After a weekend of celebratory birthday meals that included Red Cabbage, Dosukoi Ramen and Alfred's Kitchen, the actual Monday night of my birthday was, for me, surprisingly loose and unplanned. Our initial thought was to pop in for dinner at Bollywood Spices in North Perth, however feeling like a heavy curry was not really what we were in the mood for but unsure about what we should do instead, we decided to try our luck with a stroll down Beaufort St. Parking near Veggie Mama, the sight of Salsa's at the corner made us crave for some Mexican however wanting to aim for something a bit more special for a birthday meal, we decided the much higher regarded Mexican of the nearby el Publico was just the ticket.
One of the star new wave Mexican restaurants in Perth, el Publico is overflowing with kitschy cool - from the glowing red light of the neon donkey above the well stocked tequila bar...
... to the the liberal use of Dia de los Muertos iconography throughout the restaurant.
As much as we may have liked to bask in a red neon glow, clear and in-focus photography was a major consideration. For this reason Alissa and I opted to sit in the brighter, more neutrally lit upper level.
The prices of their street food-focused share plate menu are quite reasonable as it is, however the decision of what dishes to choose was made easier with an even cheaper '!Feed Me Mondays!' set menu deal, featuring 5 items from their menu, and either a Copal beer or a glass of house red or white. Alissa and I thought the $30 for food at Pinchos was pretty good value; considering this came with a drink too made this even more impressive! Granted, the approachable Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon that served as their house red was not exactly a premium cellaring wine, but at this price only can hardly complain - especially when el Publico also provide free sparkling water made in-house.
To accompany our meal were two contrasting condiments - Salsa Verde and Habanero Sauce. The Salsa Verde provided a cool, fresh burst of herbs that would be useful later in the meal. However, being a chilli fiend it was the Habanero Sauce that caught my attention. Served with a thin wooden stick so as to prevent unsuspecting customers from face-melting levels of capsaicin, their caution was totally warranted - this was an intensely hot chili sauce, and as something of a chilli fiend I was in my element.
Guacamole and Tortilla Chips served as our entree, and immediately impressed by how far removed it was from Old El Paso and some of the older-style Mexican restaurants that taste only marginally better than something off a supermarket shelf. The Guacamole itself was flavoursome and served in a rustic and chunky style well matched by the house made Tortilla Chips. Clearly made from tortillas cut in half and then fried into crispy chips, these were vastly superior in flavour and texture to standard corn chips. Finally, the addition of a burgundy coloured roasted tomato salsa gifted the dish with an abundance of flavour and chilli bite. This is how chips and dip should be done.
The remaining savoury dishes were brought out all at once to eat in a single shared main course, and the Salmon Ceviche stood out due to being the lightest and freshest of the three dishes. The citrus cured salmon was served in relatively large chunks that ensured its smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture was undoubtedly the star of the dish, with the natural creamy fattiness of the avocado ably playing support. The crispness of the radish, capsicum and the onion contrasted beautifully, with the tomato and dressing providing additional freshness, umami and spiciness.
The inherently delicious flavour of lamb chops can be so often squandered by overcooking, but thankfully no such complaints could be made of el Publico's Lamb Chops & Tortilla dish. These chops were cooked perfectly - served slightly pink just the way Alissa and I prefer it, and very flavoursome indeed. Topped with sweet pickled onion and coriander for freshness, the meat was placed on a sauce that tasted rich in roasted spices.
The tortillas came in an accompanying mason jar, and tasted like they had been freshly prepared in the kitchen with a softness and elasticity you just wouldn't find in premade varieties.
Combining the ingredient together allowed for us to make the tortillas to our liking - which for me meant quite a few dots of the hot Habanero Sauce. Make no mistake - even with so small a concentration every bite was a scorcher, but lamb's strong flavour and the abundance of spice allowed for the dish to remain balanced in the face of such heat.
Where the Ceviche was fresh and the Lamb and Tortillas were intense, the Potato and Chorizo Tacos were the more subdued of the three, but nevertheless flavoursome. Given that it was a dish of carbohydrates within carbohydrates, this was undoubtedly the dish most likely to sate our appetite - but it wasn't just filler either. The chorizo and potato filling had a nice saltiness, caramelisation and crunch however for my tastes it needed a bit of a condiment.
The final dish of their set menu was the Vanilla Flan. Due to years of the Cheesecake Shop having entered our consciousness, Alissa and I were expecting something like the their Fruit Flan, but instead were served something a lot more similar to a creme caramel or a panna cotta. Served with a Coffee Granita, the dish was one of delicious contrasts - the Vanilla flan was smooth and creamy in both taste and texture, with the crystals of the granita providing a certain amount of crunchy texture combined with the earthy acidity of the coffee.
Being my birthday, we decided to go for an extra dessert of the Peanut Parfait, topped with Praline. Alissa and I love peanut butter in general and have had the pleasure of eating Peanut Butter Parfait desserts at both Iggy's in Singapore last year, and Red Cabbage in Perth just days earlier. The basic idea here was very similar to the Red Cabbage dessert, though their version included salted caramel and chocolate as well.
The el Publico version was understandably more down to earth, but it was by no means a worse dish. The Parfait itself was smooth and salty-sweet, with the texture of the Praline providing its trademark sweet, crunchy texture alongside additional sweet fudginess from a Reese's tasting peanut butter sauce. As someone who loves frozen desserts, this dish made me very happy.
Verdict: Very Good
El Publico's Feed Me Mondays was seriously good value. Even with the extra dessert the meal came in at $70 for two including wine and free flow sparkling water, and we left satisfied both in terms of quantity and quality. While very hip in design, the rustic quality of the food will not have anyone thinking this is a fine dining establishment - but it doesn't need to be. When's the last time you had a craving for Mexican Haute Cuisine? The focus on street food is thus right on point - the food has that honest quality of a home cooked meal (ironic when that most home cooked Mexican in Australia comes out of instant packets and bottled sauces). With friendly staff, great vibe and many more interesting items I'd love to try, Alissa and I would definitely come back.