Jul 6, 2023 Restaurants
The Auckland dining scene is now firmly in its neighbourhood era. At Metro, when we put together our annual Restaurant of the Year list, we inevitably run into categorisation issues, and one of the most common questions is: when is a restaurant a ‘neighbourhood restaurant’? All restaurants can be ‘casual’, ‘smart’ or even ‘fine’, but why are only some ‘neighbourhood’?
The question is perhaps best answered by looking at the intentions of the restaurant as expressed through its food offering, its drinks list and its space. For the ‘neighbourhood restaurant’, its main function is to serve the people who live nearby rather than focusing on enticing people to travel from afar. So, while the wants and needs of one neighbourhood might not be the same as the next, a spate of new openings in the past couple of years suggests a workable neighbourhood-restaurant format: a small enough room to be friendly and energetic without too many people in there; a drinks list with reasonably priced beer, cocktail and wine-by-the-glass options (perhaps with a few, nicer bottles on hand for simpatico groups and special occasions — more if the place is hoping to cross over into the overlapping wine bar/bistro categories); and a sharing-focused menu that is just long enough to cover a variety of dietary options and tastes.
Ragtag, a newish ‘Mexican-ish’ restaurant in Westmere, fits this mould to a tee. The interior is comfortable and nice, if a little rote (its resemblance to a number of other restaurants is not a deficiency of Ragtag so much as a reflection of how dominant the aesthetic of our times is). It also shares with a few other recent openings a drinks list in which Wine Diamonds and Garage Project predominate. Again, a little boring, but that we’re even in the position of considering a complaint about the prevalence of interest- ing wines on tap is not something we could have imagined a few years ago.
The Ragtag origin story is yet another reflection of the times. Dan Freeman (who was a competitor on the first local season of My Kitchen Rules in 2014) made his (and eventually Ragtag’s) name via many pop-ups and collaborations — desserts, burgers, fried chicken and tacos — while also spending three years as a chef at our reigning Restaurant of the Year, Alma . Ragtag, his first restaurant, is the culmination of that experience, giving a permanent home to the popular tacos that he sold in various locations around town on his days off.
But it’s not just tacos — and it’s not tacos as you know them. As you approach the restaurant, before anything resembling a name, you see a big white sandwich board declaring “100% not authentic”. It’s glaring and a little discomforting. On the one hand, the honesty is welcomed. This is a Mexican-inspired restaurant, owned and operated by non-Mexicans serving food cooked entirely by (as far as we could tell) non-Mexicans, and it’s admirable to be upfront about that tension. But, on the other hand, the prominence of the sign and the slogan (it features prominently on Ragtag’s social media — #notauthentic) still makes me cringe a little. It can be read as a minimisation (ironic, given its prominence) of social and political issues around food, ethnicity, provenance, influence and appropriation. Instead of politely saying, ‘Hey, by the way, the people who are responsible for your food make no claim to authenticity’, it smacks of a dismissive ‘Food has nothing to do with politics and all that other boring stuff — enjoy your delicious tacos’.
And the tacos are delicious, for the most part. As are the non-taco options. The raw fish tostada (trevally on
our visit), served with a bright and acidic peach salsa and harissa, provided a more Mediterranean than Mexican heat and was crunchy and light and a great start to the meal. I was tempted to immediately order another. The prawn tostada (kind of an elevated prawn toast) and the corn and mozzarella quesadilla (kind of an elevated corn and cheese toastie) were both comforting and enjoyable but neither were at that superlative level I’d been set up for (and which would be delivered upon later).
The duck carnitas tacos, however, were more the kind of dish I’d come for. Rich, gamey and soft, with just the right amount of sweetness (and a touch of acidity) coming from a chunky cherry salsa. For those unfamiliar with Freeman’s tacos, these seem like a statement of intent — Mexican in form (tortilla, meat, salsa and nothing else) but with a Mediterranean flavour-profile that wouldn’t be out of place at his old workplace. But the high point of the meal was the t-bone steak, darkly charred over coals to medium-rare perfection, sliced and served with hot sauce, a soy egg yolk and tortillas made with duck fat, which gives them the quality of a thin paratha. You mix together the hot sauce and yolk to form a luxurious spicy salsa, layer up a slice or two of the beef, slather it with sauce and enjoy your DIY taco. It’s the best steak dish I’ve had in a while and enough labour to be fun but not so much that it starts to feel like cooking that the kitchen should have taken care of instead.
From there, things reverted slightly towards the mean. Surprisingly for a chef who used to have a dessert business, the sweet dishes were a bit underwhelming. The chocolate mousse with the suddenly ubiquitous drizzle of olive oil (see our olive oil tasting earlier in this section) was slightly too dense, and the Basque cheesecake a little too dry (maybe it could have used a drizzle of olive oil). Sure, they’re not what you’re going to come here for and they’re not so disappointing as to overshadow the tacos. Which, yes, are #notauthentic, but also definitely worth stopping by for — if you’re in the neighbourhood.