La Chinesca Melbourne has a unique concept. It’s food is Chinese and Mexican. Not Chinese Mexican fusion, as co owners Robert Hargrave, Vincent Fantauzzo and Andrew Lewis stress, but rather food that’s inspired by that found in Mexicali’s Chinatown, La Chinesca. Much in the same way that there’s Australian Chinese food that contains dishes that aren’t authentic but can still taste great, this is the food that Chinese immigrants to Mexico created when they arrived in Mexico.
Often food writers talk down dishes that aren’t “authentic” but, at the end of the day authenticity is not something that concerns me (unless a venue is claiming to be authentic and isn’t). What matters to me is ultimately one simple thing – does the food taste good? I’m therefore happy to try anything once – if a mixture of flavours in a way I’ve not tried before delivers some tasty dishes, then I’m all for it.
I didn’t have my camera on my as I didn’t plan on doing a review when I visited La Chinesa so you’ll have to excuse the poor quality photos. It was a Friday night after work with my wife, a last minute decision to have dinner in the city, and open minded curiosity that led us La Chinesca. I had been to Strange Wolf (the venue’s previous occupant) on several occasions and was interested in checking out Harley House’s newest occupant.
The space is recognisable from it’s Strange Wolf days, with concrete floors and pillars, exposed brick walls and an exposed piping and tubes on the roof. There are a mixture of booths, tables, couches and standing room. The space feels a lot more open than it used to and it really suits the basement laneway location. Artwork from co-owner and Archibald prize winner, portrait artist Vincent Fantauzzo can be found dotted all over the place and it’s very good stuff, which fits the vibe of the venue very well.
The lights are turned down low – really low, hence why I had to use my phone camera’s flash. The lighting works well in context though, and adds to the whole underground feel of La Chinesca.
The owners stress that La Chinesca is a bar, not an eatery however when you walk in it doesn’t feel like a bar. Yes there is a bar with an extensive drinks menu, including a decent range of beer, wine and some very impressive cocktails however the food menu and people’s curiosity about the Chinese Mexican food is what will entice people to visit in my opinion. La Chinesca might not be advertised as an eatery, but in the context of 2014 openings in Melbourne, that’s exactly what it is.
My wife and I were seated promptly when we walked in an ordered a cocktail each. My descriptions of the dishes aren’t as detailed as most of my reviews as there isn’t a menu online. I spent some time searching high and low for one and eventually found my answer on the La Chinesca Facebook page where somebody recently asked if there was a menu online and the answer provided was “No… You have to see and eat!! You will be WOWD”. Make of that what you will. Luckily I kept my receipt.
The one page food menu is a focused affair, with a range of main dishes, small dishes, steamed buns and dumplings. My wife and I ordered a selection from all of the parts of the menu.
We started with cocktails. My wife ordered a Mexicali Margarita and I ordered a La Pinacha ($18.00 each). The cocktail list is one of the highlights of La Chinesca. A combination of Mexican and Chinese ingredients that, in the case of the 2 cocktails that we had, worked really well together. I’d like to write more about what was in each drink but without a menu to reference I have nothing to jog my memory. It took a while for our drinks to arrive, which was surprising given there were 4 people behind the bar and the place was busy, but not overly so.
The first dish that came out was the Numbing Beef ($15.00). Pieces of crispy coated beef on rice with sauce and some garnishes on top. The beef itself was one of the best things we ate all night. It was tender, tasty and the crispy coating contrasted nicely with the beef. Unfortunately the sauce was extremely salty, so much so that it overpowered all of the other flavours with each mouthful we had. The words “numbing” and “Sichuan” had my wife and I expecting a powerful chilli hit after our tastebuds has been suitably numbed however numbed they were not and the spice levels were very tame. The pickled ginger on the side was very nice and got the balance between sweet, salt and tang just right.
Next, our steamed buns (mantou) ($9.00 each) arrived. We ordered one of each of the offerings and they came out one by one. First was the Duck Bun. Again, the word “Sichuan” was used yet there was no spice to speak of in here. The bun was very starchy and the filling was minimal. The duck was supposed to be crispy but there wasn’t and crispness to it at all. The flavour was quite bland and we couldn’t tell what this dish was trying to say to us.
Second came the Daikon Bun. This was better than the Duck Bun. There was a lot more filling, which meant that it didn’t feel so starchy and the flavours worked well together.
Third came the Asado Bun. Unfortunately this also failed to hit the mark. Asado short ribs with chipotle hot sauce, coriander and jalapenos where what was happening here and again the filling was minimal and the flavours just didn’t come through that well.
Our Pork Bun never arrived and the next dish that came out were the Mexican Meatballs ($12.00). Compared to the other food we hard ordered, which was very much on the Chinese side of things, the meatballs were more on the Mexican side of the equation. They were ok and in contrast to what had come out earlier, the flavours stood out and were identifiable.
At this stage of the night, my wife and I asked if we could cancel the 2 remaining items on our order and get the bill. The waiter went and checked and we were advised that the food was already being cooked. Not a problem, as it was quite late into the meal when we made the request.
After quite a long wait, especially so considering that we were told earlier that the food was already being cooked, the dumplings arrived. Unfortunately our apprehension about the dumplings was well founded. Despite ordering scallop dumplings, we were served prawn dumpling and although the flavour was nice, they were over-steamed which meant that the skin was very soft, like overcooked pasta.
After waiting for a while yet again, we asked if we could get the bill. The bill came out and the Pork Bun was on there. We let the waiter know that the Pork Bun had never arrived and after being told that “everything comes out in order” we were asked if we would like to wait for it. We politely declined and the waiter went and checked to see what was going on and after some discussions near the kitchen we received a new bill with the item removed.
I went La Chinesca with an open mind, and quite excited by what the food could be like if the team managed to pull it off. Unfortunately pull it off they did not. Writing this review was a difficult one. Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis will know that I generally write about places that I like, and therefore my reviews are generally positive. With La Chinesca however, I felt like I would be doing my readers a disservice by not writing about my experience.
I must compliment the staff at La Chinesca. Venue manager David Mills, co-owner of the excellent Carlton North restaurant Piqueos puts his touch on this side of things and my wife and I both felt that that staff were really doing their best with what they had to work with. The space does not at all suit conversation. The exposed walls and roof and concrete makes for a very loud venue. There were times during the night that I had to put my ear almost right next to my wife’s mouth to hear what she was saying and again. I’d hate to be taking drinks and food orders and trying to understand what customers were saying in such a loud environment.
The food was mostly disappointing and at its best merely ok. Head chef Daniel Salcedo has some solid experience behind him, with stints at Rockpool and Piqueos and there’s no doubt that he knows how to cook which was what made things even more disappointing. I like the space, the drinks are great and with a late night license La Chinesca has potential to be a great option for a late night drink and snack. Personally, I’d be rethinking the menu. Get rid of the main dishes, focus on small bites, get flavours right and advertise as a bar that has some great snacks. Mix things up a bit more, go for some more “out there” fusion combinations – be bold and create some wacky dishes that taste great. The bar side of things works well, and I hope going forward that they can get the food side right too.
At the moment, La Chinesca feels like its wandering through the Mexican desert without a map or a compass, and I hope that it finds its way home before the figurative water runs out.
Harley House Basement (Entry via Strachan Lane)
71 Collins Street
Tue – Sat: 5:00pm to 3:00am