Some of Sydney's best tequila and mezcal cocktails await at the Barrio Chino team's basement bar.
Welcome mats be damned; a red neon sign declaring "Everything with tequila" is the best way to be ushered into a venue. It beckons you off the street and downstairs into a dark basement space with hanging wire lamps, potted succulents, booth seating and a cluster of chandeliers above one long table. There are underplayed touches of the Mexican influence throughout, but it's more a stylish hangout for suits than a dive bar to swill Tecate.
A spin-off of popular Kings Cross restaurant/bar Barrio Chino, with a music program to be organised by Spice Cellar's Rebecca Alder and Murat Kilic, it features a cocktail list that makes good on the promise of that neon sign, with the likes of the Hinojo ($19) offering the refreshing, unusual combination of fennel juice and top-shelf tequila. The faint aniseed notes are complemented by the sweetness of pear juice and hints of spice and heat. There's a lot going on, but it's a well-balanced concoction and pretty to boot, with a fennel frond sitting atop the tall glass.
They're also pretty serious about mezcal, tequila's smokier cousin, and the mezcal margarita ($18) lives up to its billing of "no shitty mezcal", using the single-village Nuestra Soledad mezcal along with lime and agave nectar. Carlitos Campfire ($21) pushes the flavour in another direction, meshing the smokiness of the spirit with the slightly sweeter Monkey Shoulder whiskey, ginger agave and peach in a foamy concoction.
Also recommended is the El Famoso ($18), a rose-coloured tipple combining mezcal and green chartreuse that comes with a shot glass of fizzing bubbles, allowing you to play bartender. It's a winner, tied together by the cinnamon notes in the liqueur. Cinnamon makes another appearance in an as yet unnamed secret cocktail, featuring chipotle tequila with slices of apple and tamarind salt. It's a firecracker, both fiery and tart. Snap it up when you can.
You'll want to finagle your way into the secret menu, which features a bowl of fries with guacamole, salsa and chunks of steak — especially scrumptious with a dash of Tapatio hot sauce. Also look out for some soon-to-be-released San Francisco-style tacos, a move towards next wave Mexican food.
The regular menu has its share of highlights as well. A Mexican street-style hot dog ($16) had fluffy bread and flavours that kick like a mule, with bacon and a citrusy, spicy pico de gallo. The food is made for snacking and sharing, with a range of tacos including meat, seafood and mushroom fillings. You can't go wrong with the Al Pastor ($6), a soft shell filled with slow-cooked pork and salsa, while the zingy flavours continue with a ceviche market fish tostada of red tuna ($12). Like everything at Barrio Cellar, it's got enough flavour to slap you in the face and positively begs to be washed down with some more tequila.