I've been reluctantly working through my recent few weekends, but on Saturday evening I took a break for a leisurely cycle through the inner north with Michael, with dinner at El Chino as our goal. I'm surprised that this cute cafe has been the subject of so few blog posts but regardless, it runs a busy service on a Saturday night.
El Chino are BYO and in addition to the usual beer and wine corkage fees, they offer a mojito deal - you BYO the rum and they'll do the rest. We were happy to skip the alcohol and shared a slushy lime granita with a single garnishing mint leaf ($4.50).
While the mains and specials were mostly meat focused, we still had some options to peruse: empanadas, tall yet compact bowls of nachos, a vego burrito and three varieties of taco. Vegetarian and gluten-free options are well marked and though there are supposedly 'VG's listed for vegans, I suspect they're missing from some genuinely vegan menu items (take our savoury order here, for example). We grazed across the menu by ordering the Fiesta ($28), a meal for two centred around a cast iron pot.
Lined with a cabbage leaf, the pot offered pickled nopales cactus, roasted mushrooms and purple cabbage. We mixed and matched them with a fresh and finely minced salsa Mexicana and a fruity roasted salsa tatemada.
We mopped up our potted foods with five white and blue corn tortillas (then paid $4 for four more), and nibbled at some warmly spiced Mexican rice and black beans.
We thought we'd best give their grilled tofu side ($4.50) a shot too - it didn't have any noticeable flavour or marinade, but it made for nice DIY tacos with the salsa and other fixings. (I noticed later that we were also charged for a side of guacamole that was neither ordered nor served.)
As the room filled up and our finished dishes remained on the table, we had time to build up an appetite for dessert. In spite of the demands on his attention, our server generously took a moment to step us through our options. My mayordomo Mexican hot chocolate was underwhelming - the chocolate syrup lodged unmixed in the bottom of the cup, and the cinnamon quill provided only the barest hint of extra spice.
El Chino were all out of the tres leches sponge cake I'd been looking forward to but the caramel flan ($7.80) was a lovely alternative; the smooth custard and smoky hint of almost-but-not-quite burnt caramel broken up with candied hibiscus flowers and fresh strawberry.
Our experience at El Chino had its flaws, but they didn't sour our night. The cafe is a lovely setting for a quiet meal for two (or a party in the courtyard, from what we witnessed), and offers an unusually thoughtful selection of non-alcoholic drinks and desserts in addition to reliable main meals.
You can read about our breakfast at El Chino here. El Chino is not getting the blog attention that it deserves; since that post I've only seen it recommended on Poppet's Window and WOO FOOD.
214 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North
menu: dinner, banquets & sides, beverages & desserts
Accessibility: There's a small step as you enter and a clear corridor to the counter (which we've witnessed another customer maneuver a two-seater pram through), but the tables are quite crowded inside. We ordered at the table and paid at a low counter. We didn't explore the courtyard or visit the toilets.