On a cold winter’s night, I headed out into the Inner West’s darkest streets and found a beacon of light in the most unexpected of places: a vegan taco restaurant with a world-first cocktail bar.
Vegan food gets a bad rep pretty regularly in Australia. It was only a matter of weeks ago that celebrity chef John Mountain banned vegans from his Perth restaurant, which itself was an unfortunate echo of the countless vegan flyers who find themselves served up laughable or lacking meals thanks to a lack of consideration for their dieting choices. With all that in mind, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to visit one of Australia’s first all-vegan taco spots; I wanted a chance to see what all the fuss was really about.
On a grey, cold Friday night in midwinter, my partner and I decided to venture out and explore something new. Our destination was Calle Rey, a restaurant perched on a bustling Newtown thoroughfare. From the outside, the restaurant appeared unassuming, but its bright green sign caught our attention and, as we opened the door, we were immediately enveloped in a vibrant and lively atmosphere.
WATCH: Take a quick look at what we ate.
Calle Rey had opened its doors in late 2019, making it one of a swathe of restaurants that, very shortly after its successful initial months, was forced to endure a brutal lockdown as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold around the world. However, against all odds, Calle Rey has emerged stronger than ever: it now boasted a revamped menu and a minimalist yet inviting interior, imbued with an electric atmosphere.
The highlight and USP of Calle Rey is its totally vegan menu, a culinary feat crafted by their talented head-chef, Juan Carlos, also known as ‘JC’. JC proudly told us that over ninety percent of the menu items were made entirely from scratch in his kitchen, and that his staple ingredient is — you guessed it — love. Drawing inspiration from Mexican and Peruvian cuisines, the menu incorporated a variety of progressive protein sources, such as jackfruit and tofu, to recreate or substitute the meaty elements traditionally found in these dishes.
Notably, Calle Rey boasts a world-first 100% vegan pisco bar. This unique offering sets it apart, as the prevalence of pisco throughout the drinks menu allows for creative twists on classic cocktails, such as the Pisco Daisy (a vegan take on the margarita) and the Pisco Espresso (their version of an espresso martini), with JC kindly explaining that the venue uses chickpeas instead of egg whites to froth their cocktails, lest anybody thought they could catch him out. And let’s not forget their “largeritas,” gigantic one-litre goblets filled with tequila, chipped ice, syrups, and an upturned vodka cruiser (or beer, if you prefer) that slowly filters into the drink. Heads up: these are strong.
Eager to get a taste of everything, we opted for the set tasting menu at $39 per person. The meal began with a selection of enticing starting plates, followed by two main courses of our choice, and concluded with a dessert. Intrigued by the idea of “realistic” vegan meat and the fusion of distinct cuisines, we selected the Cheeseburger Taco and California Roll Taco. For dessert, we couldn’t help but indulge in their enticing espresso brownie.
To accompany the meal, we sampled a miniature tasting selection of their pisco cocktails before I moved on to their signature “largerita” while my partner enjoyed a Pisco Daisy. The drinks were all fantastic, each offering a unique flavour profile. Though the “largerita” somewhat lacked the refinement of the other cocktails, it compensated with its sweetness, sharability, and excellent photo opportunity. It is also, as previously mentioned, immensely strong; if that’s a draw for you, take note.
The meal commenced with the Smoked Chicken Nachos, which were nothing short of exquisite. Despite the modest portion size, the smoked chicken captured the essence of its non-vegan counterpart, if not surpassing it. The harmonious combination of flavours and visually appealing presentation made for a perfect, hands-on starter.
Following this was the Aji Amarillo Grilled Corn, a revelation in two ways. The vegan butter drizzled over the corn offered a delicious depth of flavour, potentially rivalling its dairy-based counterpart. Even the vegan cheese sprinkled on top proved to be delightful. As someone who has more than struggled to appreciate vegan cheese in the past, this marked a significant milestone.
However, the star of the show undoubtedly emerged with the buffalo cauliflower wings. These wings, with their sticky sweetness and complex blend of spices, surpassed their traditional chicken counterparts by a country mile; if any dish on this menu could have converted me to veganism, this would’ve been it.
Next on the menu were the tacos, intended to be the main event of the meal. Although they didn’t quite reach the level of the life-changing starters, they were thoroughly enjoyable nevertheless. The cheeseburger taco, while somewhat indelicately assembled, demonstrated the authenticity with which vegan alternatives could replicate the flavours of meat-based classics. Similarly, the California Roll taco offered a slightly unusual eating experience, combining flavours and textures you wouldn’t usually expect in a taco, but the flavours were outstanding nevertheless.
On a future visit, I’d be inclined to try more “classically vegan” taco options like their eggplant or mushroom variants, but my two meaty-mimics were a delight all the same and were a testament to vegan cuisine’s ability to not only replicate meaty dishes but innovate past them, contributing to a long-overdue culinary evolution of which I think places like Calle Rey are only the beginning.
We concluded our meal with the Mexican Espresso Chocolate Brownie accompanied by coconut ice cream. The brownie itself was rich and delicious, even though its texture leaned more towards a sponge than the traditional chewy, dense, gooey brownie that I’d hoped for. However, the real revelation came with the vegan coconut ice cream, which was nothing less than a smash hit with both parties present, leading to a brief but heated debate over who should enjoy the final mouthful…
All in all, Calle Rey provided a truly revelatory dining experience, despite a few dishes that could benefit from minor refinements. Head Chef JC shared their plans to introduce middle-eastern inspired dishes, such as falafel and hummus tacos, in the near future. This prospect is enticing, and I hope to return very soon indeed.