The first thing you’ll notice as you set foot in La Mexicana’s new outlet along Jalan Telawi in Bangsar is the explosion of colour: only Mexicans would have the ingenuity to line acid pink barstools along a yellow surface to create that striking visual contrast that is at once delightful and playful. The only other time I’ve felt so enlivened by a combination of colours was when humanity discovered how well orange went with teal (or turquoise), around the time when The Devil Wears Prada premiered in 2006 because, you know, of that infamous “cerulean” scene (www.youtube.com/watch).
La Mexicana, Bangsar
It’s not an understatement to say you are transported to Mexico when you dine at La Mexicana as most (if not all) of the interior décor were flown in from Mexico at Chef Carmela’s behest, which shows you how far the restaurant goes into creating an authentic experience for its diners. Stephen, who’s the Managing Director and loving partner, mentioned that the greatest compliment he could receive was the glint in the eyes of excited Mexican expatriates who feel as if they’ve just stepped into the house they grew up in, ooh-ing at the colourful décor and ahh-ing at the margaritas.
Oh yes… the margaritas.
Have I mentioned how hospitable Mexicans are? I mean, who else would greet their guests with five different margaritas before the food is served? Perhaps it was Carmela and Stephen’s ploy all along to get us glowing so that the review would be equally rapturous as we were with the margarita quintet. Or maybe they were just really, really friendly and thought there was no better way to kickstart a drowsy Saturday afternoon than to line a bar counter with Tequila cocktails… I was maroon and smiling from the beginning till the end of the review. But don’t worry, my judgment hasn’t been impacted that greatly and I can still write this in an unbiased and professional manner…
The margaritas were *bleeping* FABULOUS! No, seriously, they were. We tried five variants: the Classic, Passion Fruit, Dragon Fruit, Roselle, and Tamarind. All of the margaritas are made with fresh ingredients prepared on-site, so they lack the syrupy sweetness that comes with premixes. The Roselle and Tamarind are unique because the glasses were rimmed with chilli, which amped the drinks with a pleasurable, tingly sensation at the back of your throat. The frightening thing about the drinks was that they were more refreshing than they were intoxicating. Well, for the first ten minutes or so, which was why I had to verbally remind myself I didn’t have to finish all of them in one go… just yet.
Just when I thought my ears have achieved their maximum heat capacity, our first bite-sized meal of the day was to be stuffed jalapeños. Refried beans have never tasted this good (or sounded this appealing) stuffed inside three jalapeños with panela cheese. The heat from the chillies was mild, so I’d highly recommend these for light snacking even if you don’t usually go for spicy food, and it was just so satisfying to slice into the chillies then catch a whiff of the contents within.
A slight detour with the jalapeños and then we were back with the drinks, beginning with a rather intriguing Chelada. When you consider its core ingredients of beer, lime juice, and ice, the chelada sounds like an ordinary Saturday night out with the guys over a soccer match; but once you add in the Maggi sauce, oyster sauce, and Worcestershire sauce into the mixture, you get an eyebrow-raising inebriant that jolts your palate with its savoury profile. I have to say the drink is definitely an acquired taste, but one worth exploring simply because there’s nothing quite like it. If you’re adventurous with your beer and want something other than the usual pint of Guinness, order up a chelada.
The next item on the line up is a must have when visiting any Mexican establishment, the Tequila, served with a wedge of lime, some salt, and a sangrita (or “little blood”). I enjoy the whole ritual that goes into drinking this, and I learnt a most important lesson from Carmela. “You don’t take a shot,” she looks straight at me unblinkingly, like a teacher warning her students to never make the same mistake twice. “You taste,” she says authoritatively. Of course, the twenty-something me was a little surprised at this as I was conditioned to believe that Tequilas were meant to be taken as shots, but just because they’re served in caballitos (what the “shot” glass is called, which translates as “little horse”) doesn’t mean you should consume them in haste. However, this could also be attributed to my experience with cheaper variants and ignorance of pricier options: why would I ever want to down it if it costs me RM100 per glass?
Caballito of Tequila
Through Carmela, my knowledge of Tequila has expanded and I’ve become more aware of the different categories: blanco (clear; aged for less than two months), reposado (shimmery gold; aged for about six months in oak barrels), and añejo (amber; aged for at least a year). Carmela is a passionately intense woman and a bastion of Mexican cuisine, at once commanding with her knowledge of anything Meh-hee-koh and genial with her winsome smile. “Intense” is the appropriate term here: just look at her perfectly arched eyebrows as she commands you with a single stare to lick your plates clean after each course. You’ll happily submit in pure sublime delectation, of course. She has this unavoidable gaze, a human lie detector if you will: one blink at the wrong time and you’re exposed as a fraud. But she’s also that best friend who puts a hand on your shoulder, completely empathetic of your rough week, then tells you that the next five Margaritas are on the house; incidentally, not very different from our experience when we entered La Mexicana.
Gran Patron Platinum
After I completed my elective on Tequilas, Carmela brought out three glasses of water infused with different ingredients. The first was a fragrant Roselle, the second was a thirst-quenching Tamarind, and the third was a give-me-the-recipe-for-this-thing Horchata. All of them were great palate cleansers, but the horchata, “rice milk” with ground almonds and served with a sprinkle of cinnamon, is to die for. Though I enjoyed the other drinks served before, I was particularly protective of the horchata because I adored the flavour and the texture of the drink so much. Oh the agony to have Carmela snicker in my face when I asked for the recipe is akin to sailors leaving their wives as they sailed away in clippers… my analogies become unnecessarily archaic when I yearn for something.
As if to compensate for my longing towards the horchata (or to divert it elsewhere…), Carmela dished out two tantalising taco fares from the kitchen, the Tacos Morita and Tacos Villamelón. Both dishes are gluten-free due to the handmade corn tortilla taco wraps, and should be devoured whole if you wish to experience euphoria in your mouth. The Tacos Morita are stuffed with tender chicken chunks drenched in Morita chilli sauce and accompanied by avocados, which gives it a really creamy texture that demands it to be eaten in slow motion. On the other hand, the Tacos Villamelón are filled with beef steak, chicarron prensado, and chorizo with a side of salsa roja. You can choose to have the salsa in its original form, which is spicier than the one we licked off our fingers, though I enjoy this bite-sized Mexico in my mouth on its own.
One thing I’ve noticed during my visit to La Mexicana was the size of the meals: they’re not made to keep you bloated, but sufficiently satiated, which was an unexpected yet pleasant departure from other reviews where we may have struggled to shove that last piece of salmon down our throats, delicious as they may be. La Mexicana leaves us wanting more, and Carmela is wise enough to not overfeed her guests. Sometimes, a bite is all you require, and this sentiment is extended to the last meal of the day, the Ensalada Ceniza. A simple offering of grilled tomato slices, avocado, panela cheese, and olives drizzled in a light chile de árbol oil dressing, the salad was the perfect interlude leading into the sweet dénouement to conclude the review.
For desserts, Carmela spoilt us with Churros, Ate con Queso, and the crowd-favourite Flan de la Abuela. As someone who could never finish half a churro, I thoroughly enjoyed the ones brought to the table as these were delightfully “light”, and didn’t bring with them the usual cloyingness I experience elsewhere. The Ate con Queso is a playful ensemble of sweet quince paste, Manchego cheese, and brightly coloured cherries. The cheese here gives the otherwise sweet treat a savoury balance, and its unconventional yet effective combination here reminds me of the earlier chelada. The prizewinner though, will have to be the Flan de la Abuela that melts in your mouth with every spoonful. Carmela, in her ever loving yet authoritative way, simply said, “You like it? Finish.” Her command had this sort of finality to it that just leaves you delighted at being able to have the flan all to yourself, yet terrified at the prospect of being unable to finish it. But really, it was a simple choice, how could I leave this unfinished?
Ate con Queso
Flan de la Abuela
Alas, thus concludes our trip to La Mexicana. We always stumble into places that provide a great ambiance but with less-than-satisfactory dishes, or establishments that serve stellar cuisine but within a clumsy setting. La Mexicana, however, enjoys the distinction of serving exceptional Mexican cuisine in an authentic environment—any more ‘real’ than this and you’d have to book tickets to Mexico. You need to look no further than the water fountain by the restaurant’s entrance to understand Carmela and Stephen’s zeal for authenticity: it was flown in all the way from Mexico. If they’re willing to do this just for their décor, imagine what lengths they go to create that perfect Mexican experience on the plate for you.
Reasons to visit: the place is incredibly photogenic with its bright colours and cheerful atmosphere; margaritas; jalapeños; horchata (I confess, I’m biased towards this one, but I’d be lying to myself if I don’t put it up here).
Something I want to come come back to try: the Molcajete Chapultepec – we didn’t have this for the review, but by reading its description that it’s a “meat lover’s feast” served “in a traditional handmade volcanic lava rock mortar”, I’m definitely coming back for it.