In the second in our (rather sporadic) series “Why I love”, Hayden Donnell is convinced that Auckland’s best Mexican food is tucked away in an unlikely spot in Henderson.
To find the best Mexican food in Auckland, you have to head west from the city centre, cross the causeway on State Highway 16 and exit at Lincoln Rd. Turn right past a rotting boat docked on the side of the road and descend into a nondescript industrial zone filled with grey offices and greyer warehouses. Cielito Lindo will be on the left, just before you get to the rubbish dump.
The obscure eatery on The Concourse may look suspiciously like the kind of place where you’d buy a 36-hour-old ham roll, but it serves Mexican food of a quality rarely found in New Zealand. You’ll get the usual quesadillas and corn chips, but there’s also thick fried cornbread sopes – a popular Mexican street food – and tacos filled with fried cactus. It’s cheap, authentic, and, above all, delicious. What’s it doing in a place too out-of-the-way to even be in the middle of nowhere?
Cielito Lindo co-owner Eliseo Delgado Munoz arrived in Henderson by way of Morales, south of Mexico City. Back home he studied business and wanted to manage his own venture, until an exchange trip to New Zealand set him on a different course. Here he moved into hospitality, including working at the California Burrito Company before that business folded in a flurry of divorce proceedings and bitter recriminations. Eventually, he and his partner Angelina Febiyanti started looking to open their own shop.
The problem was budget. They couldn’t afford places in the pricier suburbs often described as “leafy” during local body elections and heritage debates. They looked elsewhere. Delgado Munoz saw something in a small place at 14 The Concourse. Everything inside was new. There was no rot. And a lot of traffic was coming past. So what if a lot of that traffic was heading to and from the rubbish dump barely 400 metres away? Potential customers were potential customers.
Delgado Munoz’s vision was to establish a truly genuine Mexican eatery like the kind he used to go to back home. “People in New Zealand don’t really know what authentic Mexican food is,” he says. “What we have is more like Tex Mex. Slowly I’m trying to give more Mexican dishes.”
He filled his menu with the stuff he ate back in Morales. His sopes are handmade, cooked according to a recipe handed down to him by his mother and topped with a choice of Mexican picadillo, chicken, or refried beans. So are the corn chips (crunchy and seasoned just right) and the twin bowls of salsas that get set on the table for every person dining in. If you don’t fancy cactus on your tacos, you can choose from beef cheek or lamb.
Nearly all the products that Delgado Munoz and Febiyanti don’t make themselves are bought from Tio Pablo – stockists who import directly from Mexico. Degado Munoz says he’s trying to slowly introduce New Zealanders to a real Mexican menu. “You can ask any Mexican. All Mexicans know what a sope is,” he says. “All Mexicans know a taco nopales.”
Still, 400m from a dump is a tough place to foment a food revolution, and Delgado Munoz has had to make concessions to his clientele, which mainly consists of tradies and people famished after shovelling old mattresses and wine-stained couches into the tip. A warming drawer filled with pies and rolls sits on the counter. “We need to survive like a business,” he says. “Some people try to test something new but some people don’t want to taste anything different.”
Lately there’s been signs his food is catching on outside the rubbish dump crowd though. A young couple turned up while I was at the restaurant late on a Sunday afternoon, obviously driven there by word of mouth. David Parker – a Waitakere local, well-known self-taught woodworker and near pro-level baker, is a fan – and has twice paddled his homemade canoe down Henderson Creek to dock outside the restaurant for lunch.
People are starting to cotton on to the quality of the little multi-coloured eatery on The Concourse. If they keep coming through the doors, Delgado Munoz wants to open a more traditional sit-down place in a flasher suburb like Grey Lynn or Ponsonby. He wants to get a liquor licence so people can engage in the hallowed Mexican tradition of drinking beer with their tacos. But before he can do that, he needs you to travel down the Northwestern to the deepest reaches of Henderson for the most authentic Mexican meal you can get in Auckland. If you get to the dump, you’ve gone too far.