Acland St Cantina is a place of the fiesta where you can relax and enjoy upmarket surroundings and impressive cuisine. There's a seriousness about authenticity and bringing a fullness to the Mexican expression. The World Loves Melbourne has visited twice and has left full of joy (yes, this is exactly how I felt). Melbourne is a serious destination for quality Mexican food. Having missed the launch party due to prior commitments I was glad to visit when the Cantina was in its full stride.
Acland St Cantina is a well thought out establishment with the front casual diner section almost as enjoyable as the (more formal but still relaxed) back section. Here you can chill out (from 7am) with an abridged menu with tacos and dips, tacos (even a breakfast taco), hot dogs, quesadillas and other tasty treats. The lunch menu is fast and fresh. We spent a couple of hours here imbibing the ambience and dining casually. What I loved was the ability to take home a bevy of quality Mexican groceries for home consumption. With guests arriving at home I loaded up on several dips and various types of corn chips - so fresh and tasty, even a bit of a kick.
Check out the Pumpkin Guacamole and the Cantina Guacamole we indulged in. Some of the best dips I've ever eaten.
Acland St Cantina offers great options for those on the fly... It really is "the people's" restaurant. What is slightly amusing is that some people have visited not knowing there's a larger upmarket back section.
Quality groceries are a welcome addition. How can you leave without a bottle of authentic hot sauce? Also Tequilas and various beers and beverages are available for retail sale.
So then it was into the main dining section with our interstate friends - thanks go to the staff who squeezed us in for an early sitting after the restaurant was fully booked 5 days in a row. For me this is one of the most enjoyable ambience's in Melbourne. Slightly dimmed with exposed brick, impressive artwork and Mexican themed arrangements.
Paul Wilson is a top notch Australian chef who has achieved much - including at one of my favourite restaurants Circa next door. His influence here is unmistakable. Acland St Cantina enchants with Masa Delicacies such as Baja Fried Fish Tacos with Slaw and Chipotle Mayo. Here was an emotional connection for me having visited the coastal city of Ensensada in Baja, California in Mexico. In Ensenada the simple fare of fish tacos is a staple but surprisingly hard to find the quality emulated in Australia. These tacos were superb in terms of crunch and flavour of the fish, with a compelling slaw. They also got me hooked on chipotle mayo. And so artisticly presented to boot.
Now on a tacos roll, we also ordered several of the Authentic Al Pastor Tacos - Spit Roasted Pork with Pineapple Salsa. We all know pineapple and pork go together well, and the combination was altogether harmonious. The key was the spit roasted pork and freshness of the ingredients. Again, so well presented.
When it came to the mains there was no point in ordering the Authentic Al Pastor Tacos again, as they also featured as a main. The engaging staff encouraged us to order the Carne Asada, ostensibly a popular dish at the Cantina. When I saw Skirt Steak I was hesitant, being a lover of large thick steaks. But this uncouth attitude changed when I welcomed the rich and superbly cooked steak and used it as the cornerstone of a tortilla combination. I enjoy this kind of dining. Not only were we sharing mains but also putting together our own tortillas. This was Oaxacan Market Style Mixed Grill of Skirt Steak and Chorizo with Tortillas and Condiments.
Also delicious with kick was the Pollo Al Horno - Wood BBQ Chilli Chicken with Tomatillo Verde. This smoky dish also had a good amount of kick but not overpowering. It reminded me of the food in Baja Mexico which hit me between the eyes with heat. Bowls of chilli everywhere. It also reminded me of the popularity of wood fire ovens in Baja.
Even an innocent Quinoa salad at Acland St Cantina was impressive.
All the while we were taken with the engaging and knowledgeable staff who managed to offer helpful advice and attend to us perfectly despite a packed restaurant. The service here is outstanding compared to most. Let me confess - after spilling sauce on my crisp white shirt at Circa I stumbled in to Acland St Cantina, only for a staff member to wash my shirt with soda. The extra mile.
I noticed the crowd was mainly a young trendy set and the music reflected that. As a complement - this vibey restaurant would fit well in San Clemente, one of my favourite cities for Mexican food in the world. Highly recommended.