PAN DE MUERTO 82 Tory St
Ph: 0508 639 426
Open Monday to Sunday 5pm to late
Price range of mains: $20-$28
Drinks list: 4/5
Cost: $77 for two (excluding drinks)
Having vacated Sandwiches nightclub, Pan de Muerto has settled into an altogether more fabulous new home in Tory St.
Where the first premises were hastily put together with spray-painted murals, this time consideration and money has been lavished upon every detail.
To understand Pan de Muerto, you need to know its general manager, Richard "Tic" Jermyn, a man of giant stature and passion.
He's as friendly as a furry bear, only you don't open up a competing Mexican on his patch, and if you post a complaint on MenuMania, he may not let you eat there again.
Formerly an iron welder/blacksmith to Sir Peter Jackson, Tic laboured on his new restaurant fit-out for 5 1/2 months solid in the last part of 2012, seemingly building his arm muscles bigger than ever, right down to the words Harley- Davidson tattooed as a bracelet around his wrist.
"I've never worked so hard in my life", he told me.
After The Hobbit finished filming, the movie's set workers were brought in to the restaurant to add further flourishes, such as the accomplished cast bas-reliefs on the bar front and the trippy iron grilles at the entrance.
No wonder the place is sort of Lord of the Rings meets bikers on acid - a phantasmagoria of textured walls, swirling concrete floors, distressed wooden slats and gilt-framed psychedelic parodies of Mexican folk art by Stephen Templer. Even the restaurant logo resembles the Hells Angel's gang patch.
Ghoulish sugar skulls from Mexico's Day of the Dead are hung about the wall on full-sized skeletons, the humour being that they've been Kiwified by attaching ram's horns.
When you think of predecessor Red Ginger, in all its arid neo-modernist good taste, you have to smile, since the people have spoken: whereas Red Ginger was echoey and empty, Pan de Muerto is full.
As with La Boca Loca, this restaurant sells itself on making its flatbreads from fresh masa (maize) flour, as in the delicious Taco de Paco and the Sopes.
Resembling a very thick tortilla, a sopes is fried on the outside but soft in the middle, topped with vegetables or, in our case, mild smoked chilli marinated chicken and accompanied by a small bowl of chunky guacamole.
But if that seemed a little tame, the cheese-stuffed, deep-fried jalapenos were tiny missiles of napalm - a reminder that any chilli eaten whole will pose a challenge, regardless of how low it supposedly sits on the Scoville scale.
Sopa de Lima - shredded chicken in broth with a squeeze of lime - is a Mexican classic, here presented with an extra wedge of lime on the side, which mine needed. Served with it are the exceptionally crisp, fresh fried corn chips, free of the usual coating with powdery gunk.
As for dessert, the churros are supposed to be very good here, but after all the deep-fried food we'd had already, we were in no mood for more.
That also discounted the deep-fried banana burrito, and leaving aside both the icecream and the Pomegranate Brulle [sic], we were left with Tres Leches, the most quintessentially Mexican of all five - a moist, tasty cake of evaporated milk, a mass of rubbery clots, very similar to the Indian evaporated milk which forms the basis for kulfi.
Prominent by its absence on the list of sweets is Pan de Muerto - the sugary bread offered on Mexico's Day of the Dead to portraits of ancestors on the family altar, together with gran and grandpa's favourite dish. The aim is to sense their living presence. Then you sensibly eat the offerings - all of which makes the Day of the Dead seem more poignant than gruesome.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Taco de Paco
While food manufacturers would have us believe a taco is a stiff, bent-over frisbee sold in a packet, the original Mexican taco as served at Pan de Muerto is a thing of beauty. It's a soft, freshly made tortilla, billowing forth the aroma of ground maize - a taste treat in itself. Wrapped within a half moon is a filling, in Pan de Muerto's case, marinated duck breast, topped with an inspired fresh pineapple salsa.
- The Dominion Post