EL TROMPO (277A Augusta, at Oxford, 416-260-0097) A tiny taqueria at the north end of the market, this very modest room, complete with 60s Santana soundtrack, pumps out first-rate southern Mexican street food without the Tex-Mex watering-down. Don't expect refried beans, nachos or sombreros. Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Tuesday and Wednesday 5 to 11 pm, Thursday to Sunday noon to 11 pm. Closed Monday. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Is there a more vibrant scene than Kensington Market's? From the vintage haberdashers that line Kensington itself to the international food shops and fishmongers along Baldwin, the Market is pure foodie paradise.The action has always been closer to Dundas, but the top of the Market just south of College has taken off. First, La Palette, then Bellevue Diner (see sidebar this page) started drawing customers charmed by this ramshackle neighbourhood. And why not? Kensington and surrounding Chinatown offer Toronto's peak culinary experience.
If El Trompo, a just-opened taqueria, were a car, it'd be the beat-up El Camino Brad Pitt drove in The Mexican: rough around the edges but full of surprises. A true family affair, this dark, sweltering (no air-conditioning except a fan) cantina rocks to 60s Santana. There's not a sombrero or serape in site. Or a burrito, a refried bean or rice.
By the front window, husband-and-wife team Claudia Huerta and Francisco Castillo recreate the southern Mexican street food of their home. This ain't sophisticated stuff. It's the kind of light snack that goes great with a couple of cold cervezas. Unfortunately, there's no licence or patio yet, but soon. And, there's always takeout.
Chicharrón de Queso ($1.50!) won't travel well. It's almost architectural: Castillo lays a slice of buttery Jack on the griddle and spreads it out using trowels into a tissue-thin 8-by-10-inch rectangle. Then he folds the sides up into a pyramid and stands it on end. It's the best grilled cheese minus-the-bread sandwich ever, and it's incredibly filling.
The roughly textured house guac' ($6.25) comes in a ceramic bowl sided with store-bought tortilla chips. Rustic pico de gallo ($3.50) packs a coriander and chili punch and makes a wonderful foil for Tacos de Tinga Poblano ($6), a quartet of small flour tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken sharpened by smoky chipotle. A mini-fondue, Quesos Fundidos de Chorizo is a small clay pot swimming with molten Jack and a crumble of homemade chorizo subtly scented with cinnamon, Spread it on soft flour tortillas. Delicious.
Any home cooks wanting to duplicate Castillo's tasty Ensalada de Nopal ($6.25) can find its main ingredient -- fresh fleshy cactus pads -- at Emporio Latino (243 Augusta, at Baldwin, 416-351-9646) down the street.
When I Deal Coffee (84 Nassau, at Denison, 416-364-7700) owner James Fournier bought the dilapidated Pepper Restaurant kitty-corner from his hipster coffee house, he quickly stuck a sign in the window saying the joint was closed. Only he wrote it upside down and didn't notice that the sign actually read "clozbe." Some wag suggested that be the new eatery's name, so Clozbe (pronounced cloze-bee, 69 Nassau, 416-340-1110) it is.
While Pizzeria Omelette ($8) with designer pizza fillings is standard brunch fare, Cordon Bleu-trained Hanna Jacobs's buttermilk pancakes splashed with maple syrup are superb. Topped with an insanely intense black-cherry compote, they're the match of any in town. Bonus: licensed patio. Be sure to check out Paul's Boutique next door (691/2 Nassau, at Augusta, 416-603-9477), a music store that specializes in offbeat gear: ancient Farfisa amps, cheesy analog synths and the odd treasure like the '67 Gibson Flying V in the window.
Around the corner, Louie's Caf (235 Augusta, at Baldwin, 416-593-9717) is caffeine central for those with a serious java jones. With its double-sided counter spilling onto the sidewalk and a cranked Jesse Cook soundtrack -- no Gipsy King he -- Louie's sits at the Market's crossroads. And that's former Roi du Couscous king Omar Houmani behind the Faema. Though it's not on the drinks list, join him in a steaming hot Moroccan mint tea made with a mess of fresh leaves, perfect for curing the summertime blues.
Attention, Japanese tourists and other fashion obsessifs: Blowup honcho Davey Love (no relation) has launched Spitfire Sound (285 Augusta, at Oxford, no phone), a temple to all things mod. Part swinging 60s coffee bar and part retro record store, this shrine to cool comes outfitted in collectible furnishings from nearby Arnold Layne (281 Augusta, at Oxford, 416-971-7385). Next to a permanently parked Vespa scooter, find a rack of affordably priced 60s-mint clobber that the Gallagher Brothers would kill for. Literally.
Up the street and open mere weeks, Oishi Kada (280 Augusta, at College, 416-413-1703) may be a tiny, immaculate spot with a limited lineup, but it matches anything in the Annex. Partners John Dong (ex-Takesushi) and Leslie Dong even do cooked sushi for the squeamish. But tamago-dressed Sushi Bar Salad ($5.45), six cucumber-wrapped spirals stuffed with avocado, faux crab shards, minced ginger and a sprig of dill, will win anyone over. Best of all, everything's prepared right in front of you. So why did the personable pair locate in the Market?
"We live around here."
They certainly do. email@example.com