Inside Quetzal, a wood-fired Mexican spot

Team behind Rosalinda and El Rey is back in action at this modern kitchen, fueled entirely by a 30-foot fire pit


Quetzal (419 College, at Bathurst, 647-347-3663) is the third restaurant from Grant Van Gameren, Julio Guajardo, Kate Chomyshyn and Owen Walker.

Toronto diners are, by now, familiar with this team’s approach to Mexican cuisine – they opened mezcal bar El Rey together in 2016 and vegan eatery Rosalinda earlier this year. 

But while Rosalinda and El Rey skew a little more casual, “Here, we are trying to create a higher-end experience, where we can also educate people about what real Mexican cuisine is and the amount of work it takes,” says Guajardo, who oversees the culinary program at Quetzal with Chomyshyn, his wife. “We find Mexican cuisine is undervalued.”

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Guajardo (second from left) confers with cooks in the Quetzal kitchen.

Adding further dimension to the dining experience is a 30-foot wood-burning fire pit that runs along the back of the restaurant. “Every single thing is cooked on fire,” Guajardo says. “So, for sure it made us think in very different ways and made us more creative about cooking certain things, like using ashes and coals to cook certain vegetables.” 

Meats are grilled over a flame or in the wood-burning oven, while tortillas and tostadas are done on the comal, a flat clay griddle traditionally used in Mexico.

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Natalia Manzocco

Van Gameren (of Bar Isabel, Bar Raval and a half-dozen others) plays more of a guiding role here Quetzal is Chomyshyn and Guajardo’s passion project, one that’s been in the works for five long years. They pitched Van Gameren on their idea for the restaurant – an upscale Mexican kitchen focused solely on wood-fired cooking – in 2015, and moved here from Montreal to open the business. But the project hit delays, so the couple took an active role in developing El Rey, bringing Van Gameren to Mexico to introduce him to the finer points of the country’s cuisine and developing the food menu.

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Natalia Manzocco

Two restaurants and one laborious, stressful construction process later (“We for sure all learned a lot about ventilation and heat radiation in the past year,” Guajardo says), Quetzal is open for business, with undulating white ceilings masking ventilation that pulls smoke away from the dining area, leaving all the gorgeous campfire aroma and none of the cough factor.

The best seat in the house is at the back of the wood bar running along the dining room, opposite the hot station, where you can watch Guajardo, Chomyshyn and Co. flip meats, press tortillas and stoke the flames between near-constant glugs of water. 

Some might find it stifling, but there’s no better way to see the heart of the restaurant at work. 

Plus, face-mist bottles of cold water are complimentary:

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Here’s a closer look at the menu:

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A whole sweet potato is roasted among the oven’s coals until ultra-sweet and caramelized, then served with salsa macha and Ontario walnuts ($8).

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Photos by Natalia Manzocco

The almeja preparada, or prepared clam ($18), features a New Zealand storm shell clam, sliced and served with lime and cucumber. The chefs suggest eating the meat and then drinking the broth inside the shell.

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The tlacoyo ($14), an oblong blue masa patty stuffed with fluffy requeson cheese and poblanos, is served with sweet peas and chanterelles. The kitchen sources corn through L.A.’s Masienda (who gets it directly from Mexico), cooks it with an alkaline substance, then grinds it down to make masa dough. Finally, the masa items (including tortillas and tostadas) get pressed to order and cooked on the comal.

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For dessert: corn ice cream and blueberry granita, served with mini popcorn meringues ($9).

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A cornerstone of the drink menu: The classic michelada roja ($12) with sal de gusano and Modelo Especial. (There’s also a spicy, herbal michelada verde made with cilantro, celery and fermented jalapeno.)

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Natalia Manzocco

The more spirit-forward section of the drink menu (there’s also low-ABV and large-format options) features the Domino ($17), made with Ketel One and Tio Pepe, and garnished with a skewer of housemade pickles.

food@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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