The Sydney CBD has its small bars, but so too it seems, does Manly. We walk right past Chica Bonita at first, eventually doubling back and taking a hunch by walking down an unposted arcade. Its hidden location may stump the blow-ins, but locals have already discovered this week-old Mexican joint, and at 6pm on a Friday we score the last table in this tiny 20-seater.
Mates Luke and Sean are behind Chica Bonita - two lads who have always wanted to run their own taco place. Chica Bonita means pretty lady in Spanish. Tonight we're here primarily to support friend and fellow food blogger Lex, running the kitchen in his first head chef gig (Hai Lex!).
Chips and guac $6
There's a hip and happening buzz to the place, fitted out in a stylised urban grunge that is de rigeur. Many of the furnishings have come straight from Tijuana, Mexico, like the star lights that hang from the ceiling, the rainbow blankets to keep customers warm at night and the striking ceramic sink in the bathroom. There are a few young families in the early evening but by nighttime it's hipster city, swelling to the point where customers stand three deep at the bar, or hover awkwardly with tacos over a chairless table in the arcade corridor.
Ginger margaritas $10.50
The drinks list is all about the margarita, served in handled jam jars that are crusted perhaps a little too enthusiastically with salt. The watermelon margarita is refreshing and the ginger margarita is warm without being overly spicy. There's not much kick to the jalapeno with orange margarita but it's the cheekily named rim job cocktail that ahem, proves to be the crowd favourite - and the source of limitless joking with waitstaff.
Alex's ceviche $6
We start with the guac and chips, the tortilla chips piled into a brown paper bag artfully folded down and served on a chopping board. Everything seems to be served on a chopping board, so much so that occasionally we have to relinquish boards on our table because they're running out in the kitchen.
The guacamole is vibrant with fresh avocado but a little heavy on the red onion. The ceviche of ling fish is a tasty combination with the tortilla chips, even if it is a little difficult to dig out of the pot. It's a generous portion too for only $6.
Corn truffle quesadilla $7
We have no illusions about the corn truffle quesadilla, well aware that the use of the word "truffle" is really a euphemism for the fungi that grows on corn creating the Mexican delicacy "huitlacoche". It lends a smoky richness to the corn, although it's not so discernible here with the addition of mushroom. It's also a little messy to eat, especially with the tomato salsa strewn artfully across the top.
The chimichanga is a blackboard special for the day, not quite as crunchy as a spring roll but deep-fried to a gentle crisp. One contains pulled pork, the other holds a huddle of black beans with cheese. It's more delicate than you'd expect, punctuated with acidity from the tomato salsa.
Olivera street corn $4
The Olivera street corn arrives with promising scorch marks from the grill and a sprinkle of queso fresco fresh cheese and coriander. A tiny wedge of lime adds freshness but it's not quite enough to resurrect the slightly soggy kernels that taste more akin to frozen cobs of corn.
Cochinita pibil taco $5
We move onto the taco section of the menu, each served in its own little boat for easy handling. The cochinita pibil taco is a trail of saucy pulled pork topped with pickled onions, black beans and coriander. Lex brings over three sauce bottles - all made inhouse - which we use for extra flavour. The smoked chipotle and the salsa verde are my favourites, and we quickly learn to use the habanero sauce with caution.
Tama asada taco $5
The tama asada taco has plenty of texture, chopped pieces of grilled steak mixed with sweet corn kernels, coriander and slivers of crunchy cabbage. Our only gripe is we can't find any of the promised housemade queso fresco on the tama asada tacos.
Baja fish taco $5
The surprising hit of the night is the Baja fish taco, three battered fish balls that look more like pomme noisettes. It's all about the crunch of the batter against creamy crisp coleslaw, like a fish burger in taco form.
Carne asada fries $12
We weren't sure about the carne asada fries on the menu, but when they arrive we pounce on it like hungry vultures. It's the antithesis of fancy food - a mountain of shoestring fries jumbled with strips of steak, fresh salsa, gaucamole and lashings of melted cheese. It's the ultimate carb-laden, protein-spiked cheesy hangover meal - messy but recklessly satisfying.
Chicharron sopa $4.50
I've saved the best for the last. The chicharron sopa is so good we end up ordering another round. If you like pork crackling - and who doesn't - then this is the taco of your dreams. Lex uses his own dry rub on the pork skin before roasting it in the oven until the crackling blisters.
There's a heart-jolting crunch when you bite into this tiny taco, smithereens of pork rind hitting the back of your throat on a river of guacamole. It's an eye-closing moment. Trust me.
Tres leches cake $6
The tres leches cake is another blackboard special, a doorstop of sponge cake bathed in a pool of evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream. A quenelle of chilli chocolate ganache on top isn't really traditional, but I'm too busy drinking up the cinnamon-dusted cream.
Rosalina's rum and raisin cremita $4
Rosalina is Lex's sous chef, and her rum and raisin cremita is perfect for boozers. Plump rum-soaked raisins are like alcoholic grenades on top of the cooked cream pudding splashed with extra rum.
Head chef Lex Wong
We've barely stood up from our table when another group swoops in. There are few things that will get me on the ferry to Manly but that crackling taco might well be one of them.
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7 The Corso, Manly, Sydney
Tel: +61 (0)450 612 896
Tuesday to Sunday 10.30am-12midnight (kitchen closes 10pm)
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7/16/2012 02:20:00 a.m.