Finding decent Mexican food in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs has gotten a little bit harder in the last few years. With the closure of the iconic Azteca's in Randwick, and El Fiesta disappearing from Bondi Junction, locals have been forced to subsist on the chain offerings from Guzman Y Gomez and Mad Mex. At least until we paid a visit to EL TOPO.
Ostensibly part of The Eastern Hotel's tower of food and beverages, also including Good Harvest and GoodTime Burgers, it's really a self-contained Mexican restaurant on Level 3 of the Westfield complex, and not to be confused with the basement level El Topo event venue. Having said that, you could enter through that level of the shopping centre, or you could come up from one of the lower levels of the mall pub, via the well-hidden lift at the back. If you do so, your entrance to EL TOPO will be via a brightly coloured wall, filled with Mexican iconography surrounding an Our Lady of Guadalupe statue. It sets the tone for an irreverent and contemporary approach to some much-loved dishes.
Lots of Mexican places simply substitute meat for black beans when providing a vegetarian option, but Executive Chef Brett Barker has put some consideration into the vegetarian offerings in the Oaxacan style. Take for example the Totopos Y Pico De Gallo, a tortilla chip starter with a salsa fresco, tomato, chilli, jalapeños, and red onions. It's just one of three salsa/fresco options in that part of the menu. Things get really interesting with the shareable Quesadilla en Huitlacoche. For those not in the know, the "huitlacoche" refers to the unfortunately named 'corn smut.' (After all, corn is known for being blue on occasion). It might sound unappetizing, but the pathogenic fungus (stay with us) is actually a delicacy in Mexico, and this quesadilla elevates the standard cheese dish with a truffle mushroom, salsa verde and Oaxaca cheese (with has a texture not dissimilar to mozzarella). The result is a rich tasting dish that isn't oppressive on the innards. The large plates of Smoked Pepper Enchiladas, on the other hand, hit you with their smokey nose before they hit the table, and the bite of the goat's cheese inside serves as a nice balance to the peppers.
There's a few imported beers on the menu, including the ever-popular Negra Modelo, Dos Equis and inevitable Coronas, but their beverage menu consists of close to 100 Mexican white spirits including five sotols, 20 mezcals and close to 80 tequilas! Ask for a $12 mezcal and tequila flight, and settle in for a while. While there are no longer local Mexican restaurants where it's socially acceptable to nap in a giant sombrero, or offer the stand-up comedy services and occasional serenading that Azteca's owner used to provide, EL TOPO is a sleek and modern addition to the Mexican flavours of the area. At the very least, with its additional outdoor seating, it offers a brief respite from the Escheresque experience of traversing Bondi Junction Westfield.
EL TOPO is located in The Eastern Hotel, at 500 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction NSW 2022.