks to our discount) and relatively enjoyable. I guess we'll just see if they can prove the curse of their site wrong and make it work. I hope for them, that they do.