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GRAND ELECTRIC (1330 Queen West, at Elm Grove, 416-627-3459, grandelectricbar.com) Complete meals for $40 per person, including tax, tip and a cocktail. Average main $10. Open Wednesday to Monday from 6 pm. Closed Tuesdays, some holidays. No reservations. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN
Six nights a week, they patiently line up at two nearly next-door Parkdale storefronts in expectation of Queen West's primo resto experiences.
One line forms at St. Francis Table, the outreach program that's been serving three-course suppers to the local disenfranchised and downtrodden for a buck since the 80s.
Another substantially better-dressed queue gathers at Grand Electric, the down 'n' dirty taco shack launched by ex-Black Hoof chef Colin Tooke last November. Since he doesn't take reservations, it's line up or shut up. Arrive most nights half an hour before the doors open at 6, no problem. Try it Friday night at 10 with a posse of supermodels and they'll take your cell number and tell you they'll call in four hours.
Here we are at the stroke of 6. The 29-seat room goes from zero to full throttle in seconds. We haven't been seated on an uncomfortable cheap stacking chair for three minutes before our drinks order is taken - mine's a peppery vanilla bourbon sour ($8) - and the 15-item chalkboard menu explained.
Much has been made of the bangin' retro hip-hop that accompanies Tooke's nuevo Tex-Mex carte. Sure, it's loud, but not aggressively so. I've heard louder and worse (cranked Coldplay at Origin). And frankly, I'm expecting a more radical playlist. This one sounds like Cypress Hill's Insane In The Brain mixed with a little Frampton Comes Alive. But I do need to raise my voice above the general din of animated conversation to shout, "This food is fucking amazing!"
Blow a gasket over Tooke's tacos (all $3.50), soft shells generously stuffed with sweetly pulled pork belly topped with grilled pineapple salsa, or shredded chicken kicked with árbol pepper and pickled red onion. Deliciously braised beef cheeks come dressed with buttery avocado and hellaciously hot jalapeños, while fried slices of mild queso ride a bed of roasted poblano peppers.
Best of the bunch are GE's Baja-style fish tacos, here a good 6-inch strip of crisply battered tilapia finished with a chiffonade of radish and red onion lashed with crema and lime. All can be intensified to varying degrees with the house hot sauces, one mellow (green), the other thermonuclear (red). Lime wedges are hard as rocks and next to useless.
Shareable tapas-style plates include chunky tuna ceviche piled high tostada-style on deep-fried tortillas, and remarkably tender rings of deep-fried calamari drenched in a Sriracha-like hot sauce, Tooke's take on Buffalo chicken wings (both $9). Plan on getting messy if you order his Chicken Frito ($12), a heap of miscellaneous deep-fried chicken parts doused in a five-alarm sauce thick with fresh coriander, brown sugar, chili pods and funky nam pla. Wet-naps are mandatory.
Lull yourself into a sugar coma with mini-Mason jars of chocolate pudding tossed with crushed pecans, and lemony custard topped with whipped cream, based on Key lime pie (both $5). Sensational stuff.
Tooke and co-owner Ian McGrenaghan (another Hoof alum) have also assembled a top-notch team who move efficiently from behind the bar to deliver plates and quickly clear them away again, all with a knowledgeable quip or a smile. The only problem is, since there's always a throng salivating for seats, they whip you through three times faster than the food deserves, something an imminent 40-seat backyard patio will partially rectify.
Stuffed after power-eating our way through more than three-quarters of the menu, we're back on the street not 70 minutes after scoring a table. It's like we just got off some crazy culinary roller coaster, one we immediately want to ride again, lineup be damned.