First off, Queen of the South isn't an authentic Mexican restaurant — but it's not trying to be. The Mexican fare being plated up at this Prahran restaurant hasn't come straight from Central America, but, rather, via a little experimentation from a Melbourne chef who loves the cuisine.
The chef in question is Malcolm Williams, who fell in love with Mexican food a few years ago on a trip to the country — he wanted to expand his cooking skills and learn a new language at the same time. It was right around the time when Melbourne's Mexican wave (excuse the pun) was kicking off. Since then we've seen countless Mexican restaurants open — think Mamasita, Fonda, Chingon, Los Hermanos — but, even so, Malcolm vehemently contests the notion that Melbourne has done Mexican. Almost evangelical in his conviction, he maintains that Mexico is a huge place with many different microclimates and therefore cuisines, from the east to the west coast, from the mountains to the south at Oaxaca. Given that five out of the top 50 restaurants last year were Mexican, as far as Malcolm is concerned, Mexican food is not going away any time soon.
So let's get down it. The food at Queen of the South is bright and fresh, but this place is not just about guacamole and margaritas. They do have these — two kinds of margarita, in fact, and a guacamole so smooth you'll want to bathe in it (or maybe just eat it on the crispy corn chips) — but the menu also features dishes you won't find at the average Mexican joint, including a fairly substantial vegan menu.
It might seem odd to rave about an entrée served in a paper cup, but sometimes you stumble on a dish that is so good you imagine you could just live off it forever. The vasito de elotes is one of those. Casually described as a corn cup with chipotle mayo and queso fresco, this is street food at its finest ($7) — warm, buttery, savoury and sustaining.
Apart from the corn, waitstaff will very ably guide you through the shared menu, advising a few smaller dishes then a main, and to leave room for dessert. The aguachile dish sees market fresh ceviche fish served with cucumber, habanero, red onion radish and fresh lime — it's tangy with a zing of chilli and quite wonderful ($22). For something a little exotic, try the nopales tostada topped with preserved cactus salad, peanut de arbol salsa, queso fresco and chilli pequin. And it wouldn't be a modern Mexican restaurant without a little DIY, and Queen of the South allows you to cram as much protein, salad and salsa as is feasible into a little warmed flour tortilla. Choose between slow-cooked lamb shoulder, chicken, and spicy pork meatballs.
Saving room for dessert is good advice. The Pueblan mole mousse with pistachio praline and Pedro Ximenez cream ($14) is a rich and spicy chocolate and coffee flourish at the end of the meal, and one that is indicative of what Williams adds to the so often same-same cuisine.