EL JACALITO (9 Milvan, at Finch West, 416-894-7801) Forget the margaritas from a mix and Tex-Mex approximations that pass for Mexican food in the Great White North. This unassuming stall in an industrial-court-turned-Latino-plaza offers fare that's far from haute but definitely hot! Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Wednesday to Sunday 10 am to 8:30 pm. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: four steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
six years and 30 pounds ago, my byline first appeared on NOW magazine's food page. You weren't alone in being dumbfounded; before I landed this gastro gig, I rarely enjoyed going out for dinner. An avid self-taught cook, whenever I'd visit some hot boite I'd stare at my pricey supper in a state vacillating between despair and disbelief, knowing that I could make the same thing at home for two bucks. Not only that, but the dish needed garlic, the restaurant's service sucked -- and what was with the crappy music they were playing?
I still get asked about one of the very first -- and offbeat -- restaurants I ever reviewed, a tiny Mexican fast food joint located in an industrial park in North York called El Jacalito. A fan of Mexican cuisine since that summer I spent in the Yucatan on a Mayan dig with the Olsen twins, I longed to rediscover the authentic food of Mexico instead of the turista Tex-Mex that passes for the real thing at tacky local taquerias. I found it at El Jacalito.
With little more than a card table, two electric frying pans and weekend-only hours, owner Antonio Romero duplicated the marvellous meals I'd encountered way south of the border. Surely, his low-key stall in a Latin American mall was illegal? The fire department agreed and shut the place down shortly after it opened.
Romero resurfaced at local food fests (Festival Of La Pupusa and Harbourfront's Hot And Spicy Food Festival among them), only to reopen this fall in exactly the same location he'd been forced to vacate.
Everything conforms to code now -- improved hydro service, upgraded equipment -- but the food hasn't changed a bit. In some corners Mexican cooking is dismissed as "peasant food" ("It's just rice and beans and pork fat, isn't it?"), and El Jacalito's new digs won't change the minds of those who hold that unenlightened opinion, especially once they note the strip club next door, the massage parlour upstairs and the sign on the mall's front door: "Please control your children."
Down a long corridor lined with Latin hairdressers and phone-card dealers, you'll find a large food court furnished with cafeteria-style tables and stacking chairs. Yabu Pushelberg this ain't. Flags fly over a pupuseria as well as a Peruvian spot, a juice bar, a Colombian cantina and an Ecuadorian eatery.
You could join the crowd who slurp meal-in-one soups and scarf unidentified deep-fried pig parts, but most customers are here for El Jacalito's takeout.
Carne Diablo finds flank steak smothered in devilishly delicious puréed chipotle cream, while Conchinita Pibil sees slow-cooked tender-pink shredded pork doused in tangy achiote paste (ancho chilies blended with oregano, cumin, peppercorns and allspice) as well as sour orange.
Mains (all $8) come sided with rice, refried black turtle beans topped with feta and raw onion, lime-marinated red onion rings and simple undressed iceberg-coriander Pico de Gallo salad.
A trio of chicken enchiladas get sauced with a superb dark-chocolate-based mole made from a Romero family recipe by a cousin in Guadalajara who ships it north. Also homemade, Romero's chili-punched sausage shows up in Chorizo con Queso tacos, mixed with melted mozzarella. Other tasty tortilla wraps include sliced steak Suadero and deep-fried pork Carnitas (all tacos $2).
Not everything's explosive. Horchata, a near milkshake made from soaked, ground raw rice mixed with almonds ($2), soothes the stomach, as does silky vanilla Napolitano flan ($1.50). But anyone looking for fireworks need only add a spoonful of Romero's incendiary Tomorrow sauce to everything else.