LA MEXICANA (838 Yonge, at Asquith, 416-934-0712) Complete meals for $17 lunch/$20 dinner, including all taxes, tip and an exorbitantly priced soft drink. Buffet $9.95 weekday lunch, weekday dinner and all weekend. Average à la carte main $12. Open daily 11 am to 10 pm. Access: half-step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Back in 97 when NOW reviewed La Mexicana's northern outpost at 3337 Bathurst, the words "ho" and "hum" were used to describe its typical card of gringo grub. Somehow its website has translated that as "Still the best Mexican in town - NOW Magazine."
For the record, La Mexicana has never been the best Mexican in town, restaurant or otherwise. At best, it would have trouble making NOW's countdown of the city's top 40 cantinas.
La Mexicana's newish downtown location is no better. Just across from the Reference Library, it's in the storefront that once housed Murray Ball's Peter Pan as well as Sandy Stagg's futuristic Fiesta, the sadly defunct early-80s bistro that was far too fabulous for its time.
You can read all about it on page 72 of Carole Pope's 2000 autobiography, Anti Diva. Other than prefab Fiesta Nachos ($8, and completely unrelated), little of that hippest of haunts remains.
Today, a crowd of rowdy students - acting like La Mexicana is the first restaurant they've ever visited that wasn't a drive-thru - has descended on this tacky taqueria for its $9.95 weekday lunch spread. They start with rustic pozole hominy soup before moving on to retro potato salad replete with mandatory frozen veg, and a course of raw bell peppers stuffed with canned tuna.
Alongside a couple of unidentified vegetable dishes and a congealing vat of refried beans, a filling casserole of chilaquiles - baked corn chips layered with cheese and little else - acts as the day's rotating main course.
A cursory caramel flan completes the buffet.
The all-you-can-eat deal here proves my theory about buffets. They're intentionally awful. Restaurants don't profit unless halfway through a second plateful of soggy steam-table grub customers say, "I've had enough."
A few days later, we return to suss out La Mexicana's à la carte lineup. Sided with bland refried beans served in a deep-fried tortilla cup, a pair of 7-inch veggie burritos ($9) come draped with two-tone cheese and stuffed with mushy broccoli, cauliflower and carrot, all seemingly spice-free.
With it, a watery red salsa looks and tastes suspiciously bottled, while a modest salad of chopped romaine, sliced cuke and carrot at least offers roughage.
Described as "a chile poblano stuffed with cheese and corn niblets," Chile Relleno de Queso ($12 with a side of beans or salad) contains neither. Instead, the kitchen has padded the solitary pepper with cubed potato, minced beef and more dreadful frozen veg washed with wimpy tomato sauce. An order of guacamole ($5) is about half a cup of over-processed avocado puree.
No wonder the card lists it as a "sauce." And anyone tempted by Sidral Mundet apple soda ($2.50) should remember that the same bottle of pop retails for $1.39 at Emporio Latino.
Emporio Latino, unlike La Mexicana, would easily make our 20-best list - and it's not even Mexican. Sad, isn't it?