Scary spice, unplugged

Before the modern day ubiquity of the dial-a-pizza phenomenon, young men seeking saturated fats sought out Mexican restaurants. There was no cheaper or finer way to ingest the two teenage male food groups – fat and fattier.

At the top of the Mexican food chain was nachos – a orgy of unctuousness comprising corn chips, lashings of cheese, ladles of sour cream, buckets of avocado dip and a coagulated core of something called refried beans. Aaah, those student days. A plate of nachos, a few litres of truly awful ‘sangria’ and a hundred million beers.

At evening’s end one would impress one’s girlfriend by having the decency to leave the restaurant before tossing the cookies on the footpath. Too manly to blame it on the booze, we muttered between eruptions: “I knew it. The bloody cheese was off.”

Mexican food, at least that which masquerades for it in a thousand tex-mex slop shops around the nation, is an abomination. The real thing is as refined and elegant as any of the better southern European cuisines we all go ga-ga about these days and is so far removed from that cooked in local ‘Mexican’ restaurants as to be unrecognisable.

However, one can’t get too snooty on this issue. Love it or hate it, ‘Mexican’ food in Australia has become a cheap and cheerful fixture on the national food scene, loved by many and, at some stage, eaten by all.

There's also something comforting in the knowledge that AusMex hasn't suffered the embourgeoisement which has afflicted so much of our modern cuisine in recent years. Mexican has remained fair dinkum.

This brings us to Santa Fe in Subiaco, which boasts New Mexican cuisine (another style altogether, influenced by native Indian and traditional ranch cooking, and about as Mexican as gefilte fish) but which in reality serves up the standard Aus-Mex we have come to love.

Santa Fe has seven starters including nachos at $8.50, six salads, five grills, four seafood dishes and a range of Mexican favourites based on burritos and enchiladas.

There’s a ‘kiddies menu’, a range of ‘side kicks’ (read breads, corn, refried beans)

and a mind-boggling array of cocktails and margaritas.

We began with drinks. The margaritas – there are ten versions in all – were superb. In a world where even the best bars lazily resort to using margarita mix, the use of fresh juices and good quality liquors was noticeable – and you can buy them by the jug for $20.

The buffalo wings ($8.50), which weren’t actually buffalo wings but a half-dozen crispy coated whole chicken wings, were deep fried and quite tasty. The genuine item is blisteringly salty, searingly spicy and oven roasted tender in a viscous cajun-Mex marinade which goes all gluey and black. They are unbelievably good with rum coolers and margaritas.

Curiously, Santa Fe’s version was served with a commercial Thai sweet chilli sauce – not very Mexican, but perhaps a witty play on the east-meets-west, Sino-Mex thing (a new millennial cuisine in the making perhaps?).

The guacamole ($8.50) was a delightful surprise. Fresh avocado, chopped tomato and coriander were combined in this chunky dip, served in a large bowl with good bread on the side. It was freshly made and tangy.

The chargrilled seafood brochettes ($17.50) comprised three skewers of mixed seafood – fish, prawns, scallops – which were tender enough, but had not seen a chargrill. There were no tell-tale smoky flavours or charred extremities usually associated with cooking’s version of trial by fire.

The skewers sat on a bed of ‘smoky tomato’ rice which was tender and fluffy but tasted neither of smoke or tomato, although there was a slight pink tinge to it.

My spiced beef fajitas ($17.90) was a deconsecrated, build your own version of the burrito, delivered to the table as a mountain of ingredients including perhaps the best caramelised onion jam I have eaten.

The strips of beef, which form the basis of the flour tortilla roll-up, had a vague hint of spiciness but were overcooked. The combination of beef, guacamole, sour cream and onions is a terrific idea.

Too full, we declined the puds (hot fudge sundae, sticky date pudding or hot brownie sandwich).

The staff are great – friendly, helpful and peppy. The décor is the neo-Zapata, ersatz adobe cantina motif standard in such establishments.

Santa Fe is fun, cheap and filling. Aus-Mex is alive and well in Subiaco and a significant improvement on the Mexican restaurant food of one’s youth.

It was Billy Connolly who lamented that Mexican food all tastes the same, it’s the way you wrap it that differs. At Santa Fe, there was a sameness to everything that, while the consequence of an entirely justifiable pitch to broad market appeal, is none the less lamentable.

For a cheerful, affordable and unpretentious night out, though, Santa Fe provides a terrific alternative to the local Thai or pizza joint, and with a lot more fun thrown in.

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