JOHNY BANANA (181 Bathurst, at Queen, 416-304-0101) Complete meals for $14 per person, including all taxes, tip and a chipotle-spiked hot chocolate. Average main $7. Open Monday to Thursday 11:30 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Johny Banana has a problem. not only does everybody doubt its spelling, but John and Vivian Martin’s stylish 18-month-old Mexican cantina can’t find an audience.
Local foodies may constantly bemoan the lack of authentic Mexican food in Toronto, but when the real thing shows up – El Paisano Taqueria in Parkdale, the original El Trompo in the Market – they stay away in droves.
After failing to entice the general public with the contemporary Latin likes of zucchini blossom quesadillas and shredded tortilla lasagna, the Mexico City-bred Martins are giving it exactly what it wants – cheap Cal-Mex burritos. It would seem that if you can’t beat the Boyz, you joins ’em.
Now open from lunch till late, Banana has dumped most of the previous lineup to focus on the popular meal-in-one wrap that’s sweeping North America. (Need proof? Even McDonald’s is doing them.)
The Banana menu now features five types of Mission-style burritos – vegetarian, chorizo, steak, chicken and mole chicken. Since I always answer “Spicy?” with “Yes, please,” that’s how I order my mole chicken burrito ($6.95 large/$5.95).
Available as either “non-spicy” or “extra-spicy” as well as on whole wheat or white flour tortillas, this mid-range rendition comes loaded with so much “very hot” jalapeño salsa that the smoky subtlety of the mole is all but obliterated.
As an experiment, I opt for “non-spicy” when I order the same next visit. What a revelation! A deliciously mild avocado and lime salsa replaces the jalapeño, a modicum of lettuce, tomato and scallion now adds considerable crunch, refried beans and rice provide the needed contrast, and the mole’s complexity is present but no longer overpowered. And lots of boneless chicken, too.
Even more surprising, a side salad of everyday greens topped with alfalfa sprouts and dead-of-winter pink tomato ($3.75) – something I initially dismiss as a tokenistic kowtow to the veggie set – makes a spectacular side, especially when its super-tart hibiscus vinaigrette collides with the mole on the tongue.
Elsewhere, the house “extremely hot” chipotle salsa plays a major role in Banana’s pork and pineapple tacos ($2.50 each/$6.95 for three). But here, the hot sauce adds the correct amount of kick and allows the taco’s contrasting garnishes of fresh lime and coriander to be tasted.
And we’ll say it again: as the signs plastered all over this raucous room remind, in NOW’s opinion, Johny Banana’s chipotle-laced hot chocolate ($3.50) is the best winter-killer in town.