Restaurants

The Verdict | Benzina Cantina

By James Shackell - 19 Sep 2018


If you were running a leathery motorbike garage and had an empty lot next door, what would you do? Besides the obvious pop-up vegan-organic yoga studio.

The smart answer is ‘Fill it with tacos and tequila’, which is pretty much the origin story behind Benzina Cantina.

Motorcycle stuntman 'Lukey Luke' Follacchio owns Benzina Garage in Preston, and he joined forces with Bruno Carreto (the guy behind Mexican stalwart, Los Hermanos). The idea was pretty simple: take the empty corner patch next to Benzina and turn it into a biker-themed Mexican dive bar...with lots of guac. This is the result.

You’ll spot Benzina as you’re driving up High St, just after the road forks. It’s opposite Kisses For Kaos and Plantsmith. It’s not like the building’s easy to miss—Benzina is a free-standing black cube, overslung with fairy lights. Beer garden on the roof, timber porch out front, big corkscrew staircase like you’d find in a lighthouse, and thumping beats coming from inside. At night the whole thing glows like a Mexican Titanic.

The food here is exactly what you’d expect from the Los Hermanos crew: delicious, unpretentious, heavy on the queso.

It’s Mexican street food with a Melbourne kink. Think totopos corn chips with chipotle mayo and salsa verde, gorditas pockets, stuffed with refried beans and Oaxaca cheese, or grilled esquites corn, dusted with queso fresco and tajin chilli. The sort of stuff you can eat with one hand, so the other never has to leave your cerveza.

The best way to do Benzina is to order a few starter plates, then 2-3 tacos for yourself. We’re usually a sucker for chicken tacos, but the fried fish taco here might be the best of the lot: beer battered fish, fried crispy golden, sitting on red cabbage and drizzled with lime and chipotle mayo.

The Taco de Barbacoa is also a winner (lamb tacos don’t make it onto many menus these days). Imagine lamb off the bone, slow-cooked for hours in beer, served on a homemade tortilla with onion, coriander and red salsa borracha, AKA ‘drunken sauce’.

Nice touch—there’s even a dedicated vegetarian menu, including cactus cooked in a mole sauce and zucchini ‘Calabazitas’ (Benzina’s take on Calabacitas—a grilled mix of zucchini, corn, cheese, sour cream and indigestion).

There’s nothing wrong with grabbing a Sol beer at Benzina, but to make the most of it, you should check out the cocktail menu. We tried the Clamato, and can highly recommend—it’s beer, lime, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, tomato, clam juice and a chilli salt rim. Imagine a Canadian Caesar mixed with a Michelada—clammy, tomato-y, spicy and bloody addictive.

There’s also a great tequila and Mezcal collection (as you’d expect), plus some interesting Spanish and Chilean wine—although really, who has wine with tacos? You’ll be happy to know they’re also doing $18 jugs of Sangria to keep the party rolling.

Benzina’s décor is an interesting mash of grungy bike detail and schmick lighting. The metal ceiling feels a bit like a shipping container (which isn’t far from the truth), but the upcycled timber bar, underlights, motorbike artwork and deconstructed vintage Honda all sort of flow together.

Look, you could say anyone opening a taqueria in Melbourne in 2018 has sort of missed the boat: Mamasita has been slamming Mexican since 2010 FFS. But it honestly doesn’t matter—Preston Mexican options are limited as is, and Melbourne’s taco fetish shows no sign of slowing down. Follacchio and Carreto know they’re onto a winner here.

Sitting under Benzina’s fairy lights, gorditas in one hand and Clamato in the other, we’re backing this one all the way. All that’s missing is the leather-studded mariachi band.

Want to learn more about Benzina Cantina? Check out our Directory page

Image credit: Mel Desa

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