Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Big El's Latin American Fusion

Big El's Latin American Fusion
71 Francis Street
Northbridge, WA 6003

(08) 9328 3380

Figure 1: Bienvenidos

I'll make something clear - I'm an extremely ignorant person when it comes to many, many things. Mexican culture is on that list. So I have no idea if I'm supposed to be offended by this mural, or what Mexicans might think of it. But I dig it. Not only is she ridiculously sexy, but when you're actually standing in front of the wall itself, the painting is so vivid that she almost seems alive. 

Welcome to Big El's Latin American Fusion. 

Figure 2: "Last U-Turn Before Entering Mexico"

Some preliminary questions to settle:

Q: Why is it called "Big El's"?
A: "El" as in "L" for Logam, the restaurant owner (the guy in the black shirt standing up).

Q: What is "Latin American Fusion"? 
A: Food based on cuisines from South and Central America, with a twist. You'll see in a minute. 

Q: What's with the milk crates on the ceiling? 
A: Colours on the Mexican flag. Plus, they're funky. 

Figure 3: Choices, choices

The menu at Big El's is bold, inventive, and a bit cheeky - you'll see your Mexican favourites like nachos and quesadillas, but also some items you would have never seen before such as Achiote Carnitas Banh Mi Thit (a fresh Vietnamese sandwich filled with Mexican-style pulled pork), Tempura Jalapeño Poppers and Crispy Mango Cheek (battered and deep fried, served with caramalised coconut and ice cream). 

As I ate here on a Tuesday night, Logam had enough time to chat with me and Daniel (my fellow food blogger at about how he came up with his dishes. All of the stories were pretty much the same: come up with crazy idea, trip to the grocery store, discussion with a mystical chilli man, experiment, put it on the menu the next day. Alternatively: Peruvian/Columbian/Brazilian/Mexican customer eats at restaurant, tells Logam that he absolutely must put item X on menu, item X is on the menu the next day.

Figure 4: The Genie 

First up: a little cocktail called The Genie ($17) - Green Fairy sour with lychee and twin Alizé, served in a sipper glass. A unique cocktail, with a light, clean taste, not too sweet. I only realised when writing this blog post that Green Fairy is Absinthe - but it definitely does not taste like the putrid green shots that I used to do back in my fresher year.

The Genie is just one of the quirky cocktails available at Big El's. Next time I might try the Captain Jack Sparrow or the Justin Bieber, described as fruity, girly and incredibly overrated. Contains Gin, Patron Citronge, Blue Curacao, Parfait Amour and terrible music

Figure 5: Cocktail tail 

Figure 6: Nacho bowl 

Note: The photos in my blog post are tasting sizes only, please note that actual servings at the restaurant are larger than pictured. 

We then rounded on a Nacho Bowl ($15) which was tri-colour tortilla chips served with siete chilli con carne, topped with Jack cheese, and your choice of potato's companion or chipotle mayonnaise. All ingredients, including the tortilla chips are made in-house, which does wonderful things for this dish's flavour and texture. None of that gross, gritty, corn-starchy taste in your mouth from store-bought tortilla chips. A satisfying, crunchy, cheesy, creamy feed. 

Figure 7: Kelly's Rack ($17)

Next up, chipotle glazed baby back pork ribs served with chipotle mayonnaise. Again with the ignorance thing - I've never really known what chipotle actually is... that bright orange sauce at Subway? Turns out chipotle is the name for a type of smoke-dried jalapeño, which is the base ingredient for a dark red chilli sauce, chipotle. This chilli sauce can be combined with mayonnaise, to make orange-coloured chipotle mayo. 

The result of glazing these ribs with chipotle was rich, smoky flavours with a mild spiciness (chipotle is around 3,500 on the Scoville scale). The meat isn't fall-off-the-bone tender, but damn satisfying to sink your teeth into all the same. 

Figure 8: Patron Tequila Prawns ($18)

These were one of my faves - pan fried prawns doused in lemon juice and simmered in Patron Tequila, with a side of crispy tostaditas. They were so fresh, the flesh burst in your mouth like fruit. Logam orders them fresh from Kailis Bros in Fremantle, so no wonder they're so delightfully juicy. The tequila and lemon really lifts the dish and adds to its lightness. I could have eaten 10 of these. Make sure you try them. 

Figure 9: Expecto Patronum ($16)

"Parents died while protecting you from a noseless marauding wizard? Are evil spirits giving you a hard time? Is your best friend a ginger? Well then, this is for you! Cast away all the bad things in your life. A vodka fire engine floated with vanilla ice cream, blue curacao and pop rocks." 

We had our Expecto Patronum cocktails about half way through the meal - but I wish I'd saved mine for the very end, or at least for another occasion when I wasn't having a 9-course Mexican degustation. It's packed with so much vanilla ice cream that it erupts rainbow-coloured foam, and a small asteroid of pop rocks on top makes your mouth crackle like a candy wrapper. 

Figure 10: Elotes callajeros ($12)

Amongst Big El's regulars, this dish is known as "Dat Corn", and for good reason. The description, "Mexican street corn dusted with Big El's special spice mix" doesn't quite encapsulate the creamy, smoky, cheesy, spicy, salty and sweetly delectable cobs of barbecued delight that are served. The consistency of the corn is nothing like what you'd expect - so tender, the corn just gives way to your teeth. Definitely do a squeeze of lime on them to balance the flavours out. These are a must try. 

Figure 11: Delicioso 

Figure 12: Crispy chicken tacos 

Every Mexican restaurant must have these on the menu - at Big El's, you can choose from Coastal Baja Fish Tacos, Crispy Chicken Tacos, Mexican Pulled Beef and Achiote Carnitas (pulled pork) Tacos. You can grab 2 for $13 or 3 for $18, and mix and match if you like too. 

Figure 12: Peruvian Style Ceviche ($19 for standard serving)

The ceviche was a really nice refresher to contrast with the other heavier dishes we'd been having - sashimi grade white fish pickled in citrus, herbs and chilli served with avocado, red onion and a side of crispy tostaditas. 

At the same time, we were served a sampler of Peruvian Style Tiradito ($19, in the background) which was also a medley of raw fish but with served with a sauce made from aji chillies that gives it the yellow colour. The word tiradito comes from the Spanish word tiras which means "shreds", referring to how the fish is cut. Tiradito is different to ceviche as it doesn't contain onions, and it is usually thinner and lighter than ceviche. I liked both of these, but probably preferred the ceviche - the red onion does provide a nice foil to the raw fish. 

Figure 13: Coxinha 

One of the perks of being a food blogger is being able to get my hands on things that aren't on the menu. For this meal, I got to sample the soon-to-be-released Brazilian coxinha, served with a thick stripe of chilli con queso sauce. When I was backpacking in Brazil, I developed an irrepressible addiction to these deep-fried clouds of chickeney delight, never failing to pick up one (or eight) coxinhas every time I walked past a food stall. I am absolutely thrilled that Big El's will start serving these soon. 

Basically, they're balls of spiced chicken mince (or shredded chicken), crumbed and deep fried. They're pointy at the top, made to look like a chicken leg. Big El's puts a little dollop of cheese mix inside, so that when you bite into it, you get a bit of creamy, stringy cheese too. 

Figure 14: Star dish

We saved the best 'til last - our final dish was the Peruvian Lamb Cutlets ($21 for 4) cooked in lime, garlic and herbs. I don't often use the word "succulent" to describe food, but I will here - the chimmichurri and tomato salsa smothered on top means the lamb is bursting with flavour and dripping with juices, and the meat is ridiculously tender. I brought in Rodrigo to try them a few weeks ago (he's a manager at the restaurant I work at) and even he was impressed. Considering Rod is South American and works at a meat buffet restaurant, I think it's a fairly good precedent to say that these lamb cutlets are freakin' awesome. 

Figure 15: Snickers chimichanga ($10)

It was my Mexican friend Itzel who explained to me what a chimichanga is: a deep-fried burrito. I just remember laughing and thinking, God bless Mexicans. 

Usually chimichangas are savoury, but Big El's presents them as desserts, with your choice of chocolate bar wrapped up inside. Me and Daniel ordered the Snickers chimichanga, which came with a serving of ice cream, caramel popcorn and caramelised coconut, something a bit different. Think a Chinese spring roll, only a thicker, crunchier wrapping, and instead of spring roll filling, you get an explosion of half-melted chocolate paradise. 

Figure 16: Latin American flags from Mexico to Argentina 

If you're looking for authentic Mexican food the way your Mexican grandmother would make it - then I advise that you don't go to Big El's. Go to your Mexican grandmother. 

But if you want to try something new, if you want to eat good, honest food, have a bit of fun and be in a venue completely void of pretentiousness - then you should definitely check this place out. 

For me, the best thing about Big El's is knowing that Logam had no experience in the hospitality industry prior to opening this restaurant. One day I want to open my own food venue. Every time I meet someone who has successfully gone ahead and done that, despite all the odds, it inspires me a little more to believe that one day I can do it too. 

Figure 17: Thanks for having me, Big El's! 

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