Owner/chef Toby Wilson set himself a launch date of Chinese New Year, which meant he found himself dodging lion dancers and Chinatown crowds in setting up his Haymarket taqueria and, as you’d expect from something located in the Dixon House Food Court, the menu is revved up with Asian flavours.
Early on, Toby decided that being slavishly authentic didn’t really fly, logic-wise – especially when he couldn’t always land quality traditional ingredients here. So he’s gone and remixed Mexican food in a smart, catchy way that translates insanely well.
Instead of tortillas, he’s retooled Peking duck pancakes to be a double-layered crash pad for Asian-inflected fillings. The Beef Taco ($6), is pho-inspired, except no mighty slurping is needed to enjoy the tangle of brisket with mushroom XO, salsa verde and salsa roja, bean sprouts and sharp accents of onion, coriander, Thai basil and lemon. The Pork Taco ($6.50) shares this salsa-and-Asian-condiment-box DNA, except amps it up with five-spice and chipotle pork shoulder and fruity chunks of yellow peaches. In Good Food, Myffy Rigby named it as the go-to dish and called it “a flavour bomb, gift-wrapped in carbs”.
She wasn’t as keen on the chilli-and-queso-fresco Cauli Taco ($5), but I think it must’ve undergone a rebuild since her early-days visit, because the three times I’ve had it, it’s been an awesome blast of deep-fried cauliflower, taken to the next level with a booster pack of great flavour: seaweed salt, fried shallots, salsa verde, a nutty wallop of macadamia cashew cream and a support cast of lime, onion, coriander. (Grab Your Fork’s Helen Yee is a big-time fan of this one, too.)
“The cauliflower taco was invented literally five minutes before the first service,” says Toby. “It has since become our best seller, which is wild.” The fact it’s vegan happens to be an excellent bonus.
You may be wondering how a former barista from Le Monde – whose career path includes owning the great Wedge Espresso in Glebe and, most recently, pulling shots at St Peter’s Sample cafe – ended up fronting an Asian-Mex canteen, but it’s not far removed from the Sloppies nights he was running at the Wedge, where culinary borders got as messy as the fast-food fillings and the fun levels were dialled right up.
Also, this concept had been a long-time interest of his.
“I went on a bit of a taco mission, I watched Mexican grandmothers making salsa in Spanish on YouTube, bought a stack of taco books and ultimately went over to Mexico and USA to get more hands on,” he says. (And Toby really went deep, blitzing through 30 tacos in one day in Mexico – “it was heavy”.)
After his hectic research, he decided to flavour the Ghostboy Cantina concept “with more of a Sydney palate”, he explains. “Going strictly traditional as a non-Mexican in not-Mexico didn’t seem to make much sense.” (And in fact, the name Ghostboy is also a reference to his outsider status.)
So at his Chinatown eatery, he keeps playing match-maker with Asian and Mexican palates – which doesn’t seem so over-the-top wild when you consider the logical crossovers; there’s undisguised love for garlic, lime, coriander, chilli and spices in both cuisines. With his salsa verde: “I’ve made a pretty traditional base of tomatillo, garlic and coriander, but added Thai basil, kaffir lime and rice wine vinegar.”
He also recently went on a recon mission to Japan, and the menu influences slip in without being blinding neon-sign declarations. So the corn cobs are wonderfully encrusted with a “semi-furikake of nori, chipotle, sesame and salt”, a generous coating of creamy Japanese mayo and hefty coriander flecks – all ready to be target practice for a good lime squeeze. My friend Jenny said it was “the best corn she’d had in her life”. It’s definitely worth all the flossing you’re condemned to later – it’s that good.
And the Fries ($4)! They come sprinkled with some kind of magic dust that makes you unable to stop eating them. OK, so in actuality it’s nori salt and totally above board, but man, there are times I’ve been so full, but I still will manage to clear out the rest of the box, with all the precision of a painstaking rescue operation.
I’ve even ordered the Salad ($6.50) and added a protective layer of seaweed salt fries over the tumble of daikon, green papaya, radish, red cabbage, carrot, fried shallots, Thai basil, coriander and the drizzle of ponzu-salsa verde vinaigrette. ‘Cos isn’t that the best way to eat salad, with ultra-seasoned chips on top?
Sometimes Toby changes it up, and serves a Melon-Mango Salad with Chilli Salt, which is a bit too mushy for my ‘chip delivery system’ ulterior motives.
With Ghostboy Cantina’s close proximity to Paddy’s Markets, these menu switches are likely to happen often – with Toby flexing new specials on Instagram or rostering permanent items on. So you might spot a just-added Lamb Belly Taco ($6), spiked with cumin and chilli-spiced macadamia cream, pickled daikon, coriander and lime, or Crispy Deep-Fried Pig’s Ear Taco with a slather of Korean chilli sauce, pickled cucumbers and shiitakes, onion and coriander (my friends Candice and Rob personally back both this and the Cauli tacos).
On overseas trips, Toby had been inspired by the outdoor market in Penang (“where there were maybe 100 stalls where everyone makes roughly five things, and they’ve been making them forever so they’re really fucking good at it”), as well as the low-end casual dining scene in the US – where a $20 bill will more than broker a good feed with friends in a cheery atmosphere; as he says, they’re the kind of place that’d “be just as good on Tuesday night as it is on Friday night”. He wanted to channel these two experiences into Ghostboy Cantina.
Seeing as you can conquer the entire menu for around $30 between two, he’s definitely delivered on the wallet-friendly front. And the lively feel of Dixon House Food Court isn’t shortchanging him on the cheap-and-cheery vibes. I like that Ghostboy Cantina kind of forces you to get acquainted with the rest of the basement stalls, because his canteen isn’t licensed and doesn’t serve drinks, so you’ve got to go on a beverage hunt to complete your happy-ish meal.
So sink some sugarcane juice, Tsingtaos or (my fave) sweet-as-hell lychee ice from nearby shopfronts after you’ve devoured your tacos.
I really like Ghostboy Cantina – I’ve been there three times in three weeks, and you might have to set up some boomgates to stop me revisiting so often. The tacos could’ve been large-format, napkin-destroying disasters, but they’re actually the best kind of ‘handful’. Each one’s a battle zone of flavours and the pin-up for the borderless menus that make Sydney so great.
Note: as of late July, Ghostboy Cantina has relocated to Tio’s Cerveceria at 4-14 Foster Street, Surry Hills.
Ghostboy Cantina, Dixon House Food Court, B08, 413-415 Sussex Street, Haymarket. Follow Ghostboy Cantina on Instagram and Facebook.