El Publico - Modern Mexican Kitchen and Bar is ideally set amongst the cafe and bar strip on Beaufort Street in Highgate. Its combination of booth and table/chair seating along with its bar upfront gives this Mexican bar restaurant a nice modern and cosy feel to catch up with friends or a night out snacking whilst sampling the extensive Mexican-oriented drinks on offer. Modern Mexican food in a modern environment - check.
El Publico's menu items are set in a small typeface, and the names of the dishes are mostly in Spanish or Spanglish (Thanks to the reader who picked that up!). If you can't read the language, you'll find yourself constantly turning the menu over for the mini-dictionary to work out what each dish is. This probably creates a more authentic Mexican feel for some, but for me I would have preferred that they described each dish in English next to their names. I hope that doesn't make me uncultured.
Once you get through the foreign names, the main menu offers a selection of snacks (or dishes that are about the size of tapas dishes), a small selection of "main" size meals, and a handful of desserts. As with any restaurant that serves small dishes of food, all the dishes are designed to be shared, and can be served with a smidgen or a smothering of Sam's hot sauce served in a bottle labelled "POISON". For the uninitiated the "poison" on the bottle should come as a warning, but for the chilli lovers out there this yellow sauce is some goooood poison.
Sam's hot sauce in a jar labelled "poison" - a warning to all
To go with this (for me) new experience, the service we were greeted with and experienced throughout the meal was very friendly, and very helpful in deciphering the menu and suggesting dishes. This was very welcome considering the "foreign" to me menu.
Pork Scratchings Chilli Garlic Salt - $8
Why have crunchy French fries when you can have crunchy pork scratchings? Thin strips of pork skin were fried till they were crunchy, then seasoned with chilli garlic salt. The pork scratchings were perhaps not as crunchy as potato crisps (probably a combination of lightly chewy but mostly crunchy), but nonetheless this was a new experience for me that made a nice snack.
Lamb Mixiotes Watercress Salsa Taco - $14
Two soft shell tacos were filled with lamb that was so tender that it shredded and melted, along with chopped onion and herbs. Completing the taco was a brown savoury and slightly acidic sauce that was mild, both in flavour and in spice. No sign of grated cheese, or old el paso seasoning here.
Huarache House Green Chorizo Queso Fresco - $16
This dish, served on a board with a knife, started with a sandal shaped piece of bread that was about half a centimeter thick and had a dense and slightly coarse texture. The bread was topped with a mixture of the green chorizo in a sauce that was lighter in texture than it looked. Overall the topping was a little starchy but had a nice balance of salt and savoury flavour.
Braised chicken olives sultana kifler - $24
This main course sized dish (but still meant for sharing) was like a mini stew.
A single chicken maryland was cut into two and cooked superbly, infused with the deliciously balanced savoury, acidic and lightly sweet sauce. The sauce was no doubt enhanced by the salty olives and the sweet juicy sultanas giving it added depth of flavour. The chicken itself fell effortlessly off the bone and was unsurprisingly tender.
Completing this "main" dish were a decent amount of kifler potatoes that were firm, yet soft to bite through.
Again, the potatoes had been infused with that delicious sauce.
The waiter suggested that we had tortilla ($1 each) with this dish. The tortilla, which were a bit like small-ish round pieces of bread used to make wraps, were only mildly successful in soaking up the sauce. Personally, I didn't find it really added much to the dish and thus wasn't all that necessary.
"Tequila Slammer" Lolly - $6
With a name like "Tequila Slammer", this sweet sparked my curiosity. A single serving of this lolly came with two squares of home made marshmallows infused with tequila. The marshmallows were almost jelly-like in texture, but soft like a marshmallow. Tastewise, the marshmallows were sweet with an additional dusting of icing sugar, and lightly flavoured with tequila - but unfortunately not enough to give you a real kick.
We liked: Fresh and interesting flavours and food; an appealing modern take on Mexican food; friendly and helpful service.
We didn't like: Having to decipher the menu (but some might consider that fun); the small dish pricing (when multiplied) can be a bit pricey for a casual meal.
Other things to note: Reservations are only taken for 6+ people on a set menu for a 6:30pm or 8:30pm sitting
El Publico Modern Mexican Kitchen and Bar
511 Beaufort Street
(04) 18 187 708
Wednesday to Friday - 5pm to midnight
Saturday - 12 noon to midnight
Sunday - 12 noon to 10pm