With its festive yellow and blue interiors, and lively, region-hopping menu, The Happy Mexican is a restaurant that really lives up to its name.
Pulling inspiration from his years spent in both Mexico and LA, owner and Colombian native Julian Romero has transformed an unlikely Hoddle Street site into a colourful eatery with a distinct Mexican flavour. The 55-seat space is low on fuss but high in energy, complete with hanging piñatas and mural-adorned side courtyard.
Helmed by Mexican Head Chef Jesus Rios, the kitchen's celebrating traditional flavours without honing in on any one region. Rather, the menu is like a quick round-trip of Mexico that you can enjoy in the space of a couple of margaritas. Tacos ($6 each) might feature slow-cooked beef made to a classic Jalisco-style recipe or roast chicken in a guajillo and achiote chilli sauce with origins in the central state of Zacatecas. Burritos ($16) come loaded with a herb-flecked 'green rice' that's popular in northern Mexico while a signature dish of ceviche-style prawn tostada ($10.50) is a nod to the Sinaloa region.
A solid lineup of tacos features tortillas from Kensington's La Tortilleria, with fillings ranging from beer-battered flathead teamed with fresh slaw, pico de gallo and chipotle mayo to the tender ox tongue cooked in pasilla chilli sauce and finished with cubes of roast potato.
Elsewhere, you'll find snacks like nachos ($13), quesadillas ($8) and the chicharron de queso ($8), slow-cooked pork rolled up in a layer of toasted cheese and served with guacamole. Burritos feature the likes of Sinaloa-style chilli-fried pork, matched with corn, black beans, chipotle mayo and that 'green rice', and you'll find a handful of tortas (a Mexican-style baguette) starring fillings like fried chicken ($14) or crumbed steak ($15).
The lineup of weekly specials is just as cheery, with tacos going for $3 a pop each Tuesday and $10 margaritas on offer every Friday.
And yes, the bar is worth a visit in its own right, pouring a range of imported beers, classic tequila cocktails and an ever-growing list of agave spirits. Try the signature mezcal margarita crafted on agave, fresh lime and fair-trade Oaxaca creation Mezcal Eterno Joven No 1.
Images: Tracey Ah-kee