Pablo Galindo Vargas grew up in Mexico City, where you could measure time according to what you ate. There’d be tamales in the morning and home-style tacos guisado for lunch. At night, you’d have tacos al pastor: a shawarma-rich staple that, within each tortilla, conveyed the migration path of Lebanese communities who’d settled in Mexico.
“That’s a classic of Mexico City and my favourite,” says the chef, who currently co-owns Milpa Collective, the Sydney hospitality group behind Latin American venues such as Santa Catarina, Sonora, Taqiza and Casa Mérida.
His current role as a culinary champion for the region makes sense, given how he grew up in Mexico: great food was just a taco stand or one torta order away. “You’re just surrounded by it,” he says. And a wedding invite meant insider access to the ultimate dish: mole.
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“The mum of the bride will [typically] have a recipe that will come from the family,” he says. “A lot of them have mother moles, which pretty much is a recipe that’s been done for generations and generations.” The elaborate, ingredient-thick sauce can be kept alive by feeding it and letting it age, like you would a sourdough starter. And Galindo Vargas still has such a ‘mother mole’ in his family home.
“Every time I go to Mexico, I still have that mole madre, and that’s from my great-grandmother,” he says. The restaurateur swears that it’s more than a century old: “My mum uses it at least every two weeks. She just keeps feeding and feeding [it].”
These moles act like “the flavour of that family”, but their multi-strength potency wasn’t something he always welcomed.
“As a child, I didn’t like it as the flavour could be very overwhelming. There are a lot of ingredients – moles have 20-30 ingredients,” he says. “It’s a complex flavour, like a wine or a beer. You need to really acquire that taste. But once you have it, you love it.”
In fact, he was 20 – two years into his career as a chef – when he fully appreciated the depth and power of a good mole. And nowadays the earthy staple is a fixture at Santa Catarina, his Oaxacan restaurant and mezcal bar in the CBD. “Oaxaca is the land of moles, they have so many,” he says. “At Santa Catarina … we have eight moles on the menu, which are made from different ingredients, from different regions of Oaxaca.” And because it took him two decades to adjust to the punchiness of mole, Galindo Vargas ensures their versions are made with newcomers in mind.
Diners might ask for the Cape Grim grass-fed Scotch fillet served with ‘Abuela’s mole’ or the mother mole with roast chicken. Or the pork taco, given an extra flavour hit from Santa Catarina’s version of mole verde, which traditionally gets its colour from crushed pepitas and green chillies.
There’s no doubt that Sydney’s food scene has evolved when it comes to Mexican representation.
Today, the existence of Santa Catarina – with its hyper-specific focus on Oaxaca’s culinary terrain – seems like a natural fit in a hospitality landscape that ranges from Maiz (which offers pulque, sopes and flautas on its taco-free menu) to Rosa Cienfuegos’ tamaleria, both run by owners with Mexican roots. But when Galindo Vargas moved here in 2010, things weren’t so progressive.
“12 years ago is not a long time, but Mexican food was very different [back then],” he says. It’s questionable whether you could call it truly Mexican food, given the freewheeling dollops of not-so-traditional sour cream that got portioned out. People complained if there weren’t hard-shell tacos on offer, which made it hard for real-deal eateries – led by Mexican Australians – to present menus that reflected the food they grew up with.
“It’s been changing since then … evolving and becoming more authentic,” he says.
Galindo Vargas and business partner Liber Osorio have played a crucial role in expanding that once-limited definition of what Mexican food could be. This is, after all, a cuisine that’s been misrepresented locally by the Old El Paso kits in people’s supermarket trolleys.
The idea of a Mexican-led eatery was pretty rare back then – but Galindo Vargas experienced it during his first gig here in 2011, at Rojo Rocket, which was co-owned by Mexican-born Nigdali Reed. The venue served aguachile de camarón tacos and slow-cooked meats, like barbacoa, each night. “It was very authentic,” he says, and it stood out at a time when pubs were offering tacos with squiggled mayo on top. It was “probably one of the first attempts” to offer something true to what he’d seen in Mexico.
“We wanted to showcase different regions of Mexico. Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to go and eat Mexican tonight,’ [it could be] ‘I’m going to eat Oaxacan food tonight’, or ‘food from Merida, the Yucatán peninsula’.
And while the Mexican community is small in Australia, it’s growing: the population doubled during the last Census. You can feel that momentum in hospitality – operators with Mexican heritage (like Galindo Vargas) are gaining recognition and the fact he oversees nine Latin American venues with Osorio is proof of this. Most of their establishments draw on the flavours of Galindo Vargas’ homeland, starting with Taqiza, the small taqueria they opened in 2017. That venture initially began as a catering concept in his tiny Bondi apartment kitchen, but the idea outgrew his cramped digs, so they went looking for a commercial site: they could get by with a cosy site, just big enough for two people to sling tacos, they thought.
“We tried to complicate it, until now we have nine venues. That’s how it happened,” Galindo Vargas says.He hasn’t detoured too far from his roots, though.
“For us, it was really important to do stuff that was authentic – like food in Mexico, how it tasted,” he says.And as much as he champions his birthplace, the chef is aware that not everything translates.
“My favourites are the tamales – probably my favourite food in the whole world. I’ve tried it, I’ve put it on several menus for those 12 years and I know that tamales are not working here.”
Adjusting to local tastes isn’t exactly a concession, though, as he likes to recognise how people eat in Sydney. It’s why the governors taco with prawns at Taqiza is served with XO sauce – as a tribute to the strength of the local Asian food scene.
Even with these multicultural tweaks (see the grilled shiitake tacos with saltbush cheese at Milpa Collective’s Londres 126), he’s undoubtedly taken the hazy, generic idea of Mexican food that’s persisted in Australia and pulled it into sharp focus with the regional flavours and specialties on his restaurant menus.
At the tail-end of 2021, Milpa Collective opened three venues in three months – each drawing on a particular part of Mexico, instead of the stereotypical buffet of guacamole, ceviche and tacos that he saw everywhere.
Casa Mérida launched in October, mapped by the Yucatán and inspired by Mayan cuisine, with cochinita pibil as a menu highlight. “That’s the most representative dish of the Yucatán peninsula, of the Mayan people,” he says.
The smoky pork is typically cooked underground, but here, the chefs put the ingredients “in a pot with agave plants and banana plants to try to emulate what happens” when it’s roasted in an earth oven.
Essential to the recipe? Achiote.
“Mayans have been using it for centuries. That’s a very particular flavour, it’s like an orange that’s very sour.”
After Casa Mérida, Milpa Collective unveiled Santa Catarina, with its mole-rich tribute to Oaxaca; then in December, its team welcomed Londres 126, a cantina that looks to the co-owner’s Mexico City hometown for ideas and gets its name from the address of a famous resident, the artist Frida Kahlo. At Londres 126, you can order the chochoyotes (masa dumplings) available in Galindo Vargas’ homeland, boldly reinterpreted here with ajillo cultured butter and wild mushrooms.
“We wanted to showcase different regions of Mexico,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to go and eat Mexican tonight. I’m going to eat Oaxacan food tonight’, or ‘food from Merida, the Yucatán peninsula’. Then you’ll start to understand the differences.”
After opening three venues in quick succession (and enduring the Omicron outbreaks), surely he’s going to slow down and not open anything for a while?
He laughs. “I think we’re probably going to take it slower,” he says. Don’t expect him to start coasting, though. “We have plans still.”
His business partner is Chilean – a cuisine they want to explore – and they’re keen to expand beyond Mexican food. Brazilian, Argentinean venues are also under consideration.
“We still want to keep growing and representing Mexican and Latino American culture in Australia in the best way possible,” he says.
So Galindo Vargas isn’t quite done – yet.
Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.