Johny Banana (181 Bathurst, at Queen West, 416-304-0101) Complete meals for $25 per person ($18 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a licuado. Average main $10. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11:30 am to 10 pm. Closed Monday. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
There isn't much that can grab the attention of this well-used palate, but one sip of Johny Banana's Chocolate Azteca ($3.95) has me barking like a seal pup at a Morrissey concert. "Sausage!" I blurt when asked what's got my tongue. "It tastes like sausage!"
Chorizo, actually. No Nestle's Quik this, the hot chocolate served at this recently launched west-side resto is not only muy caliente, but slyly smoky from chipotle and ancho chillies.
The drink - one of several listed on this cheerful cantina's cards as licuados - perfectly encapsulates Banana's Latin-infused bill of fare as well as the room's boisterous decor, a riot of retro orange and lime green offset by a looming mural of a masked Mexican wrestler.
Some of Banana's lineup is equally mysterious. Squiggled with sour cream and dressed with slivered almond, Johny's delightful cream of cilantro soup ($5.95) could be confused with cream of Parmesan in a blindfold test. The smooth pale purée garnished with coriander leaf gets further layers of flavour when depth charges of sweet green grapes reveal themselves during the soup's final spoonfuls. Slices of crusty sourdough smeared with green pesto flecked with red chili send the taste buds in another unexpected direction.
Today, it's paired with a half-portion of the house's terrific Lasagna Maya ($14.75 à la carte) as an $8.50 special, spectacularly plated on white rectangular plates à la Susur. Shredded flour tortillas and a nippy tomatillo sauce replace regulation noodles and tomato, the lot layered with grilled chicken breast and a mountain of mozzarella and Jack.
Just as impressive, the Chilanga burger ($9.95) finds a jus-squirting patty of medium-rare ground beef topped with grilled pineapple and chipotle as well as melting mozzarella, red onion, leaf lettuce and ripe tomato before a final flourish of creamy mid-range jalapeño-avocado salsa.
Like several of the mains, it comes sided with commercial mesclun splashed with a lovely vinaigrette made from tart red hibiscus flowers, plus a handful of multicoloured corn chips that reflect the small room's look.
In her definitive 526-page text The Essential Cuisines Of Mexico, Diana Kennedy devotes all of a paragraph to the lowly burrito. But Banana appears to be borrowing a page from the Burrito Boyz' California cookbook with its "authentic" wraps, here optionally swathed in whole wheat tortillas.
Stuffed like the Boyz with the sides inside - white rice filler, refried beans and salad for crunch - the Pollo Con Mole ($9.95 with salad) sees chopped up chicken breast augmented with cheese, sour cream and a syrupy mole that lacks the knockout punch of a Chocolate Azteca.
Johny's 12-inch quesadillas are also available with whole wheat shells, although we'd like to see double the amount of zucchini blossoms, scallions and cheddar sandwiched between La Catrina's ($9.45 with salad and sharp serrano salsa) outer shells.
Checking the fine print at the bottom of first-time restaurateurs John and Vivian Martin's multi-paged menu, we note the following message.
"Please don't compromise the originality of our creations and the efficiency of our service," they ask. "We'd appreciate that you request no changes unless necessary."
No problemo, muchachos.