LIZ LOVE: Casa de Loco

Where: 10 Pacific Street, Newcastle.

Prices: small plates, $8 to $16; quesadillas, $12; tostadas, $10 to $12; empanadas, $12; soft tacos, $6; large plates (for two), $34 to $40; sides, $4 to $8; desserts, $8.

Drinks: Mainly tequila and mescal based cocktails, beers and juices with selected wines that are a good food match.

Hours: Wednesday and Thursday, 6pm to 11pm; Friday, 6pm-midnight; Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, noon to 10pm.

Vegetarian: six small, one large, seven sides.

Bookings: 49263865.

Bottom line: Shared small plates, shared large plate, desserts for two without drinks, about $80.

Wheelchair access: Limited.

I have a confession. I am not a big fan of Tex Mex cooking – too much cheese, not enough finesse. So when an authentic Mexican place opens in town I am excited. Part-restaurant, part-happening bar, the best position if you want a conversation is upstairs, on the balcony. But if you like some hot music with your hot food then you won’t go past the high-rise tables and stools downstairs.

It’s the place to be at the moment and the service can be harassed. Our booked 8.30pm table wasn’t ready until after 9pm so we had plenty of time to check out the cocktails. ‘‘Casa de Loco piña colada with muddled pineapple and lime, finished with warm, chipotle-infused, white chocolate coconut foam’’ could easily take the edge off your appetite, but lime, ginger and soda ‘‘Dead of the Night’’ is refreshing.

By the time the first dishes arrive the appetite is back, and to be fair the rest of the meal arrived at a manageable pace.

There is a good selection of small plates, quesadillas, tostadas, empanadas and soft tacos and several blackboard specials and shared large plates to help the undecided. Just ask the waiter if some terms need translation.

Ceviche, or raw king fish marinated in lime juice with green chilli, white onion, avocado and coriander, bursts with flavour. The lime juice ‘‘cooks’’ the delicate cubes of fish; the avocado provides a cool counterpoint to the chilli and onion.

Chiles rellenos from the specials board is the must-have dish of the night. The cheese-stuffed jalapeno chillies are lightly battered then deep-fried to golden crispness. Warm tortillas in a cute embroidered towelling pouch help wipe up every drop of the spicy tomato sauce.

With a few starters and small plates out of the way two shared plates are more than adequate for our group of four.

Chipotle (smoked, dried ripe jalapeno) is used to marinate the scotch fillet and imparts a smoky blackened surface to the juicy meat, which is then sliced and served on a bed of finely sliced roasted capsicum, onion and chilli, with black beans, fried potatoes and rice on the side.

A plethora of springy prawns, calamari and fish cooked in a tomato, garlic and caramelised onion sauce comes with a good dose of guacamole, fresh-tasting pineapple salsa and rice. Nothing wrong with that.

There is a small list of desserts but we have eaten well. I know it’s different in Mexico, but I can’t shake my image of churros as Spanish breakfast food, served dipped in hot chocolate, so we opt to share a generous serve of spongy three-milk cake with its veil of milk ice-cream and garnish of sweet strawberries.

The upstairs dining room is deserted and the kitchen closed by the time we leave at around 10.30pm but downstairs it’s still hopping. I guess the hot music, cocktails, Mexican beer and house-made juices and soft drinks are not going to run out any time soon.

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