EMPORIO LATINO (243 Augusta, at Baldwin, 416-351-9646) Complete meals for $7, including all taxes and a Latin American soda. Average main $3. Open Monday to Friday 9 am to 7 pm, Saturday 8 am to 7 pm, Sunday 10 am to 6 pm. Unlicensed. Access: eight steps at door, no washrooms. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Cinco de Mayo, the annual Mexican festival, goes relatively unnoticed north of the 49th parallel. But south of the border - especially in the southwestern states and California, where in the last 10 years Tex Mex food chains and heavyweight breweries like Coors and Corona have turned it into a marketing tool - the festival commemorating the 1862 victory by Mexican forces over the French imperial army has become a national excuse to party on cheap beer and burritos. I'm surprised Sneaky Dee's has yet to get onboard.
So, in the spirit of the day - today (May 5), for those of you who don't pay attention to these things - I set off to find my own culinary celebration of independence. And maybe a cerveza or six.
For 14 years, José and Cecilia Espinoza have operated Emporio Latino, just one of several Latin American grocery stores in multi-culti Kensington. And though I've known it as a great spot to stock up on dried chipotle chilies, tomatillos and fresh cactus, until a visit while researching NOW's Eat Cheap survey I'd never noticed its small lunch counter tucked away in the back.
But it's hard to ignore a foodie find as tasty as Cecilia's crisply fried Chiles Rellenos ($3), a mild green poblano pepper coated in omelette-like batter and stuffed with either a mix of sharp and smooth cheeses, shredded chicken or a combo of nicely spiced house chorizo, rice and beans. On the side, there's tangy Salvadoran coleslaw, a small stack of lime-scented tortillas, a blob of buttery crema fresca sour cream and a shot of pulpy jalapeño hot sauce that helps everything build to a warm buzz.
Emporio also offers seven versions of pupusas ($1.75/$2) and three types - veggie, chicken, chorizo - of grilled-to-order burritos ($3.50 with slaw 'n' sides). Tamales come in five varieties - our favourite: banana-leaf-wrapped pink cornmeal mush studded with boneless chicken, sweet bell pepper, chickpeas, olives and capers ($1.75) - including fresh sweet corn from the cob steamed in the husk ($2). Sugary caramelized plantain ($1.50) gets dusted with cinnamon as dessert or dolloped with crema fresca to make a formidable add-on to the already impressive Chiles Rellenos plate.
With their deep-fried corn tortilla casing, skinny chicken taquitos ($1) recall Chinese egg rolls, while baseball-sized plantain empanadas come stuffed with sweet Asian-style red bean paste as well as colonial, flan-like milk custard ($1.75) and tropical guava with mild queso ($1.50). This weekend, Espinoza introduces her Salvadoran take on the turkey sandwich - Pan con Pavo ($4.99). Here, the moist meat of a bird is slow-cooked in a tomato, sesame, bay leaf and peanut mole and served with lettuce and slaw on Italian ciabatta. Talk about cross-cultural cuisine!