EL PAISANO (1544 Queen West, at Dowling, 416-534-1218) What this authentic Mexican snaqueria at the west end of Queen lacks in decor it more than makes up for with tasty street eats that make a super take-away meal. And, no, the street signs aren't stolen -- the owner has a receipt! Complete dinners for $10 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Tuesday to Friday 5 to 10 pm, Saturday and Sunday noon to 10 pm. Closed Monday and holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
talk about surreal surround-ings. Regular readers have followed us to a Colombian cantina in a used car lot (La Paisa), a concrete bunker with an all-raw menu (the defunct Sustenance) and a living room where a Korean couple serve dinner as their 12-year-old daughter practises the piano (Grace Gallery, also no longer). But just-opened El Paisano in Parkdale surpasses these when it comes to unusual environments.
The nabe's abuzz about this Mexican snaqueria occupying the space that once caged Swallow, a local fave that took its last gulp a few months back. Then a laid-back eatery that recalled a hippie-commune farmhouse, today El Paisano has morphed into a DIY day-glo diner decked out in cheesy furniture even Goodwill would cast off. Walls are a colour-theorist clash of irregular blocks -- lime green, fuchsia, screaming orange, powder blue. Wall-mounted doors lead nowhere, permanently curtained windows frame no view.
Instead, gaze toward the middle of the room, where a totem pole made from street signs -- Snow Route, Neighbourhood Watch, No Standing -- transforms the place into the set of Alice In Wonderland Does Driving School. In a couple of weeks, when the liquor licence kicks in, it'll all make sense after the third margarita. And half a hit of peyote.
Unlike most of the so-called Tex-Mex joints in town, whose tortillas are stuffed with moderately spiced California veggie-hippie casseroles (remember Mickey's Hideaway?), El Paisano offers a short card of thoroughly authentic and unusually stuffed soft-shell tacos, all made with hand-pressed tortillas. Liver taco, anyone?
Through the open kitchen door, clock the wooden machine that churns out these slightly small cornmeal pancakes. Thick, too, with a pleasantly uneven concentration of lime, they wrap themselves around fillings like chopped steak mixed with caramelized onion and garnished with coriander leaves and thin but fire-alarm red salsa (Tacos de Bistek, $2.30 each). Or chipotle-smoked chicken tangy with tomato (Tacos de Tinga, $1.95).
Scary to some, Tacos de Higado ($1.65) showcase chewy tortilla-parcelled cubes of baby beef liver, while Tacos de Rajas (poblano pepper strips), Tacos de Papas (cubed, smashed potato) and Tacos de Frijoles (refried pintos, all $1.25) create a blander veggie foil. A second less-hot sauce adds what pretentious foodies call a "mellow capsicum counterpoint."
On the Danforth's souvlaki strip, Riverdale's El Sol and Plaza Garibaldi duke it out for the title of Toronto's best guac'. But El Paisano's guacamole ($3.95), a deliciously lumpy unprocessed jalapeño-highlighted mash, deserves runner-up acclaim. El Paisano moves further afield with ceviche ($4.25), citrusy shards of lime-marinated halibut tossed with diced tomato, cucumber and serrano pepper on a crisp tostada, all garnished with fresh coriander and a buttery wedge of avocado.
Note the absence of long-grain rice tossed with frozen veggies and refried pablum. El Paisano is not about carb-loading.
Instead, order a passel of takeout tacos, sides of guac' with totopos, better-than-expected green salad ($2.15), heavenly vanilla flan ($1.95) and tart tamarind drinks ($1.25/$2.15) to create a light but satisfyingly spicy supper that's the perfect sidekick for a night of spaghetti western videos.
Owner Rafael Beraz-Morales credits his stints at Fenton's and Scaramouche -- OK, he bused tables there, but what better schooling? -- as the inspiration for his next round of inventive street vittles: brain tacos and tongue tacos. Might I suggest beef-heart tacos?
"That's more Mexico City," he cautions.
I knew that.