¡CARAMBA! (394 Pacific, at Dundas West, 416-604-4844) One of Toronto's dreariest nabes comes to life at this superb Peruvian spot. What this modest eatery lacks in decor is more than made up for with substantial main courses big enough for two. Complete dinners for $30 per person ($12 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Wednesday to Friday 11:30 am to 11 pm, Saturday 10 am to 11 pm, and Sunday 10 am to 10 pm. Closed Monday, Tuesday and holidays. Fully licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNsole is one weird flounder. oval, and flattened side to side, it spends most of its adult life on the ocean's floor, lying on its left side partly covered with sand and mud. Its left eye migrates to the right side of its head early in life, and the few teeth in the sole's small, twisted mouth are on the blind side. Sounds like my ex.
It's a long way from the murky depths of the North Atlantic to the wild frontier of the Junction, but this delicious fish has made it onto a large, festive platter called Pescado A La Bahia ($14.99) at quirky Caramba.
The delicate fillet joins an assortment of deftly cooked seafood -- an oversized clam, four New Zealand mussels and a scattering of calamari hoops -- all pan-sauteed in "their own juices," then piled high next to a white rice timbale and wedges of cool yucca and pooled in a lemony gravy. Sure beats Red Lobster.
Caramba certainly outdoes its neighbouring culinary competition. This modest Peruvian spot will win over any gastronaut who likes huge portions of imaginatively prepared food at wallet-friendly prices, dished up in a far-from-fashionable joint by an accommodating staff. What a concept! There's more: owner-chef Olga Teruya not only waited tables at El Bodegon before opening Caramba two years ago, but her sister owns that College favourite and her brothers run St. Clair's Miraflores and Bathurst's El Pebenyo.
Those who haunt Teatro, Kubo or Rain won't want to know. The room's far from chic: splattered terrazzo floor, blotchy sunflower-yellow stucco walls, cobalt-blue accents, travel posters. A pair of locals sit drinking off Sunday-morning hangovers in the corner. Ignore them, but groove along to the ass-shakin' salsa
What's not to love? How about Plato Caramba ($18.99), a grilled 10-ounce T-bone topped with a pair of over-easy fried eggs and sided with a lengthy link of spicy chorizo, a red-pepper-ringed rice timbale and slices of tasty balsamic-marinated fried potatoes and plantain? Or Jalea ($14.25), a fishy combo of breaded calamari rings (no elastic bands here), tail-on shrimp and Alaskan sole topped with threads of raw red onion tanged by lemon vinaigrette? Salad 'n' spuds, too.
As at most latin lineups, nearly everything on offer here -- from starters to mains, bread even -- really perks up with several healthy spoonfuls of Teruya's deceptive-looking homemade hot sauce (minced Scotch bonnet chilies and green onion suspended in olive oil). It really ignites the seemingly innocuous semolina soup ($3.99), a bland yet stomach-soothing mush that resembles a cross between porridge, congee and egg-drop soup. But add the dynamite and the soup's subtle flavours explode.
Fireworks continue with Tacu Tacu -- fried beans and rice ($6.99 with salad/$7.99 with eggs/$10.99 with a butterflied 8-ounce sirloin). Worried at first when our server asks if I'd like the meat well-done, I'm relieved when the half-inch-thick steak arrives perfectly medium-rare-pink, as requested. The Tacu Tacu itself isn't what I expect either. It's crisp-crusted fried rice studded with white kidney beans. A delicious brunch alternative.
Caramba's not all meat and potatoes. The salads have a common base -- leaf lettuce, wedges of pale winter tomato and red onion rings, all doused in a citrus dressing. For Ensalada De Palta, creamy slices of avocado and potato join the mix, while Tuna Salad features canned chunk (both $4.99). Ensalada De Beterraga ($4.50) recalls Tavola Calda's terrific Italian-Argentine beet salad.
For dessert, finish with Empanadas De Platano ($3.50), a Peruvian take on the more familiar Chilean pastry. Here, two sweet, ripe plantain sections get stuffed with pureed rice pudding before they're deep-fried and plated with vanilla ice cream. I'll give Bart Simpson the last word: "¡Ay Caramba!" *