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In Suburban South Australia, Real-Deal Mexican Hides in Plain Sight

In Suburban South Australia, Real-Deal Mexican Hides in Plain Sight


SALISBURY, South Australia — To get to Taco Quetzalcoatl from Adelaide, you drive north along four-lane highways, across desolate wetlands and past industrial parks. Half an hour outside of the city, there’s a turn into a residential neighborhood of low brick houses, the type that cover so much of this country’s suburban landscape. Nothing about the green lawns and narrow streets suggests that this is somewhere you might find a restaurant of any sort, let alone one of the best representations of Mexican food in Australia.

A retail strip appears unexpectedly at the end of a block that’s well removed from a major road or other businesses. It’s as modest as they come, an aging collection of storefronts that includes a sparsely stocked grocery, a hair dresser and Taco Quetzalcoatl.

The windows of the restaurant are framed by vibrant Mexican fabrics, and a chalkboard sits on the sidewalk proclaiming: Tacos, Burritos, Enchiladas. Inside, there is no real distinction between the kitchen and the few tables that make up the dining area. It is a room primarily used for cooking. Mexican grocery items are jumbled in with the chaos of the kitchen, and many of them are for sale.

In other words, Taco Quetzalcoatl is a humble neighborhood taqueria, a bastion of comfort and delicious food that’s common in many parts of the world, all of them very far away from suburban South Australia.

The sight of it almost made me weep. I was not sure I’d ever encounter such a thing on this side of the Pacific. Australia has chain Mexican restaurants, trendy taco joints, and upscale tequila bars. But family-run, Mexican-owned spots are almost nonexistent.

Margarita Galindo Gallardo opened Taco Quetzalcoatl, named for the Mexican god, three years ago. Ms. Gallardo moved to Australia from Mexico in 2007 and spent eight years saving up to open the restaurant. She is from Veracruz, but studied cooking in the Yucatán at a culinary school in Mérida. After hosting dinners in her garage for a few years, she chose this quiet corner of Salisbury, South Australia, because it was close to where she lives, and the rent was cheap.

Ms. Gallardo set out to cook the kind of foods that are practically impossible to find in Australia: pressing her own tortillas, creating mole from scratch, steaming tamales in banana leaves and making salsas fresh every day.

Those salsas appear in colorful ramekins on the basic white tables, along with a selection of bottled Mexican hot sauces. The green tomatillo is smooth and tangy, the red habanero dynamic and fiery. They are wonderful dribbled over just about anything that comes out of this kitchen.

Apart from the salsas, it’s the corn tortillas that give the first real indication of the level at which Ms. Gallardo is operating. Soft and pale, their flavor is deep and elegant and almost nutty, with a whiff of something akin to savory marzipan. It is hard to coax this much complexity from masa; like sushi rice or handmade pasta, tortilla-making is a skill that takes years for the fingertips to master.

Concessions have been made to the local palate. This is, after all, a neighborhood restaurant in suburban Australia. You can order tacos “Mexican” style or “Aussie”; the former comes with cilantro and onions, the latter with shredded lettuce and cheese, and sour cream. The Mexican cheese you’d traditionally find on many dishes — cotija, queso fresco — has been swapped out for grated varieties that are more readily available and familiar in these parts.

Some meat preparations are more straightforward and bland than the stewed or flame-licked versions you’d find in Mexico. The delicate, balanced, chocolate-tinged red mole served over the enchiladas is revelatory, but the chicken inside is plain white meat.

Occasionally, Ms. Gallardo caters to customers who are looking specifically for fillings to match the glory of her tortillas. The last time I visited, I was heartbroken to find out that I’d missed her all-you-can-eat cochinita pibil party — a night dedicated to the slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán — by only a few days. There is no schedule for these events, though they are usually held on Sundays. “When a few people ask me, I do it,” she said.

On the regular menu, Ms. Gallardo does not hold back with her pozole, which has in its layered, porky broth a kick of spice and a morass of comforting hominy and pulled meat. Globs of pure white pork fat dissipate on the tongue like warm piggy aspic.

Recently, Ms. Gallardo was offered a space in a shopping center about a mile away, in the thick of Salisbury’s downtown area. She has not yet decided whether she’ll make the move. On one hand, she reasons, her business is sure to grow. On the other, she worries about what will happen when she attracts clientele that don’t have to specifically seek her out.

“My customers here are loyal,” she said. “They come to find me, they want my cooking. At a busy shopping center, who knows what people will expect? They might not like real Mexican food.”

I’m sure that wherever Ms. Gallardo ends up, plenty of people will appreciate what she does. But here, in this space, tucked into the back corner of a residential neighborhood in suburban South Australia, Taco Quetzalcoatl feels like nothing short of a miracle.

Do you have a suggestion for Besha Rodell? The New York Times’s Australia bureau would love to hear from you: nytaustralia@nytimes.com, or join the discussion in the NYT Australia Facebook group. Read about the Australia Fare column here.

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