EL JACALITO (1500 Royal York, at Lawrence, 416-244-4447) Transposed Mexican taquería moves into a Sopranos-style banquet hall without losing the spectacular grub that made its name. New addition - a $20 all-you-can-eat buffet Saturday. Great food, a we're-all-family vibe and wonderful music. Reservations essential for ringside seats. Open Wednesday to Friday 11 am to 9 pm, Saturday 11 am to 7 pm à la carte, buffet 8 pm to 2 am, Sunday lamb barbecue 11 am to 7 pm, Monday 5 to 9 pm. Closed Tuesday. Complete meals for $30 per person, including all taxes, tip and a hallucinogenic cocktail. Licensed. Cash only. Access: 17 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
NOW's eat beat has taken me to some strange places over the years, but never to anywhere as exciting and downright fun as El Jacalito. Call me kooky, but I'll take this scintillating Mexican cantina dishing up simple yet spectacular grub with a friendly family vibe, complete with a folklore floor show (don't ironically roll your eyes just yet, hipsters), over a downtown VIP champagne lounge full of stuffed shirts fine-dining on $19 foie-gras-topped Kraft Dinner any time. El Jacalito used to be a weekends-only taco stand in an industrial park in Weston. With little more than a folding card table and two electric frying pans, owners Luz Adriana and Antonio Romero whipped up cookbook-correct takes on suburban Mexican dishes -- no haute hotel stuff this. The quality of the couple's no-frills but fabulous food shamed their Tex-Mex competition.
When I recently discovered that the Romeros had taken over an Italian restaurant in the burbs, I feared that they might have trouble translating their terrific take-away into a traditional sit-down venue. When I learned that the place has a Saturday-night floor show featuring Luz Adriana's Tonatiuh dance troupe backed by the Viva Mexico mariachi quartet, I was positive the charming couple were in over their heads. Mistake. I call early Saturday evening to find out if the spot's $20 all-you-can-eat buffet and floor show deal is still on for the night. I'm told that it is and asked if I'd like to make a reservation. Yeah, right. Like I need to secure an 8 o'clock table at a joint no one's ever heard of in the middle of nowhere. Wrong again. After a surprisingly quick 20-minute trip up Scarlett Road and across Eglinton, we pull into a strip mall parking lot and soon find the subterranean space. (Hint: look for a bowling alley.) At the bottom of the stairs, we discover a room lit by a mirror ball that looks like a New Jersey banquet hall where a Soprano could get whacked, only decorated with serapes. Because all the ringside seats are booked, we're seated at a large linen-draped communal table behind a mirrored pillar but close to the buffet set up around the bar.
We sidle up to the buffet for the first of several trips. At first the offerings seem a bit miserly, but after one plateful we're back for seconds. And thirds. Steamed in a banana leaf, both pork and chicken versions of Cochinita Pibil see tender slow-cooked meat doused in tangy achiote paste and slightly soured with orange. Next to them, steak Mexican-style's stewed tomato, onion and jalapeo represent the country's flag. Remember to pile on a heap of raw lime-marinated red onion rings to add crunchy contrast.
El Jacalito's long-grain rice comes studded with unnecessary frozen veggies, but the addition of thick slabs of honeyed plantain makes up for it. The house's refried black turtle beans are easily Toronto's best, even more intensely rich when crumbled with feta-esque queso fresca cheese and squirted with either a mid-range coriander green sauce or an explosive red time bomb known as Tomorrow Sauce.
"Is it hot in here?" asks a suddenly sweaty Literary Device now that the heat's kicked in. She cools down with Pico de Gallo, a calming salad of crisp diced iceberg, ripe tomato, red onion and fresh coriander leaf and a somewhat neutralizing lime vinaigrette before heading back to the buffet for more deep-fried flautas, tender chicken wrapped in tortilla cigars. We finish with a plate of brunch garnish - berries straw and blue, chopped canteloupe and honeydew - which complements delish sugar-dusted churros ($1). Think tasty Tim Hortons donuts do Tijuana.
We also love the Chelada ($6), a Mexican cocktail of just-squeezed lime juice and beer margarita in a frosted glass edged with celery salt and fiery piquin chili pepper (see Fresh Dish for recipe). The chili's been roasted and crushed so its firepower is slightly diminished, and the after-shocks come slow, the building heat contrasting with tart-on-the-tongue lime and astringent salt. Then the booze hits. You'll swear there's something stronger than a Corona in there.
Now Antonio takes to the stage (the dance floor more like) and announces that the show is about to begin. As sombrero-clad Viva Mexico warms up, we're told not to worry, since the band will make it to every table eventually. Just what I need - strolling musicians! My pals and I plan our escape as soon as possible.
Within 10 minutes we understand why the best tables have all been reserved. They do a killer version of Besame Mucho. All the while, the crowd banters with the band, birthdays are celebrated and children walk right through the performers, plates piled high with food.
Antonio hits the lights and the room fills Great White-like with what I hope is dry ice and not the smoke from a kitchen fire. The doors to the kitchen swing open - backstage! - and four beautiful women clad as angels in voluminous white gowns emerge, the only light in the room coming from the candles in their hair. They're joined by four equally gorgeous young men who then break into the Mexican hat dance, accompanied by much foot-stomping, clapping and singing along.
After wrongly anticipating cheese and clichés, we delight instead in thoroughly professional dancers and musicians who really know how to work a crowd.
Later, hurtling back to the core, I ask the too-cool crew if other jaded downtown done-everything-twice-and-hated-it-the-first-time fabulosi will get El Jacalito. The answer: yes, if they can appreciate a great irony-free evening of authentic food and true fun.
Otherwise, let them eat $19 mac and cheese.