Mexico may be half a world away from Singapore, but thanks to one restaurant in our business district, we share more than just a tropical climate.
Since May, Chico Loco has been serving spit-roasted Mexican-style chicken six days a week to the affluent Ann Siang Hill community, home of co-working spaces and dimly-lit speakeasies.
The Amoy Street eatery marks the third venture by the Loco Group, a restaurant that attempts to gratify the Singaporean palate.
Taking a leaf from the dim sum playbook is the Mexican Prawn Toast (S$13). Unctuous tiger prawn is accompanied by chopped chilli, pickled cucumber and pumpkin seeds, laid over a sinful crust that exists to mock the Health Promotion Board.
The one element that makes this dish appear Mexican, however, is the salsa macha, a dark, cloying chilli paste, listed on the menu without fanfare.
That chilli, however, is perhaps the furthest thing from Chico Loco’s motherland. The mysterious condiment is revealed by executive chef Randy Torres to be based the backbone of authentic Chinese stir-fry: the popular Lao Gan Ma sauce. “It’s a little embarrassing,” remarked a line cook as handed a trademark red jar over the counter.
Based in Singapore for the past decade, Torres left the troubled Habitat by Honestbee in September.
Originally from the US, the 38-year-old admits that many Mexican dishes in Singapore have been altered to suit local tastebuds.
“Mexican chefs need to learn to adapt to the Singaporean palate,” he said.
“For example, the traditional mole sauce from Mexico uses chillies, peanuts, chocolate and many spices. When I made it last year, I kept the chillies, added more peanuts and skipped the chocolate… like a satay sauce.”
Could our countries’ mutual admiration for heat draw even greater parallels between our cuisines?
An ambitious souvenir
While most travellers would leave Mexico City with photos and a bag of souvenirs, brothers Julian and Christian Tan returned from their trip and co-founded The Loco Group with mixologist Ajay Parag at the turn of the decade.
The venture spawned Mexican garden bar Lucha Loco, which began welcoming diners at Duxton Hill in 2012. Encouraged by its success, Super Loco Robertson Quay opened just two years later.
With Chico Loco, the team expanded to include chef Jason Jones of Australia, who brought with him nine years of experience from his Mexican restaurant Mamasita.
The brothers also founded the award-winning Tanjong Beach Club in Sentosa. Opened in 2010, the Miami-inspired beach bar brought the high life to Singapore’s island resort.
The Chicken (S$9 for a quarter, S$17 for half and S$32 for whole) may have led a similarly cushy life. Chico Loco maintains that its chickens are organic-fed, hormone-free and free-range. The excellent cook on the bird almost justifies the luxury afforded to it while alive.
The robust, spice-led seasoning on the skin of the chicken yields to reveal juicy meat, which pair well with sauces available at S$2 a pop.
Ranging from the non-spicy Chimichurri Yoghurt to the mild Smokey Chipotle BBQ, the five sauce options lend a layer of heat to the meal — a most Singaporean way of dining.
The Citrus, Serrano and Tomatillo and Green Peppercorn and Jalapeno Gravy sauces are easily outdone by the Habanero and Mango, the spiciest option available. Tangy notes of macerated mango meet fiery habanero peppers, creating sweet, spicy Mexican sambal.
It is the sauce that tastes the most like home, calling to mind greasy nasi lemak from an earnest makcik, with her signature heavy-handedness on the sugar elevating a chilli paste as thick as it is fiery.
For the plant lovers
While Chico Loco highlights its meats, vegetarian diners have several snack options to munch on.
The Mexican Mixta (S$12) features a line-up of superfood fads. Quinoa, cabbage, avocado, sunflower seeds, almonds, sweetcorn, cucumber, lime and cherry tomato are dressed with mojo verde, a punchy, green sauce made with cilantro.
Stealing the show, however, is the Street Corn. At S$6, the side dish exudes gentrification on a handy wooden stick.
The corn on the cob harks back to dusty roadside stalls and grim-faced hawkers. Glazed with chipotle mayo and cheese, a lime wedge offers a hit of fresh citrus, enough to wipe the memory of its price tag.
Some locals may admit, somewhat sheepishly, that they bring travel-sized bottles of chilli sauce on vacation. The Singaporean cannot be divorced from his spice, and our metaphorical melting pot emboldens the mouth-numbing, eye-watering flavours of each cuisine.
In that way, we may be closer to Mexico than we think.
When? Now until otherwise specified
102 Amoy St, Singapore 069922
Header image: Chico Loco