I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but since turning to gorging ourselves on Mexican food either post town or not at all sober (thanks Zambrero), there has been a whirlwind of new Mexican places flood into Wellington. Obviously, these new places aren’t meant for town folk – although I’m sure one too many margaritas might get you there – but I can guarantee their food tastes just as good as it does when drunk and hungry. Recently, there’s a new kid on the block who is stepping up to the Mexicano challenge, and from my experience here, they’re doing a pretty flipping good job. Let’s talk about Los Banditos.
I knew about
this place a little while before it was opened – as my stunning bartender
friend Louis works there and absolutely KILLS the cocktail menu – but I could’t
picture in my head what kind of establishment it would be like. From the
outside, it follows in the footsteps of Lulu and Boom burger, with the bright
neon signage, but on the inside is where Los Banditos really sets themselves
apart – and I’m not just talking about the food! The interior is warm, cosy,
bright, colourful and eye-catching all at once, and perfectly emulates the bold
and eclectic South American towns and culture. As soon as we settled down into our
comfy booth, we were instantly greeted by a cheerful waitress who was more than
happy to let us know what’s poppin’ on the menu.
that our bartender friend was working, we had to test drive his Margarita
skills, so I ordered their chai spiced margarita, and my partner ordered one of
their frozen margaritas (which was only $12 – bargain!). Holy mamma has my
friend got skill, because these bad boys tasted amazing and definitely did
their job of getting me a little tipsy. We also got to try a few little tasters
that aren’t yet on the menu, but once they are, I’ll let you guys know EXACTLY
which drink they are so you can go and experience the flavours that we did!
Enough about the drink, this is a food blog. So, let’s cut to the chase.
flipping hungry that night, so each ordered a veggie quesadilla and a big ol
bowl of chips and salsa. I always get a little cautious when ordering chips and
salsa because I never know how big the portion of chips are gonna be, and how authentic
the salsa is gonna taste. Well, rest assured, Los Banditos have all bases covered
and served us up a HUGE portion of multi-coloured corn chips and a fresh and tantalizing
salsa to match. After only denting the pile of chips a little, our quesadillas
were placed in front of us. You know when you actually drool a little at the
sight of food? Yeah, I had to wipe my mouth. The aromas coming from both plates
smelt so good that I almost forgot to take a photo and dug right in! After
getting that Insta snap, I then proceeded to stuff my face. Their truffle and
mushroom quesadilla sparked a fiesta of savoury, sweet, umami, and spicy flavours
in my mouth, and not long after taking my first bite had I cleared the plate. Their
broccolini quesadilla was also delicious and is the perfect plate of food for
somebody who can’t get enough of their greens!
going to stop rambling about the food and my mate Louis and give them my final
CCL score. The ambiance was awesome, and really worked with the alty Welly vibe.
The drinks were jaw-droppingly tasty, and nearly stole the spotlight from their
food. But I have to give commendations to the chefs, who really went in on the
flavours and made some westerner Mexican-favourite meals authentic and interesting.
The only thing I could pull them up upon is the variety of Mexican meals they
have, and maybe delving into some more traditional and unknown dishes could be
cool – but it’s their very first menu, and I’m sure they’ve got some tasty
trick up their sleeves for the future! A flipping awesome 8.8/10 for Los
Banditos, but I know with time they’ll pump out some menu’s that’ll bump up
If you hail from Wellington, you may have heard of our long-loved La Boca Loca or newly-built Boquita. Now, we go behind the doors to meet Lucas Putnam, the man behind the Mexican restaurant mavericks that have taken New Zealand’s capital by storm.
Let’s start off with a little about you – I see that you originally hail from New York and then to California – what was it like growing up in America?
It was a combination of traditional and non-traditional – we moved around a lot. We moved to France when I was 3, but I was young so I didn’t get the full benefit. We then moved back to San Fran with my father, and then eventually settled in Napa Valley. I moved around schools a lot as a kid – but even with that, I had a great time. There was a very strong Mexican culture in Napa, as a lot of Mexicans came to work in the wineries – especially 2nd and 3rd generation families. Because of these families coming and bringing their culture to Napa, I was exposed to the Mexican cuisine.
As we know, America is riddled with Mexican chains & restaurants – when did you first encounter Mexican food?
The place that really got me first – I think I talk about it in my cookbook – was this place called Taqueria Rosita, a little family style restaurant – which funnily enough was actually owned by one of my classmates in high school! It served really delicious traditional Mexican food that I was inspired by and that we’ve tried to recreate here at Boquita and La Boca Loca. Before that place – it was basically Taco Bell, which I regret to say. But because we could buy fresh corn tortilla’s in Napa that were basically made that day, my father made a lot of easy Mexican meals for us, so I guess that helped feed my love for Mexican.
The Mexican food in Napa Valley sounds delish! But before all that, what was the go-to food for you and your family?
Anything I could get my hands on! We weren’t very wealthy, and because my dad was raising us on our own (for the most part), it was quite hard. When I grew up there was a massive health movement, especially in San Fran (nowadays it’s L.A), which maybe had to do with the 70’s movement and the consciousness of the earth. Because of this we went from eating McDonald’s and ice cream to eating macrobiotic diets – which made me VERY hungry! After a while my dad realised he needed to actually feed a growing male teen, so then we treated ourself to fast food. I only really got conscious around health at university, after the first couple of years (after the fresher 15) – and then swiftly moved to preparing more Mexican dishes.
Obviously you’ve now set up shop in windy Wellington, when did you move to New Zealand and why?
I came here to work in Film at Weta Digital for about 17+ years, though when you take into consideration all the hours it feels like about 20. Basically I saw a job, I applied for it, worked there for a bit and then realised there was no Mexican food. Me being selfish, I wanted Mexican food – so chose the obvious solution and set up a restaurant. It took a while to find this place, had a few false starts along the way but here we are! I now name it the most expensive taco I’ve ever had.
I see that you’re a conscious consumer – that’s awesome! What does sustainable cooking mean to you? How do you perceive cooking sustainably?
Yes we are one of the early adopters of that connotation. The main components for that are trying to get ingredients that are organic, which can sometimes be a really touchy concept. We try our best to make sure we’re using really sustainably produced food and that kinda’ means no harming the environment. However, meat and dairy pretty much inherently do damage to the environment – so it’s a balance of give and take. So then it comes down to being sustainable in other ways – we recycle as much as possible, compost as much as possible, and minimise waste where we can.
I saw on your website that they call you Master of Tequila – how does one gain that kinda title?
Totally self-appointed – just love tequila! I learned as much about it as possible when travelling, knowing the producers, and even going to Tequila the town. Tequila is similar to champagne, where it has two (or SHOULD) come from the regions its derived from.
Getting onto the restaurant side of things – why did you open up Boquita? Why not another La Boca Loca?
I wanted to try something different, my partners at the time were really excited about opening a vegan place. I had tried one before back in California and it was pretty good, so I thought well, let’s try it! The space Boquita is in is conducive too that decision – we don’t need to prepare meat or dairy, therefore don’t need a back kitchen. We can store, prep, and cook everything in one small space. It’s a really communal space too between chef and customer which is what I love – you sit so close to the pass that you’re pretty much helping prepare the food!
For those whose mother-tongue isn’t Mexican – what does Boquita translate to in English?
Boquita means ‘Little Mouth” – La Boca Loca means ‘crazy mouth’ – but the location is snug and its smaller scale so we went for ‘Little Mouth’. Anything with ‘ita’ on the end, means little in Spanish.
Setting up a restaurant sounds pretty full-on! How would you describe your journey towards opening up Boquita compared to first establishing La Boca Loca?
Relatively easy – we didn’t have to earthquake proof, retrofit, any of that. La Boca Loca was a very different story. We opened right around the 2 Christchurch earthquakes, so it was really touch and go. We basically had to strip everything back and rebuilt it so it would withstand the elements. Boquita had a kitchen at the back, the front we put a countertop and that was it, ready for service!
What is the main inspiration for Boquita? How does that differ from La Boca Loca?
So, it’s interesting. My first chef and I worked together a lot on the menus for La Boca Loca – but the first recipe I worked on myself was Tempeh. I really really loved Tempeh, I thought it was an excellent source of protein and fantastic meat alternative – it’s very similar to tofu but a bit more flavour and texture when cooked right! I also love chilli’s, so developed a recipe around tempeh and chipotle and figured out that if you cook the tempeh firs (bake or fry) and add some veggies and chipotle – it takes on another dimension and becomes really really tasty. This was one of the first recipes at Boquita, and the menu just grew from that vegetarian starting point. For the first few nights we were mixing up the menu and trying different alternatives, but then things started to stick. For example, we started out putting the Potato Rosti on special, but as soon as we took it off special, everybody was asking where it was, so we added that permanently. Our 3 core ingredients; tofu, tempeh and mushroom, became the key all-year ingredients, and then we play around with other flavours and ingredients based on seasonality and what’s available.
Boquita is definitely more central than La Boca Loca – what drove you to go into the city, and why is La Boca Loca so far out?
I opened La Boca Loca because I was working at Weta at the time and I established this place purely just for easy come-and-go access to and from work, pretty selfish of me, right? This space here (Boquita) became available, which funnily enough is right next to where our wholesale kitchen was, so when this front area became available we realised that our idea of starting up a vegetarian Mexican restaurant could actually happen – so we did it! So far so good!
My absolute favourite taco at Boquita was the OG tempeh (drools) – but what’s your favourite dish on the menu at Boquita?
It really varies – sometimes I’m feeling the falafel, other times I’m feeling the mushrooms, or sometimes I’ll just want a mash-up where I’ll put everything in a bowl and just have that! Although actually when the cauliflower is super fresh for the cauliflower ceviche, its beautiful, I just love it. It’s so good, really light and fresh and delicious. It’s a really clean meal.
So we’ve talked a little about your childhood and past, but I want to know what really pushed you to taking Mexican cooking on full-time?
After my first taste of Mexican, it took me years to come back to the idea. I’ve worked in restaurants now, but when I was young I started off as a builder and then diverged into film for almost 20 years, but I still dabbled with Mexican cuisine along the way. Every Sunday night after a long week we could always come back to creating Mexican meals. It was hard to get a hold of the ingredients here, so we had two make do with what was available or import the chillies, masa and tequila, but it worked.
Do you find you stick to Mexican cuisine, or do you dabble with other cuisines (North or South American)?
Typically Mexican, yeah. Boquita has a lot more influences because we’re stepping outside of the typical Mexican parameters. The basis is the same, with the fresh corn tortillas that we make all day long, but through using the vegetarian alternatives in place of meat, there definitely is a lot of influence from other countries and places where these plant-based proteins originated.
If you had to choose one Mexican dish to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be? (I’m just genuinely curious)
The questions are so hard! Well right now its brunch time, so let’s base its off that as Mexican brunches are pretty fabulous. I love breakfast burritos or breakfast tacos; beans eggs, salsa, cheese and sauce – it’s perfect. So yeah, that could be it. Either scrambled eggs or scrambled tofu, which ever I feel like or have on hand!
You cook with Mexican flavours, so I assume you love a kick of spice! What’s your favourite hot sauce?
It’s all hard stuff! Domestically, I really love Kaitaia Fire – really good spice that one. From the US and Mexico, I love Cholula which is really yummy, Also Yucateco is really nice. There’s this one sauce which isn’t in production anymore from the Dominican Republic, called the West Indies, freaking fantastic – but you can’t get it anymore and its such a shame. You can find ones similar in Louisiana, but the one from the Dominican was just a level above.
Your cookbook is jam packed full of delicious Mexicana dishes – did any dishes not make the final cut, or were they all too delectable to ditch?
Oh, heaps heaps heaps. The cookbook is a lot of the original menu that my original chefs and I came up with together, but over the years we’ve created a lot. I wouldn’t say there are any unique recipes, I mean Boquita has some unique ones what with the veganization, but for the most part we are just recreating traditional Mexican recipes that we love with what’s available.
Is there a second cookbook in the works?
Oh yeah, there’s always one in my head. The creation process can be pretty long. If I had more time than maybe it would be a little faster, but with 2 restaurants and I’m the only manager, it’s definitely something to put on the back-burner for now!
And finally – Whats going on in your life? Is there anything coming up for the two restaurants?
Hopefully! I don’t know if you’ve read anything about the restaurant/hospitality scene in wellington, but its extremely difficult to open a cafe or restaurant and keep them running. There are so many places going under, so my focus is making sure that we survive by putting our unique food, that people love, and at a reasonable price. Boquita and La Boca Loca are unique and they’re set apart, but they’re also very specialised. Some people only feel like Mexican once a week, whereas we feel like it every day (like me), so that’s what we serve! You also see a lot of restaurants offering Mexican themed meals now, so if threes a group of people all wanting different foods they can go to a more generalist place and get the cuisine they want rather than coming here or Boquita where its solely Mexican. But word of mouth really helps, and we definitely hear people loving our food.
If you’re reading this and love a little Mexican in your life (I’m talking about the food here), then head on down to Boquita or La Boca Loca, where you’ll find Lucas and his team of chefs cooking up some of the most authentic and amazing Mexican dishes you’ll ever experience – you heard it here first!
walking up and down the Kent Terrace laneway for months on end, only ever
soaking up the sights of car dealership after car dealership – until one day,
and petite little precinct popped up out of nowhere which instantly caught my
attention. When I approached this new establishment, the smells instantly warmed
up my body and made me crave whatever was cookin’ up inside there. Being the
nosy parker, I am, I had a glance through the window to see what could possibly
be creating such a serendipitous smell, and that’s when I found Boquita.
moment onwards, I would risk looking like an Olympic power walker marching down
Kent Terrace just get another sneak peek into Boquita to see what marvelous Mexican
meals they were concocting. This restaurant quickly became known as the pioneer
of Mexican cuisine within Wellington central, with their parent restaurant, La Boca Loca, equally taking the outer
suburbs of Miramar and beyond by storm. After near-criminally stalking their Insta
feed, I decided that enough was enough – I needed to ditch the supermarket shop
and instead blow my paycheck on a proper authentic feast. So, a few weekends
ago, that’s what I did. And it was mind-blowing.
Me and the
boyf. Arrived at Boquita with our tummies empty and my wallet ready to drop
some fat cash on tacos. This place is pretty snug and always heaving with hungry
peeps, so we had a little wait on our hands for seats and food – but believe me
when I say the wait was totally worth it. So now that we’ve set the scene for
the night, let’s talk taco.
To kick off
our feast and tease our appetites, we ordered their daily special which was a Mexican
take on thick and crunchy loaded fries, with 2 variations of creamy hummus and a
dollop of refried beans taking the place of your average T-sauce. This was the
perfect little starter to snack on whilst we were hungrily waiting for the main
event – but it also teased our tummies as the combination of flavours in those little
fried patatas were immense, and they disappeared in minutes, leaving us even thirstier
for tacos. After what felt like hours (we literally didn’t eat all day just to
appreciate the meal more and eat double our weight in tacos) – the plates hit
our tables, revealing 3 of the most beautiful tacos I’ve ever seen. After
ravishing the plate with our eyes, we tucked on in.
off with their spicy scrambled tofu taco, whose fiery heat warmed my body in
the right places and got my taste-buds craving more. The next I devoured was
their chipotle tempeh taco, whose combination of flavours danced the salsa on
my tongue and took the meaning of taste to a new level. I was filling up at
this point, but I had one more to go and I wasn’t about to go and commit a food
felony – so I ignored the slight overeating tummy cramps and hit that last taco,
which was a beautiful combo of rich refried beans and lentils that was
perfectly complimented by the fresh slaw and tangy tomatoes. If you asked what
my fav taco was, I couldn’t tell you. Each one brought a different and foreign flavour
to my palette and took me on a new flavour journey that I never wanted to end.
exceeded all expectations I had for it, and I can’t thank the owners and chefs enough
for bringing us something so authentic, communal, and special to the Wellingtons
Mexican food scene. Sitting and dining in this place felt like you were eating
at somebody’s house, the long sharing tables and open kitchen creates a vibrant
social atmosphere where strangers became firm friends over the course of meal. If
Boquita is the start of Wellington’s new food scene, Imma need to get a bigger
scale because this place absolute smashed it! I can’t award anything lower than
a 10/10 for this place, but I know they definitely deserve higher. Everything was
perfect, and it goes to show that even the humblest of places that don’t stay
with the grain or follow those nasty food fads, really do make waves in the food
scene and provide us with innovative dishes that quickly become all-time favorites.
If you’re reading this and haven’t yet been to Boquita – what are you waiting for?? Whether you have cash in the bank or deep in the reds, the extra splashing out to get a taste of the food here is worth every penny.