EL PENCO (573 King West, at Portland, 416-979-7287). A humble hole-in-the-wall, this Ecuadorian take-away offers inexpensive customized sandwiches, tasty soups and budget burritos. But it's the baked goods that steal the spotlight. Complete meals for $6 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Monday to Friday 7:30 am to 6:30 pm, and Saturday 10 am to 4 pm. Closed Sunday and holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Smoke-free. Access: two steps at door, one step to washrooms. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
the king street strip west of Spadina has never had the currency -- or high rents -- that Queen West enjoys. That's changing now that this once anonymous avenue has become the high-profile home of downtown's dot-commerce.
But the nabe's not all Pentiums, Porsches and platinum cards. Several cut-rate spots cater to the Web's worker drones. One of them, El Penco, is no newcomer. This pleasant space -- cream-over-rust-coloured walls, red-and-black-clothed tables, radio tuned to golden oldies -- has been dishing out inexpensive noshes for the last seven years.
Besides the usual assortment of customized sandwiches ($3.25) and a serviceable Caesar salad topped with a well-peppered and grilled-to-order chicken breast ($4.39), it's the dirt cheap Tex-Mex vittles that cause noontime lineups.
But frankly, you'll need a double order to fill you up, and it's not much better than the fast food you normally eat sitting in front of your computer. The bean burrito sees a flour tortilla spread with bland bean mush.
The beef version adds ketchup (!), bottled salsa, processed cheese and minced beef to this culinary equation (both $1.69). Chimichanga ($1.99), a deep-fried burrito, substitutes chicken. Best of the bunch, banana-leaf-steamed tamale ($2.50) wraps big pieces of chicken, potato, tomato and green pepper in a soft outer masa layer. All the above come sided with chopped anemic winter tomato, romaine chiffonade and more tame bottled salsa.
Dig deeper, though, and you can strike gold at El Penco. Three types of pasqualina ($3.25) -- a delicious northwest-Italian pastry-crusted frittata of minced spinach, broccoli or cauliflower -- make far tastier lunch alternatives and still won't break the bank. Wonderful golden half-moons of house-baked empanadas appear in both veggie or shredded-chicken form ($2.25), and hearty winter soups like pureed carrot ($1.49 small/$1.99 large) help shake off the winter blahs. Don't miss a slice of just-like-Mom's apple pie ($1.59), a retro classic with a buttery lattice crust. Fortunately, El Penco doesn't top the dessert with Velveeta like my mom does.
Food & drink