If you’ve been looking for a place to satisfy your Mexican food cravings recently, you may have noticed a new brand that seems to have opened up all over the city almost simultaneously: Cali-Mex.
This new chain of taquerías, with locations in Central, Wan Chai, Quarry Bay and Lan Kwai Fong (which all opened within a single month), is the brainchild of two Australasian friends who embarked on a road trip from North America to Mexico, and along the way became obsessed with North American-style Mexican food, particularly the healthier variety available in California.
I have visited two out of the four (and soon to be more) Cali-Mex branches – Wan Chai and Wellington Street. Both are decked out with bright red and orange mosaic tiled counters and tables, and wood panelled walls with very cool street art, easily representing the laid-back, colourful vibe of California.
As you enter, an open kitchen shows all the different kinds of meat and salsas available. There’s a focus on premium, fresh ingredients – the beef and chicken are imported from Australia, the seafood from New Zealand and pork from the USA, whilst vegetables are all locally sourced. Everything is homemade and prepared freshly twice a day in the brand’s central kitchen, including the tortillas – something I found quite impressive.
The menu, though easy to follow, is very extensive, with a multitude of different combinations, so you need never order the same thing twice. In the same way as my favourite burrito joint Little Burro, you first choose your item – burrito (or burrito bowl), taco (soft or hard shell), quesadilla or salad (in a crispy shell or ‘naked’) – then choose your filling, your style of beans (black or refried) and lastly the level of spiciness.
I’ll start with the burrito – I have tried the Angus Steak, the grilled chicken and the beef barbacoa. I was mightily disappointed by the grilled chicken, which added no flavour whatsoever to the mix. The Angus steak fared a little better in that it was super tender, but flavour-wise it was still a little lacking. The beef barbacoa, however, was wonderfully fragrant, with a hint of sweet cinnamon and other spices that livened it up. The rice, for me, was also a little bland, so make sure you go for a tasty filling, a higher level of heat and maybe even ask them to throw in some jalapeños if you want it to taste of something.
An order of tacos comes with three pieces, which, in theory, is a very generous portion. I found, however, that the cooks were a little too heavy-handed with the shredded lettuce, leaving little room for the actual filling. That said, the Fisherman’s Wharf shrimp tacos, marinated with red onion and garlic, were very tasty, as were the Baja fish tacos. I liked how the fish came simply grilled, without being encased in batter, as often seems to be the case.
Out of everything I’ve tried on my three trips to Cali-Mex, the pulled pork quesadilla was my favourite. I loved the smoky flavour of the pork and the generous serving of cheese sandwiched between two perfect homemade tortillas. I think it needed just a little longer in the pan to get the tortillas nice and crispy, but regardless, it was still a delicious dish.
Cali-Mex also offers a great selection for vegetarians and those avoiding gluten. The Venice Beach Vegan Salada, served in a crispy shell, confused us all, as the soy chicken, soy cheese and tofu sour cream almost seemed like the real deal. The spinach burrito bowl was also surprisingly tasty – well, actually, the spinach itself was tasty, whilst the rice, again, was a little on the bland side.
It takes a lot of willpower to see churros on a menu and not order them, willpower that we did not have. Fried batter, chocolate sauce and caramel sauce – what’s there not to like?
Cali-Mex prices are fair to begin with, with most items under $100. Add on a dollop of guacamole and your bill will go up by $18 – I know good avocados are hard to find for cheap in this city, but $18 seems a bit extreme, as does $30 for a small bottle of water. My main concern with Cali-Mex at the moment, however, is its levels of spiciness; we ordered ‘medium’ for everything and yet there was not even the tiniest hint of spice. The ‘hot’ definitely had a kick to it, but not in a blow-your-head-off kind of way, as I would have expected. Perhaps if they sorted this issue, then the other more subtle flavours would have a chance to pop.
Cali-Mex certainly has a lot of potential and, given its close proximity to practically everywhere (FYI another branch is opening soon in Sheung Wan), I think it will definitely do well, once it gets its spices flowing. It’s easy, convenient and affordable – I’ll just have to make sure I order the ‘hot’ sauce next time!
71 Wellington Street, Central 2325 3005
25 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai 2325 5505
13-15 Tong Chong Street, Quarry Bay 2325 5501
7 Lan Kwai Fong, Central 2325 9399