Whenever I see the phrase "authentic Mexican cuisine," my gut reaction is the same as when I come across "all-you-can-eat." I run -- in the opposite direction.
Don't get me wrong. I love latin food. I drool over books like Diana Kennedy's The Art Of Mexican Cooking, and for me, watching Bobby Flay on TV's Food Channel is almost a religious experience. Just don't try to find anything in Toronto that comes close to what these two create. Except for Tejas in the Beach, it doesn't exist. But then, from tourist traps to street-food vendors, it's not easy to find good food in Mexico either.
You can imagine my trepidation when I spotted that dreaded "authentic" word over the door of Diablo, a just-opened Boystown boite in the charming Victorian that once housed Mango. Combine that intimidating slogan with its new tacky decor, then mix in the caterwauling of those damned Gipsy Kings and I'm ready to enter the Pride And Remembrance Run.
Bilious yellow Something must be said about what owner-chef Danny Racine -- late of Kensington Market's Smart Juice Cafe -- has done to this classic 19th-century building. One exterior wall has been painted bright bilious yellow, the trim a clashing cornflower blue. The patio, one of Pride weekend's busiest, is now rimmed with cheap latticework and plywood cut-out cacti. However, Mango's ancient discoloured plastic patio furniture remains.
The boys next door at swelegant Spiral, whose chic terrace abuts this nightmare, must be livid.
How hellish can Diablo be? Good news: some of the tapas -- deep-fried corn-tortilla flautas stuffed with chicken ($5.95) and ground beef enchiladas ($6.95) -- are equal to those found elsewhere. The bad: that's not good. And it gets worse.
The Literary Device, Jennifer Convertible and I find ourselves this warm Friday night on Diablo's jam-packed patio. Although it's only two weeks old, the tacoteria recalls the Church Street maxim CBS: cruise, booze, schmooze.
The Device orders a mango-passion fruit margarita ($5.95). Besides being too salty, the chemical-tasting cocktail reminds her of Tang mixed with lighter fluid. After a sip, Jennifer describes it as redolent of methane. Back it goes, to be replaced by a pint of Dos Equis ($4.75).
The Device makes it two for two with black bean soup ($4.95), an abysmal puree that appears to be bubbling. She suggests to our adorable server, Dwayne, that unless someone's spiked it with Alka Seltzer and vinegar, something's amiss. A passing manager type (who, tellingly, is eating a chocolate bar) overhears, and insists that everything's made fresh daily and there couldn't possibly be anything wrong.
While tasty, Convertible's Sopa de Pollo y Aquacate ($5.95) -- chicken broth with three thin slices of avocado -- comes dotted with so many blobs of oil that if it were rear-lit it could pass as a lava lamp. My Chilaquiles -- a casserole of tortilla strips and chicken ($5.95) -- poses the culinary conundrum, "How can a dish wrongly served stone cold have melted cheese on top?"
The mains we select disappoint. The chicken in Mole Poblano de Pollo ($15.95) seems to be 50 per cent skin, bone and cartilage swimming in an under-powered sauce of some 24 ingredients. "The chef's choice," the menu states. Oh, dear.
Bland beans The menu also announces that Picadillo ($9.95) -- think Sloppy Joe -- gets served in a warm blue-corn muffin. Try on top of a small buckwheat pancake. Both this and the Mole are sided with plain white rice (no frozen veggies mixed in here), a small bowl of bland refried beans, two stingy thimbles of weak red and green salsa and another of what looks like frozen (!) guacamole.
Arriving piping hot, Shrimp Diablo ($15.95) finds exactly six shellfish layered with cheese and languishing on iceberg lettuce instead of the promised steamed spinach. No rice, no beans, just shrimp. On lettuce.
And that's the problemo. Almost everything Diablo dishes up suggests overzealous portion control and no quality control.
But let's be positive. Diablo can only improve.
(580 Church, 922-6525)
If, as the sign over its door claims, this Boystown cantina serves authentic Mexican cuisine, I'll eat my sombrero. For a drink and tapas, this cruisy if tacky taco-teria approaches adequate. But overzealous portion controls and inept execution spell disaster. Complete dinners for $35 ($25 at lunch) per person, including all taxes, tip and an imported pint. Open daily for lunch 11 am to 3 pm, dinner 5 to 11 pm, tapas all day. Bar open till 2 am. Fully licensed. Access: steep ramp to patio and seven steps to restaurant, washrooms in basement. Rating: N