TACOS EL ASADOR (690 Bloor West, at Clinton, 416-538-9747) Funky taqueria serving down-home Latin American street eats. Eat in at slatted wood tables and benches or take away an inexpensive nosh. Complete meals for $12 per person, including all taxes, tip and an imported Mexican beer. Open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday to Saturday noon to 9 pm, Sunday 2 to 6 pm. Closed Wednesday. Beer only. Cash only. Access: low step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
no matter the time of year, tor- onto loves hot food. Incendiary stews from Ethiopia, jerk goat from Jamaica, flame-throwing curries from the Subcontinent. There's nothing like a blast of chile to ignite the taste buds, clear the sinuses and blow the roof of the mouth sky-high. And since it's too hot to cook, what better time to really turn up the heat?I use the Bottomless Pit as my heat guage. If his forehead doesn't break into a sweat, it's not hot enough. After feeding the not-so-Brad Pit a spoonful of Chef Wondiy's Ye Teematen Fitfit -- an innocent-looking breakfast salad detonated by green chilies -- his gut reaction proved so intense that his spiky hair went limp. And one timid taste of Tacos El Asador's thermonuclear salsa of sliced seeds-'n'-all jalapeño, raw white onion and orange habanero has my gastro guinea pig gasping for air.
Folks, we have a new benchmark of burn.
Long a fast-food fixture nestled among the Korean restaurants of Bloor West, Tacos El Asador was purchased by the Gonzalez family seven years ago. The grub here is Latin American street food with a Salvadorean bent. The minimal decor -- screaming-yellow walls hung with folk art, a few flags, three TVs of varying vintage permanently tuned to the sports channel -- and uncomfortable bench seating aren't conducive to hanging around. But the service is warm and the made-to-order wraps more so.
Of the multiple variations of tortillas, beans, meat, lettuce and cheese -- tostadas, enchiladas, quesadillas, pupusas layered with spicy pink slaw (all $1.95) -- the best are the crisp tacos. A pair of deep-fried corn tortillas cradle tender strips of lime-marinated chicken, steak, pork or de-cased chorizo topped with chilly iceberg lettuce, really ripe Roma tomato and a crumble of sharp queso. Take that, Taco Bell.
TEA's veggie burrito ($3.25) is a comparative letdown, consisting of a plain 8-inch flour tortilla spread with black bean puree and filled with a skimpy amount of rice, lettuce, cheese and tomato. The reasonably priced guacamole, though not the equal of the glorious guac served at El Sol or Plaza Garibaldi, here sees buttery avocado mix it up with plum tomato confetti and feta-like queso ($4.50).
The salty, store-bought corn chips it's served with also show up as the base for nachos ($2.75 small/$3.59 large), a satisfying tangle of melted processed cheese, refried beans, raw onion, coriander, cubed avocado and tomato, all crowned with a dollop of sour cream.
Though a Latin-inspired all-day breakfast is available ($5.25), TEA's beef plate ($9) is substantial enough to last for several days. Don't bother specifying how you'd like your 1/8-inch slices of steak -- rare? medium? well done? -- because they come one way. Cooked. Next to the meat find mild tomato salsa, long-grain rice studded with corn kernels and red pepper and a massive salad built on a bed of thinly sliced English cucumber. Over the greenery comes a mess of slivered yellow and green peppers, Roma tomato cross-cuts, celery and carrot sticks, more queso and wedges of lime-coated avocado. Forget the little cup of bottled Italian dressing you'll find on the side. The salad doesn't need it.
But don't forget the hot sauce. There are actually three -- the watery medium-strength stuff found in a squeeze bottle on every table, an even more potent elixir that's kept behind the counter, and the third, that Hiroshima jalapeño salsa that caved the Bottomless Pit's cranium.
And if you're craving a different kind of heat, set your torrid zone afire with Sopa de Pata ($7), a deliciously spicy chile broth made from cow's foot, skin and tendons (you don't have to eat them) rich with corn on the cob, zucchini-esque chayote and starchy cassava. I'll take their word for it that it's an aphrodisiac.
Now that you're all hot and bothered, cool things down with a glass of horchata ($1 small/$1.50 medium/$2 large), a creamy shake of vanilla, powdered peanuts, sweet rice and milk. Or get in the mood with one of several imported Latin American beers (Cruzcampo, Dorada, Dos Equis, Panama, Corona, Sol and Monte Carlo, all $3.69).
Hot enough for ya?