Has venido a casa

Words Bruce Nelson | Photos Sabine Bannard

A deep-seated passion for Central American culture and a desire to showcase it through food to a local audience has helped create the Gold Coast’s most authentic Mexican experience.

Kristal Smith’s travels throughout Central America in 2007 saw her welcomed into the homes of families to share their food, and it’s this unique insight that has driven her to develop her own culinary skills.

Ten years later and a world away, Clay Cantina epitomises Kristal’s travels and experiences in an intimate restaurant and cooking school that pays homage to authentic Mexican food.

Plates like sopes, a popular street snack comprised of thick tortilla with pinched up sides and piled high with toppings, a range of enchiladas, and tacos prepared and cooked as if you were in one of those family homes, are just some of the delicious dishes to try. 

Located at the end of a retro Coolangatta arcade reminiscent of the suburb’s 60s heyday, Clay Cantina is an unassuming offering that will certainly surprise once inside.

The set up reflects a simplicity that millions of Mexicans would be familiar with, where there’s no bench to separate you from the cooking.

Clay Cantina has casual tables for two or larger communal tables with an open kitchen that adds to the buzz.

Kristal says Central America naturally resonated with her when she travelled there and automatically made her feel like she belonged.

“It was an amazing experience and something that really spoke to me, like I’d arrived home,” she says.

“Mexico particularly is a fascinating country which is vastly different from one region to another, which makes it so interesting.

“During my travels there I’ve been fortunate enough to be welcomed into the homes of locals, and it’s here that I found my place in the culinary world.”

A range of these in-home experiences and some time at local cooking schools helped Kristal hone her knowledge and skills and provided the insights into what the locals ate every day.

Her return to the Gold Coast compelled her to share her experiences and Pop Taco was born, a small catering and taqueria out of a converted lean-to-shed parked amongst office spaces and warehouses at the end of a carpark in Currumbin.

Along with a cooking school it was a hit but looking for a more permanent home drew Kristal to the evolving southern suburbs, and Clay Cantina was launched earlier this year.

“Coolangatta is a really interesting place, it still has that old school charm but it’s also experiencing change through development and people rediscovering the suburb,” Kristal says.

“There’s a great laid-back vibe here still, even though it’s attracting a new demographic, which is perfect for what we want.

“We’re able to stay true to what we do and serve our food to a clientele that appreciates the time and effort that goes into it.”

Clay Cantina’s menu displays some familiar sounding dishes, but they’re prepared and served similar to what you’d find in a Mexican home. 

Small offerings like Esquites, shaved whole street corn cooked in broth served with queso, chile, lime and totopas; Flautas, rolled crunchy taquitos drowned in crema, queso, salsas and lettuce; or crunchy tortillas with traditional toppings are a great place to start.

The sopes, enchiladas and tacos are larger meals and filled with traditional ingredients, with a changing weekly and seasonal offering including the current prawn ceviche with green sauce.

The restaurant is licensed and has a simple but sufficient drinks list including refreshing fruit drinks (agua fresca) and sodas, a range of wine and beer, Mexican inspired cocktails as well as Michelada, a type of beer cocktail with salt, lime and clamato juice, and the obligatory agave. 

When not running the restaurant, the space doubles as a cooking school for those interested in preparing authentic Mexican food.

“The cooking classes have been a huge success with people interested in what we’re doing, group bookings and even for corporate events that act as a team bonding exercise,” Kristal says.

“Food is a natural way to bring people together, and what better way than to work on shared dishes while enjoying a margherita or two?

“I’m really proud to be able to teach Mexican cooking and provide a connection to the amazing and colourful culture.”

Classes range from a full day masterclass to shorter three-hour social events showcasing the art of ceviche, tacos, tortillas, and chiles rellenos.

Kristal says while growth is part of the plan, she couldn’t do it without her terrific team.

“The people I have around me help make Clay Cantina what it is,” she says.

“This includes collaborations with ceramicists to make authentic Mexican clay and stone cooking utensils which we’ll start retailing in the New Year.

“Just like the family homes I was privileged to spend time in, I want to replicate that feeling right here on the Gold Coast for everyone to share.”

Dining at Clay Cantina won’t disappoint, and just like Kristal’s sentiment towards Mexico and Central America, when you visit it will feel like “has venido a casa” (you’ve come home).

Website: https://www.claycantina.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/claycantina/