Rotorua might be best known for its hāngī – or even its food these days – but the big news is that there’s a little Mexican restaurant cooking up some magic.
In fact, El Mexicano Zapata Cantina brazenly declares itself the “best Mexican restaurant outside of Mexico.”
The claim may have substance: Travelers visiting Rotorua for the spectacular geysers, relaxing trout fishing and health-boosting spas are in awe of the Cantina, which has garnered hundreds of rave reviews for its Mexican cuisine enticing.
On a recent trip to Sulfur City, I needed a restaurant for my girlfriend’s birthday dinner. Like most punters, I hopped online to see what was getting the kudos.
* Sanga’s Pies: The star bakery nestled in the industrial district of Cromwell
* New Zealand’s Great Pie Trails: Are they the best pies in New Zealand?
* Rotorua: Where the intrigue thickens with each visit
* Neat places to enjoy Mexican food
Under the cloak of darkness, we walked to the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere.
Now, we all know that navigating the net’s recommendation culture requires a keen eye for puffies, posers, and porkies. I mean, it’s almost impossible to look at restaurant reviews on a site like TripAdvisor without remembering the infamous The Shed At Dulwich debacle.
A little recap for those unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a bored guy from South London called Oobah Butler. He decided to create a prank restaurant and scam TripAdvisor’s algorithm to direct it to the top of the rankings.
He did such a good job with his fake menus, website and social media that he went to the No.1 restaurant in London – and his burner phone started to heat up with the hip and tried to make reservations.
Encouraged by this crazy response, he took the joke a step further by opening his cabin for one night. London’s gastronistas were so eager to be seen in the coolest restaurant in town that they didn’t notice they were being served reheated cooked food in a shitty courtyard, with a restaurant vibe trendy.
So when I started reading rave reviews about the Cantina, I was initially skeptical. But digging deeper seemed to support the idea that this place was a real sensation. Thinking it would be busy if it tasted so good, we hit the joint early and managed – just – to get a table. A few minutes later it was fully booked, so we hadn’t arrived too early.
And the food ? A revelation. A few bites in my pescado ceviche, I was already dreaming of coming back. We loved the superb botanas (we tried the jalapeno poppers and calamari fritos), gorged on quesadillas, couldn’t resist an enchilada especialidade (“house specialty”) and were wowed by the dazzling array of sauces that accompany them. If I was anywhere within a two hour drive of Rotorua I would go there just to get another dose of goodness.
Because lo and behold, Mexican food is a lot like pizza: bastardized, vandalized, and compromised all over the world in all sorts of ways. And cooking Mexican at home – forget it. OK, I can knock out a reasonable guacamole and maybe something taco-like, but that’s about it. Truly Great Mexican – outside of Mexico – is an oft-sought, rarely found holy grail.
Kiwis want more, even the sloppy stuff that usually passes for Mex. Turns out we’re in the midst of a Mexican food boom here, with the number of Mexican restaurants growing 285% on a local delivery app since 2021.
Energetic chef Anthony ‘Tony’ Mallari, the genius behind the Cantina and a man with an inexhaustible passion for his food, is certainly leading the way with his much-talked-about and acclaimed restaurant he opened in 2017.
There is, however, a slightly confusing aspect: there are actually two El Mexicano Zapata in Rotorua. The other is an independent establishment owned by Tony’s former business partner, a joint called El Mexicano Zapata Express.
But a little competition has never lowered anyone’s standards and Tony is too busy keeping his Cantina at the top of the charts to dwell on parting ways with his former partner. He is currently working on a new Cantina for lucky, empanada-deprived Hamiltonians, which is slated to open in August.
So customers think Tony is doing great things, but does he really believe he has the best Mexican outside of Mexico?
“Well, I recently came back from a month in North America and tried several authentic Mexican cantinas,” he says, “and I have to say that my dishes at the Cantina match the best Mexican restaurants. in the United States and Mexico!”
Tony says he’s also brought in a lot of Mexican tourists and they’ve all been very positive in their reviews, which he says is the ultimate tribute. Hard to argue with that.
So amigo, if you’re craving a good Mexican, do yourself a favor and put the Cantina on your to-do list for your next Rotorua vay-cay.
Find El Mexicano Zapata Cantina at 1148 Tutanekai Street, Rotorua. See: elmexicanozapata.com
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