Thursday, 10 January 2013

Guzman Y Gomez Retrospective - From Sydney to Brisbane to Melbourne

Most people in Melbourne hadn't heard of Guzman y Gomez when they launched their latest restaurant on Swanson Street (near Lonsdale Street) a month ago however they made a few fans when they celebrated the grand opening of their storefront in a converted Asian grocery with a mariachi band and free burritos for the punters who decided to be patient in the queue that flowed out onto the street. This is a signature move by Guzman y Gomez who has been handing out free burritos for as long as I remember when opening new locations. Clever.

It was with a bit of nostalgia that I think about when I was on a Virgin Blue flight from Melbourne to Sydney in 2006 when I was biding my time by reading the Virgin Velocity magazine. In it they profiled a new restaurant opening in Newtown (outside of Sydney) called Guzman y Gomez (GyG). It was described as a Mexican taqueria (street food) to which I scoffed and thought "if only!" but if the Virgin magazine was talking about it, I thought that it would have some promise as it just seemed so random. In 2006, Mexican food was as rare as hens with teeth in Sydney and "good" Mexican food just didn't exist unless you wanted a plate of cheese, beans and grease or even worse; one mob asking me if I wanted barbecue sauce on the "burrito" that I ordered before it was put in between a sandwich press. I am not surprised that place went out of business not long after that demonstration of street cooking. Sydney also had a Taco Bell for a while. That didn't survive long even though the Americans seems to live off  what they have on offer.

A few days after reading the article in Velocity, I actually drove my car out of the Sydney CBD and over to Newtown. I must have been motivated at the time to pique my senses to actually get my car out and drive somewhere, let alone to Newtown where it is nearly impossible to park legally. The Newtown location was the first GyG location to open in a small corner shop on King Street. There were a few stools against the wall giving patrons a small eating area with a view of the road and a large communal table where the Newtown hipsters happily ate their burritos. I remember being greeted in Spanish and ordering a "Chicken Guerrero" burrito and "Pork Chipotle" tacos (3) and really fearing that if the Newtown hipsters liked this place, I didn't know what I was in for. My first bite would lead to a seven year addiction and ultimately this retrospective blog post as I was hooked. Char-grilled chicken, rice, black beans, onions, coriander and a taste of spice immortalised in the green habanero (or red) sauce, depending on what you order, proper corn tortillas and fresh salsas. Over the next many months, I would get the car out and drive to Newtown to get takeaway GyG since their small dining room was always packed with hipsters and frankly the restaurant was pretty warm in the summer. I even found a good place to park next to the Imperial Hotel that would have yielded me a ticket if a ranger spotted my motorcar. That is how much I liked GYG and the lengths I would go to to get my mouth on one of their burritos.

The success of the Newtown location led to GyG opening in both Kings Cross and Bondi Junction next. This was really exciting as this meant I no longer had to drive to Newtown and dice with death with the rangers, as both the Kings Cross and Bondi Junction locations were in close proximity to the train stations. Working in Martin Place at the time made this convenient as it was only one stop to Kings Cross and three stops to Bondi Junction, which I would visit on occasion as this is where the Bondi Junction Westfields is located. I would frequently walk to the GyG Kings Cross. I liked this location as there was a fair amount of room to dine and the staff would kindly bring your order to your table. Later they would get an alcohol license and flog beer. When you think of interesting places to go people watching, I can't think of a better place than Kings Cross. It was also easier for me to drive to this location (and park illegally in the laneway nearby ironically) as it was closer than Newtown, however despite the extra space to dine, the transients, hookers and other rogues would start grating at your nerves when you are quizzed through the window with a burrito in hand for spare coins.

I started taking the train three stops to Bondi Junction. Like with Newtown, the restaurant is rather small and the 324 bus stops right outside of the place. For those that are familiar with the buses in Sydney, there are the newer buses that run on natural gas that have air conditioning that are rather loud and they compete on the roads with the older vintage 1930's-era buses that look like a rectangle that are extremely noisy. During the time of the seemingly never-ending state Labor government, not all buses were upgraded and the one that was traversing the 324 line stopped outside of the GyG frequently. The bus seemed to always be there; roaring to life and squealing to a stop every ten minutes so it was never a relaxing experience dining at this location sadly. For the most part during this epoch I visited the Kings Cross GYG and dealt with the external elements all in the name of this great food. Note: there is a GyG at Westfield Bondi Junction, which I never have had a chance to visit, I am referring to the GyG on Bronte Rd in this article.

When I learned that GYG was opening restaurants in the Sydney CBD I was really excited. Being I only ever took the train or drove to go to GyG, my walks effectively were cut to minutes when they spawned new locations at Australia Square, MLC Centre and later Westfield Sydney (Pitt Street Mall) all of which I had many positive experiences at. Australia Square became my favourite as they were only open for lunch and wasn't usually as crowded as the other CBD locations. I found that this location would be the most generous with the meat in the tacos and burritos and with the substantial seating available in the food court in and around the shops, including outside dining in the plaza near Ryan's Bar it was just all too convenient, besides it was the closest to where I lived. The GyG in Martin Place was a welcome addition at the MLC Centre but it was located in the food court. The self important people always jostled for position in the queue for lunch thinking they were all respectively the CEO of Westpac or Commonwealth Bank, asking the busy staff if they can only make their taco's "a little hot" or want some sort of silly substitution if they even knew what a taco was, so this shop wasn't frequented as often as the others despite it being the closest to my place of employment for a year or so. Later a GyG would open on Level 5 of the renovated Westfield Sydney (Pitt Street Mall) food court and I always found that location very efficient. The benefit of this restaurant is if you want or need a GyG fix in the evening, they are open unlike the Australia Square and MLC locations. The drawback is that at lunch the Westfield Sydney location gets both extremely busy and noisy. If you are lucky enough to manage to secure a seat anywhere you should really consider purchasing a lotto ticket since you are a winner.

With sadness, despite having six GyG locations to choose from in Sydney I moved to Brisbane for a while. Brisbane isn't the epicurean wasteland that some would think. There were a few (two) decent places that served Mexican-inspired food at the time, one of which was run by a bloke from California and I fondly remember the awesome barramundi burritos, a staple item that GyG would end up selling, at least at the Swanston Street location in Melbourne that I noticed recently. Still, there was a big void in my life because GyG had not come to Queensland at this point of my evolution however they continued to open up new restaurants in and around Sydney. Months passed and it was finally announced that a new GyG would open in the "better side" of Fortitude Valley outside of Brisbane in the Emporium complex and my tears ceased. GyG gave away burritos on the day they opened and I turned up the next day to avoid the mad crush. Sadly, they are located about 10 minute walk from the dirty Fortitude Valley Station (think Kings Cross station in Sydney) but despite the inconvenience I was happy that they finally arrived. The Fortitude Valley location is by far the largest one that I have seen and has the most relaxed setting under cover outside. Margaritas and alcohol were served. Queues were long but staff were very efficient. Punters were happy. I could park my motorcar at the car dealership across the street at night and on the weekends (ongoing theme about my parking?) which made visiting the restaurant convenient. When I moved from Brisbane and back to Sydney, I was sad to see the Fortitude Valley GyG become a memory as it was my favourite of the seven restaurants that I had come across at that point.

Before moving to Melbourne last year, I would revisit all of the GyG locations mentioned earlier with the exception of Newtown. They all remained rather consistent with my previous observations and Australia Square would continue to be my favourite.

Moving to Melbourne I was sullen because GyG had not yet arrived. Fortunately for me there was a burgeoning Mexican scene and Senoritas, Mamasita, Fonda and Pacos Tacos would entertain me. Some would say that you can not compare GyG to these fine restaurants, which you really can't, but GyG is supposed to personify quick and easy (and cheap) street food. They win easily in the value for money category.

A few months ago GyG announced that they would be opening a location at Highpoint Shopping Centre in Melbourne but I suppose it was because of the raft of alternatives in the CBD I didn't feel the need to invest more in public transport or a cab (or shock horror actually drive) to Highpoint so when I walked past the construction site for the new GyG on Swanston Street en route to Melbourne Central the other month, I was excited. Being a subscriber to the GyG twitter feed (@guzmanygomez) I knew they were opening in the CBD at some point so seeing the site made me happy. What a convenient location. (Update on 18/02/13: I visited the GyG at Highpoint Shopping Centre in Maribyrnong. Compared to the other locations, this one is remarkably calm. It is located near the Hoyts Cinema and there is a small dining area off of the pedestrian thoroughfare. I was shocked to see only one person preparing the food and only one person attending the counter. After all of the other locations being a hive of activity, I started to wonder if this was an appropriate venue for a GyG. Still, the food was the same quality as the other locations and I thoroughly enjoyed by burrito, the table service and the condiments on offer. Alcohol is also available) 

The Swanson Street location, since it is located in what was formerly Asian grocery is the largest GyG I have seen that is constrained by walls. Not only do they have windows that open toward Swanson Street so you can people watch (people almost as interesting as those that you would find in Kings Cross) but there is air conditioning. Not being forced into a food court is novel, not being relegated to communal tables is welcome and on a warm Melbourne day, it was certainly nice to be greeted by air conditioning first and then by a smile at the counter second. There was no queue when I visited and all of the tables were clean. One of the team members was at the door offering passers-by samples of chips and guacamole and after I ordered my burrito and tacos it was quickly delivered whilst I caught up on my Twitter feed. As soon as your food has been exhausted other team members will happily remove your rubbish and clean your table. It is the cleanest GyG that I have seen. Most however are in and around food courts, so it was refreshing to have inexpensive food that didn't appear "cheap" and yet another location that is adhering to the consistent GyG formula.

All I know is that my Gomex GyG frequent diner card is going to get a workout and I am still dirty that they opened two locations in the Brisbane CBD almost immediately after I moved. Perhaps they didn't forecast the demand would decrease without me in the capital of Queensland.

So hundreds of burritos and tacos later, I can say that I am a fan, if not addicted. Give it a try, you will not be sorry. Judging by the feedback that users of Urbanspoon leave, all the locations are seemingly created equal and satisfy people equally judging from the ratings below.

Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taqueria
http://www.guzmanygomez.com

Locations described in this retrospective:
  1. 175 King St., Newtown NSW
  2. Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taqueria Newtown on Urbanspoon
  3. Bayswater Rd/Penny Lane, Kings Cross NSW
  4. Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taqueria Kings Cross on Urbanspoon
  5. 1A Bronte Rd., Bondi Junction NSW
  6. Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taqueria Bondi Junction on Urbanspoon
  7. 264 George St., Australia Square, Sydney NSW
  8. Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taqueria Australia Square on Urbanspoon
  9. MLC Centre Food Court, Martin Place, Sydney NSW
  10. Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taqueria MLC on Urbanspoon
  11. 188 Pitt St., Westfield Sydney Pitt Street Mall, Sydney NSW
  12. Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taqueria Westfield Sydney on Urbanspoon
  13. Emporium, 1000 Ann St., Fortitude Valley, QLD
  14. Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taqueria Fortitude Valley on Urbanspoon
  15. 289-299 Swanston St., Melbourne, VIC
  16. Guzman Y Gomez Mexican Taqueria Swanston Street on Urbanspoon
  17. Highpoint Shopping Centre, Maribyrnong, VIC
  18. Guzman Y Gomez Mexican Taqueria Highpoint on Urbanspoon