Find Lebanese-style tacos with tabbouleh salsa in this pop-up
To lebanon mexican in Sydney, you will find red, white and green skewers: they are a tribute to the flags of Lebanon and Mexico. Both countries inspire the menu for this pop-up at The Rocks.
“Our motto is: bring the best of both worlds,” says chef Fransisca Setiawan, who runs the open-air canteen with manager Shirin Topaloglu.
The story of Libano Mexicano is quite multicultural: Setiawan grew up in Bandung, Indonesia, with a mother who ran a restaurant specializing in local dishes. Sundanese cuisine. A cornerstone of the kitchen is fiery, fishy terasi sambal – resembling the Malaysian Sambal Belacan, she says.
“Most of the time we argue with the Malaysians, pretending it’s ours and it’s not theirs,” the chief laughs. She cites friendly battles between Indonesians and Malaysians over rendered and Nasi goreng as similar examples.
This is something that happens in many cuisines, where dishes and ingredients overlap, and the menu at Libano Mexicano also reflects this.
Topaloglu has Turkish roots and her partner is Lebanese, so she cooks a lot of Lebanese food for her family.
“A lot of Turkish and Lebanese cuisines sync up. They’re quite similar, even if they don’t like to be called the same,” says Setiawan.
At Libano Mexicano, you’ll see this play out with the spinach and feta quesadillas.
“When people see spinach and feta, they immediately think of gozleme“, says the chef, referring to the popular Turkish staple, sold in kebab shops, food markets and festivals. In Libano Mexico, she takes this model of gözleme and wraps it in tortillas. Queso fresco, mozzarella, and savory cheeses ooze through the grilled topping.
“Our motto is: bring the best of both worlds.”
The Lebanese influence, meanwhile, is evident in the pop-up version of guacamole: it’s seasoned with za’atar and sumac and is actually made with hummus. Instead of corn chips, this dip is served with fried pita bread.
If you’re wondering how Setiawan and Topaloglu decided to open this multicultural taqueria, it’s thanks to their launch time Santa Catarina, Casa Merida and London 126 restaurants last year for the Milpa Collective hotel Group. Each location focused on a particular Mexican region – with Casa Merida exploring the Yucatán, for example, while London 126 is named after artist Frida Kahlo’s address in Mexico City. Then the women would get together with Topaloglu’s partner and cook dinners influenced by his Lebanese heritage and the Mexican cuisine they had become so familiar with – and they realized something telling was going on.
So let’s cut to Libano Mexicano, which opened its doors this month. Mexican staples are remixed here with Middle Eastern flavors: tacos are fashioned from pita bread instead of traditional tortillas, and tostadas are flavored with lamb kibbeh nayeh instead of ceviche. “The idea is still Mexican,” the chef says of the fried-to-order tostadas. You’ll taste it in the invigorating combination of chopped jalapeños and lime juice, which balances the lamb and garlic tum.
While the pop-up menu mixes multicultural influences in a quirky way, there’s a Mexican dish with long-standing Middle Eastern roots that dates back to the early 1900s. Tacos al Pastor comes from Lebanese migrants who brought their tradition of spit-roasted meats to Puebla. It started out as a lamb shawarma taco, but it was locally adapted become a pineapple flavored pork stuffing.
“We wanted to have al pastor on the menu, but [we don’t] out of respect for the taco restaurant next door, which is called [Taqueria] Zepeda. They opened in front of us and we wanted to respect and appreciate that,” says Setiawan. So Libano Mexicano pays homage to tacos al pastor by playing on the pineapple element. He does this by topping the chicken taco with pineapple-jalapeño salsa.
The lamb taco, meanwhile, has a tabbouleh salsa, and the spicy mushroom taco is hit with zhug hot sauce and corn salsa.
This mix of cuisines on the menu is very Sydney: the marinated chicken skewers with lamb and lemony yogurt draw their DNA from the Mexican tradition of barbacoaas good as Lakemba Ramadan Markets — the chef was swayed by her smoky visits to the month-long event, where she savored the charred and grilled street food on offer.
Libano Mexicano has attracted a diverse mix of diners so far. For one, there are taco-sensitive guests who might need a quick lesson in zhug or other Middle Eastern staples. “A lot of people were walking into the store and saying, ‘what is this? tabbouleh?’” Setiawan said. “Taboule is a big thing in Lebanese cuisine. So by that, I know they don’t know what Lebanese food looks like.”
“The idea is still Mexican.”
Then there are people from the Lebanese community who visit on weekends, excited to try the street food they know well, while strolling through the historic area of The Rocks.
The chef recently expanded the breakfast menu to include items such as sujuk and imperial rolls instead of the typical bacon and egg staple. “Our pop-up is halal,” says Setiawan. It’s one of the many ways that Libano Mexicano aims to be inclusive – from offering vegetarian options to presenting dish names that reflect the food’s origins. “We want to please everyone,” she adds.