For years clued-in lovers of Mexican food have made the pilgrimage north to Taco Quetzacoatl. As owner/chef Margarita Galindo Gallardo makes a long-awaited leap from Salisbury to the inner suburbs, her simple yet authentic approach remains unchanged.
“One day I came in and all the street was full, like there had been an accident,” Gallardo tells The Adelaide Review. “I came into my kitchen and said, ‘What happened? There’s all these people?”
It was not an accident: Gallardo had gone viral. In August 2018 a New York Times food reviewer pegged Gallardo’s humble backstreet taqueria as “one of the best representations of Mexican food in Australia”, and soon every self-styled foodie with an internet connection was flocking to the faded corner strip mall where Gallardo has been based for four years.
Since The Adelaide Review first highlighted this suburban secret in 2016, word of Gallardo’s creations has gradually spread far beyond her original cult following of Salisbury locals and homesick Mexican expats. While it could never be said that Adelaide’s dining scene is short of a Mexico-inspired food joint, Gallardo’s creations stood out from the chain stores and swish Instagram-baiting hotspots, building a loyal community that keeps her restaurant constantly humming.
For a long time, Gallardo was content to continue putting Salisbury on the map as an unlikely culinary destination. A warmly received pop up at a City of Unley Day of the Dead event, however, made Gallardo reconsider expanding closer to the CBD. “I saw so many people come and enjoy the tacos,” she says. “I said okay: let’s bring the tacos to Unley.”
When The Adelaide Review speaks to Gallardo the new Unley Road restaurant has just recovered from its first weekend, a soft ‘pre-opening’ that nevertheless drew masses of excitable diners. Many made the trek down from Salisbury, where Gallardo’s ride or die fanbase remains effusive in its support.
Unlike most buzzy restaurant openings in Adelaide, the new space has not undergone a showy refit; there are no sleek curved surfaces or architecturally-designed features. There’s a Mexican flag pinned to one bright yellow wall, a map to another, technicolour ponchos draped over corners and stools and a bar-side mural of a pyramid scene that Gallardo points out with a smile. The ornate wrought iron railing that greets visitors is a hangover from the Thai restaurant that formerly occupied the space, but if the Southeast Asian flourishes now seem a little out of place, at least it too was made in Salisbury.
All of which is to say, it’s Gallardo’s food, and the community that has grown around it, that remains the heart of the business.
Having grown up in her mother’s restaurant in Veracruz before studying as a chef in Yucatan, Gallardo spent two decades in kitchens at home before arriving in Australia in 2007, where she worked a variety of jobs while saving money for a place of her own. “In the beginning it was a little hard; I didn’t speak English very well, I worked in childcare, nursing homes. But I saved the money, I worked in a kitchen.
“In Mexico it’s so easy, you sell from your house. You don’t have any money? You sell to your friends.” So that’s what she did, feeding friends and the local community in her garage on Sundays before making it official in 2015 in a small space on Amanda Street, Salisbury. “It’s like a family business,” she says of the original Taco Quetzalcoatl. “It’s smaller, my friends would come in and the Mexican community wanted tacos. Then later I expand into next door. We became a little bigger and I was so happy there.
“This is bigger, but it’s more easy,” she says of the new space, which can accommodate more diners and staff. “In Salisbury, I do everything; this is something different.” Will this take some pressure off her, perhaps? “Oh… no, I like it, I like working,” she says, explaining that she’ll continue to spend her mornings in the Salisbury kitchen before heading south for the afternoon and evening trade. “Every day is a different day.”
The menu remains basically unchanged, with the soft corn tortillas of Gallardo’s tacos still made by hand onsite, filled with marinated beef, chicken, or pork, and drizzled with traditional red, green sauces or thick brown mole. Pozole, a spicy soup with pork, corn and radish remains a staple along with tamales and huaraches, the latter available with meaty or plant-based toppings over the traditional corn dough base.
There is one notable difference. When Taco Quetzalcoatl first opened, Gallardo had to cater to local palates whose expectations of ‘Mexican food’ were, ironically, quite different to what she was serving. Uninitiated customers would be asked if they wanted traditional Mexican or ‘Australian’, with slight tweaks made for the latter. Tellingly, she doesn’t have to do that as much anymore – Gallardo’s reputation for the real thing speaks for itself.
“I feel so happy, you know,” she says, showing real emotion as she describes how customers and staff have reached out to get the new restaurant over the line – or help with dishes when the next internet–inspired deluge hits.
“I feel proud of myself, because I work so hard,” she says, while insisting she won’t be abandoning the north any time soon.
“It opened the door,” she says. “You never forget where you come from.”
Quetzalcoatl’s Mexican Restaurant
153 Unley Road
0488 408 832