Radio Mexico x Loose Leaf

Words by
Sally Wilson
Images by
Bron Hazelwood
| November 23, 2015

The north and south side divide in Melbourne is a funny old thing. If you’re from the north there’s probably only a handful of reasons why you’ll cross the river, and vice versa. I’ll catch the 96 tram south for the botanic gardens, the beach, and tacos at Radio Mexico in St Kilda. But now Radio Mexico has made everything easy, with a new restaurant open in the north. It’s even brought a bit of the gardens with it – thanks to Collingwood’s favourite plant guy, Charlie Lawler from Loose Leaf.

A river, a mountain range, even peak hour traffic on Hoddle Street will not keep me away from Mexican food. I love the sincerity of the stuff, the corn chips and the guacamole. I love the way you can instantly make a dish ten times more profound by pouring hot sauce over the top. I love a salty margarita.

I’d eaten a few times at Radio Mexico in St Kilda before heading off to spend time in Mexico. I called these late night visits my high altitude training: a squeeze of lime, back-to-back tacos and a little mezcal. Like Olympians, we must always prepare for new, possibly challenging environmental conditions.

Once I’d landed in Mexico City I met Adele Arkell, the lady behind Radio Mexico. She was staying with a friend of mine and we all headed out for a drink one night (drinks, slices of unusual fruit and grasshopper quesadillas to be absolutely honest). Adele and I hit it off and when I arrived back in Melbourne, Adele’s house was where I landed.

And it was through Adele and her expanding Radio Mexico network that I met Charlie Lawler and Wona Bae from Loose Leaf. Charlie had recently started work on an indoor plant project for Adele’s new restaurant site in Northcote, and because I’m nosy – and love both plants and tacos – I invited myself to tag along.

This was back in August and Radio Mexico Norte opened on Mitchell Street in Northcote in the last week of October. It opened like a spring explosion of green foliage. The space was empty when I first saw it, hollowed out and ready for reinvention.

As soon as I got my hands on this space I knew I wanted to create the sense of a lush, indoor garden,’ Adele told me. ‘The height and volume of the building screamed out for plants and plant life is everywhere in Mexico. Plants became an important part of the design early on.’

That’s when Charlie stepped in. ‘One of the early concepts I had bouncing around was classic painted pots. You know, donkey-shaped pots with agaves growing out of them,’ Charlie explained on his way to the hardware store to buy tap fittings for Radio Mexico’s irrigation system one day. ‘In the end I suggested leafy and climbing plants for the restaurant, ones which will grow quickly and eventually take over the space.’

All the plants Charlie assembled for Radio Mexico Norte produce an echo of Mexico. There are trunks of devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) emerging at ceiling fan-height from within a false wall at the rear of the restaurant, plants which drape from balconies and hanging baskets everywhere in Mexico City. Custom-made planter boxes greet you just inside the door, home to mistletoe cactus (Rhipsalis sp.), hoyas, miniature ivy, button ferns (Pellaea rotundifolia) and hop plants.

Yes, the very same hops used to make beer! This is a Mexican restaurant after all.

There’s a Strelitzia nicolai (great white bird of paradise) in a pot at the front of the restaurant, basking in the light that filters in through a north-facing floor-to-ceiling window. Sitting on the waiter’s station, under a plaque of the Virgen de Guadalupe, is an Asplenium in a pre-loved mid-century pot. ‘I collect pots hailing from the mid-century era,’ Adele says. ‘I have a whole bunch of them at home. Many have been painted and re-painted over time so you can see their history of use, which I think is quintessentially Mexican.’

Before Radio Mexico Norte moved in, the building on Mitchell Street in Northcote had been home to a cafe. Adele’s first move was to hollow out the interior and paint the corrugated facade of the building with a tessellated frenzy of colour. Mexico City-based Little Mule Studio designed the restaurant exterior. Inside a new bar, kitchen and floor plan went in, along with Charlie’s poised jungle of plants and a menu that includes St Kilda’s famous pork belly tacos and two-for-one margaritas on Mondays.

Carefully chosen plants have changed the space, and with warmer weather approaching the plants are likely to change some more in coming months. The devil’s ivy will be tickling the ceiling before long, the hoyas and ivy winding their way like Marco Polo through the breezeblocks. Give the hops a wire or two to climb along and they could make it to the rafters… perhaps even before dessert is served.

‘After I open a new restaurant, typically there’s a period of two months when I leave certain things unresolved and let the place grow into itself,’ Adele, who has opened many cafe institutions across Melbourne, tells me. ‘The devil’s ivy near the kitchen is an example – that was unplanned but we needed to add it in to triangulate the green elements in the space. We’re also planning to establish some plants on the wall above the bar, and had a skylight punched in specifically for that.’

Since November I’ve been working a few days at Loose Leaf and my time there impresses on me just how quickly plants change. Philodendrons and fruit salad plants amble towards the light according to a map of their own making. Cast iron plants unfurl new leaves like great green sails. Closed peony buds gape open within hours of being plunged in a bucket of water. Being able to experience these changes over the course of days and weeks is a thrill.

Sitting down for a margarita and round of tacos at Radio Mexico Norte is a thrill too – particularly when you realise that the plants are climbing and changing, perceptibly, all around you.

Radio Mexico Norte
2A Mitchell Street, Northcote

Loose Leaf
31 Sackville Street, Collingwood