QUESADA MEXICAN GRILL (234 Wellington West, at John, 416-644-0876) Complete meals for $15, including all taxes, tip and a cerveza. Open Monday to Wednesday 11:30 am to 9 pm, Thursday to Saturday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. Licensed. Delivery. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Remember wraps, that foodie fad that was supposed to sweep North America back in the early 90s? Quesada Mexican Grill sure does. A six-month-old cantina across from CBC headquarters and close by the turista CN Tower and Skydome in deepest, darkest condo land, this bright and breezy if somewhat exhaust-challenged space specializes in southern-California-style burritos.
I first encountered the culinary fashion at a tiny flag-draped hole-in-the-wall in San Francisco called Taqueria Can-Cun, where I joined the takeout queue that snakes past a shrine to the Virgin of Guadelupe. The reason for the lengthy lineup: the biggest and tastiest burritos this side of Tijuana.
Weighing in at almost 2 pounds, they combine traditional Mexican ingredients - white rice, refried beans, cheese, grilled meat or veggies - with a California surfer-dude 'tude to nutrition. No lard, natch, but lots of healthy options like sliced avocado, alfalfa sprouts and non-dairy tofu sour cream - even whole wheat tortillas and brown rice.
Since then the Cal-Mex craze has become so popular in the States that McDonald's has joined the San Francisco gourmet burrito game and opened more than 375 Chipotle Mexican Grills across the U.S. How long till Mickey D deems us north of this border burrito-worthy?
Until then, we'll have to manage with Burrito Boyz and the recently launched Quesada Mexican Grill. The Quesada crew have obviously been doing their homework. Indeed, the new spot's menu, margaritas-'n'-beer-only drinks list and assembly-line production are virtually identical to Chipotle's. Saves a drive to Cincinatti, I guess.
Locally, the Boyz top the burrito barometer. But that's not to say Quesada doesn't put its own twist on the proven formula. For starters, Q's rice is lightly infused with lemon grass, lending it a subtle Southeast Asian edge. Beans come two ways, pinto or black turtle, and grilled chicken and pork get marinated in mild garlic, cumin and vinegar adobo. Steak comes steeped in garlic, lime and beer.
There are add-ons of shredded lettuce and Monterey Jack as well as sour cream and four house-made hot sauces ranging in heat from tepid to lukewarm (the otherwise smoky chipotle). You can also opt for additional chopped and seeded jalapeño, raw diced red onion or buttery guacamole.
Quesada's grill-pressed burritos are available in three sizes: 10-inch ($4.75/$4.25 veg), 12-inch ($6.50/$5.25) and the impolitely dubbed Big Ass 14-incher ($9.50). To size them up in the NOW Test Kitchen, we order a small steak, a medium pork and a large veggie as well as the only two sizes available from the Boyz, their 8-inch steak ($4.75) and 12-inch chicken ($5.75). All get loaded with the works.
Both steak versions weigh exactly 18 ounces, while Quesada's large comes in at 22 ounces as opposed to the Boyz' 18 ounces. The Big Ass, for an additional 3 bucks, tips the scales at 27 ounces, which seems pricey for a mere 5 ounces of extra fixings. Once the wraps come off, there's more disparity between the two sources. Quesada has a lower meat-to-rice ratio than the Boyz (one to one versus three to one). Throw in superior ingredients and more salad toppings, and Burrito Boyz are the clear champ.
We also put Quesada's quesadillas ($5.50 veggie) up against the Boyz' veggie version ($5.25). And while they weigh the same 12 ounces, the former's coriander-garnished gooey melted cheese, marinated minced bell pepper and zucchini recalls some mutant Cal-Ital pizza/grilled cheese sandwich with sour cream on the side.
BB's quesadilla has been grilled longer, its cheesy minced TVP faux-hamburger, al dente jalapeño rings and big chunks of sweet bell pepper and tomato scattered with raw green scallion and doused with the house flame-throwing hot sauce. Winner: Burrito Boyz.
However, anyone who has attempted to enter the Boyz' current tiny premises will appreciate their rivals' much larger location and its food-court seating. More than 40 patrons can line up indoors, an especially welcome fact once the weather turns even more inhospitable. Also, there are no speakers blasting Led Zeppelin directly in line with customers' ears, unlike the Peter Street posse. Advantage: Quesada.
Here's another cold-weather bonus: Quesada's very good black bean soup ($3.75). It's almost as thick as refrieds and arrives dolloped with sour cream as well as chopped raw tomato and red onion that add texture and needed kick. A bag of baked corn chips conveniently act as scoops.
And for anybody keeping track, the next big foodie thing out of California is fish tacos, Baja-inspired grilled mahi mahi topped with shredded napa cabbage squirted with lime. At this rate, they should hit Toronto in the fall of 2012, at about the same time that McDonald's unveils Chipotle Mexican Grill to the great frozen north.