On paper, it can sound cringe-worthy: Mexican-Chinese fusion. But La Chinesca, the new late-night bar filling the space formerly occupied by burger-serving, techno-playing weird art bar Strange Wolf, pulls it off.
Unlike its predecessor, the signage here is deliberately neon-free, quite non-descript and at risk of being overlooked. The basement space has all of the markings of a Melbourne bar: exposed walls, accented tiling, thick and undressed pillars. The booths are deep, and the lighting is real low. Large portraits fill the walls, including some Archibald Prize entries by Vincent Fantauzzo, one of the partners in the venture alongside Andrew Lewis and Robert Hargrave.
It’s best to emphasise that La Chinesca is a bar and not an eatery – something you’ll hear venue manager Dave Mills regularly explaining over the phone. Mills, who also co-owns Carlton’s Argentinean-Peruvian funhouse Piqueos, constructed the extensive drinks list which makes use of a larger-than-average back bar packed with serious whiskies and tequilas. The wine offering is surprising – longer than most cocktail bars, and geared towards the after-work, Paris-end clientele already catching on to the venue.
The Happy Ending Roulette is a fun go-to concept. Pick a whiskey, mescal or tequila then match with one of three house-made spiced syrups and they’ll mix it down over ice Old Fashioned-styles. We team up mescal with chipotle-infused Mexican maple base. It isn’t as spicy or smoky as expected, but the half-salt rim gives necessary balance to the drink. The Tong War is a crowd-pleaser, with light floral perfumes of elderflower, almond and orange blossom given a good kicking with Ketel One Citroen and lemon. Fresh.
Daniel Salcedo is in charge of the food, serving mantou (soft, steamed, fluffy buns) stuffed with pork, duck, beef short ribs or daikon with flavours meeting in the middle of the Mexinese road. The dumplings are a little oversteamed and the filling loose, but the flavours deliver. Vegetarians have one offering available to them from the larger dish, mantou and dumpling section, though they’re on the salty side. The fusion here isn’t the nightmarish pull of two disparate elements of different cuisines, rather, a considered approach from the perspective of a Chinese cook displaced in Mexico creating familiar flavours with the ingredients available to them.
The food is a little slow, but the service is considered and generous in the bar and on the floor. The 3am license is drawing a strong hospitality crowd, so it seems incongruous to be closed from Sunday to Tuesday. But La Chinesca shows a lot of promise, and hopefully, staying power.