“I don’t know what I’m eating, but it tastes amazing,” my friend Tabitha says about the menu at Bad Hombres in Surry Hills. You don’t need to carry out an intelligence operation to enjoy the dishes here – the tacos and quesadillas are optimised for strong rat-a-tat bursts of flavour that’d score well on any blind tasting.
You don’t need to know that the Jerusalem artichokes are over-roasted, skin on, to the point they’re creamy and sweet, and then served on a taco with a blitz of garlic, onion, Jerusalem artichoke and peanut purée.
Or that the tortilla made with naturally blue corn comes in an otherworldly colour that’s contradicted by its down-to-earth, gritty flavour, and loaded with stir-fried kale, zucchini and an intriguing Mexican herb called epazote.
Or that the pea mole hitches the brightness of blanched peas, avocado and lime juice with the smoky charge of charred onions, raw garlic, burnt green chilli, toasted spices and roasted cashews.
Or you don’t even need to know that, two months after opening this year, Bad Hombres switched to an all-vegan menu. You probably didn’t need this declassified info to enjoy the Japanese mushroom tostada with pumpkin, seaweed and lime, but when some people have a mistrust of what vegan food can be (too healthy, under-powered, unsubstantial), it’s awesome to see this venue intercept cliches and skepticism about meat-free dishes with counter-arguments that are delicious and debate-settling.
The food is by Toby Wilson, who imports his Mexico-via-Chinatown approach from his Ghostboy Cantina days to the former Sugarcane site on Reservoir Street. With him, he brings full custody of his bestselling cauliflower taco – retooled for Bad Hombres’ family-style dining menu as a roll-your-own activity. Half a cauliflower, given a deep-fryer blast, is seasoned with seaweed salt and anchored in cashew cream. It’s yours to attack and turn into a DIY taco, thanks to the pile of Chinese pancakes and well-placed knife.
Besides this habit-forming dish, he includes other Ghostboy hits (the furikake corn, the seaweed-dusted chips). In a way, this is an unexpected move as – when I interviewed Toby in the new year – he’d not only retired Ghostboy Cantina from its final location at Tio’s, but planned to head for the exits and leave hospitality altogether.
Which brings me to my favourite part of the Bad Hombres origin story – and it involves co-owner Sean McManus, who is the barista behind Neighbourhood in Surry Hills and is so legendarily friendly that he deserves a trophy shelf full of honours declaring him the nicest guy in the industry.
Sean and Jon Kennedy, who runs Rutland Street Sandwiches (adjacent to Neighbourhood), wanted to sell natural wines in the shop next door to their businesses, but there were “a lot of dramas” getting a liquor licence, explained Sean on The Mitchen podcast.
“Toby Wilson told me, the night before, he wants nothing to do with hospitality anymore. Pretty much the morning he got accepted into ad school, I rang him up and I’m like, ‘dude, I have a 50-seater restaurant, full kitchen, it’s got a liquor licence, so we can do Ghostboy with booze’.”
“Two hours later, he was ‘I’m in, f–k ad school’.”
Fast forward three weeks, Bad Hombres was open, and unlike Ghostboy (which was unlicensed and in Dixon House Food Court), it had an all-Australian, natural and vegan wine list that echoed the food menu. (Although, admission, besides Sigurd chenin blanc from the Barossa Valley and Architects of Wine skin-contact riesling from the Adelaide Hills, you might get extra lucky and encounter an off-menu exception, and end up with something not-so-geographically-correct – but excellent, nonetheless – from Austria’s Gut Oggau.)
There’s also a corn ale from Willie the Boatman, which seems fitting for a Mexican restaurant, and the jasmine tea from Teacraft is a nice connection to Bad Hombres’ Chinatown origins.
If you’re familiar with the team behind the venue, you might have assumed that the catalyst for Bad Hombres ditching meat was Sean (he’s a vegan and, at Neighbourhood, went to great lengths to offer dairy-free options, like the oat milk coffee he made from scratch). However, Toby and Jon were the ones who pushed for the transition.
“All three of us had different reasons for wanting to go vegan,” says Toby. “Sean’s is obvious, JK saw the hole in the market for a great, vegetable-focused restaurant in Surry Hills and I saw the challenge in having to use new ingredients and create dishes where a vegetable sits in the place a roast chook traditionally would.”
“For me, I want the place to be a vegetable restaurant, not a vegan restaurant. That might sound wanky or pretentious or even splitting hairs, but there is an important difference in attitude there. It’s not a place you’re going to find fake meats, cheese substitutions or a heavy use of tofu. It is a place where we try and serve vegetables in a way that makes them the centre of attention. Ideally, every dish doesn’t feel like it’s missing animal products. We don’t want that feeling of diet restriction or ingredient substitution.”
It’s a stance that reminds me of Two Chaps and Cornersmith’s Annandale cafe – the menus are meat-free, but they don’t make a big deal about it. For them, it’s about being pro-vegetable, rather than vegetarian or vegan. Either way, all theses venues do an excellent job in retraining people’s palates and demonstrating that an entire menu can skip the animal protein – and still pull in high levels of flavour and on-the-plate flair.
Oh and another reason Bad Hombres is so much fun? The playlist is rigged with the cheesiest, deadset greatest FM hits – all singalong contenders that will actually inspire you to book a karaoke room after your dinner. It all adds up to this venue being one of my favourite restaurants to open this year. Bad Hombres makes for good times.