1 of 5
Braised beef short rib tostada
2 of 5
Carnita taco with seared pork belly and tomatillo avocado pico
3 of 5
Popcorn shrimp with arbol chilies and toasted sesame crema
4 of 5
Churros poutine with marshmallows and peanut salt
5 of 5
Owner and chef Dave Sidhu
PLAYA CABANA HACIENDA (14 Dupont, at Avenue Rd, 647-352-6030, playacabana.ca/14-dupont, @PlayaCabana) Complete meals for $50 per person, including tax, tip and a mojito. Open Tuesday and Wednesday 5 to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to 2 am. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Reservations accepted. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on second floor, tight seating. Rating: NNN
If you've ever watched an episode of American Pickers and wondered who would pay big money for a bunch of beat-up old restaurant and garage signs that don't necessarily work, a trendy taqueria like Playa Cabana Hacienda is your answer.
The multi-level Mexi-fusion trat's full of them, some neon-lit, others with their burnt-out bulbs left artfully intact, all looking like they fell off the back of a truck driving down some reimagined Route 66. The only things missing are a few tumbleweeds and a wind machine.
And then there's the music. Think Electric Mud and Bar Isabel are a bit on the noisy side? That's nothing compared to Billy Ocean's Caribbean Queen cranked through a bass bin. It's like 80s night at Buddies all over again, only louder and less stylishly dressed.
Owner/chef Dave Sidhu's short tapas carte is just as fashionably eclectic. He sends out a dozen tempura-battered popcorn shrimp ($12) in a retro cast-iron skillet ready for an Instagram close-up. He shreds slow-braised short ribs over blue-corn tostadas dressed with crumbled queso and slivered radish ($8), all optionally splashed with house red or green habanero hot sauce.
Compared to Grand Electric, where most are $3.50 a pop, Playa's tacos are considerably more expensive, in particular the jerked lobster ($12). Lightly battered scallops get paired with purple pickled jicama, while seared Korean kalbi beef with citrusy Asian slaw pays tribute to the L.A. food truck scene. Sautéed zucchini blossoms in a Cuban-style onion-and-tomato sofrito on a slice of melted Oaxacan cheese are more mess than is worth the bother (all $6 per taco). But who notices such trivialities when you're pounding $90 shots of Gran Patrón tequila to the Human League. Don't You Want Me Baby, indeed.
As for dessert, stick with the cheeky churros poutine with miniature marshmallow "curds" and cajeta caramel "gravy" ($9) over mushy horchata fritters ($8).
Your enjoyment of this third Playa all depends on where they seat you. Knowing the month-old joint's reputation as Toronto's current resto du jour, we make online reservations under a fake name for an early table on Cabana's deck, only to be told when we show up that it's booked for an event. After being steered to a cramped table ringed with church-basement stacking chairs on the dark second floor - aka Siberia - we're reluctantly seated on the near-empty first floor. When we leave 90 minutes later, there are only two other occupied tables.
Still, the latest edition is an improvement on the original Playa down the road, the somewhat dumpy cantina that became a local cause célèbre once a certain Jake Gyllenhaal stopped by for a burrito and a bucket of Coronas. Speaking of the A-list, has Hacienda had any recent celebrity sightings? Justin Bieber? Mick Jagger? The Ikea monkey?
"Drake and Laurence Fishburne were in last week," says Sidhu. "We have a low-key private room on the third floor, and they like it up there."