I regularly eat take-away food, and I always feel guilty when it's served up in those white polystyrene-foam containers that are impossible to recycle in downtown Toronto. NTrying not to add to the mountain of landfill and attempting to do my bit for the planet, I buy a cheap set of Tupperware-like tubs at Honest Ed's for those occasions when I'm dining chez moi. Consequently, today I'm packing plastic.
I'm at El Palenque, a six-year-old "authentic Mexican" -- it's advertised as the real deal, no Tex-Mex -- cantina on St. Clair near Christie. Placing my order with the sole server in the deserted restaurant, I ask that, if possible, my movable feast be placed in the vittle vats I've brought with me.
Si, señor. Half an hour later, the cook emerges from the kitchen with two full bags. After thanking her, I'm taken aback when she begins to lecture me about the inconvenience I've caused her.
Thick broth "This is too complicated," she scolds. "Next time I won't do it, but because we're not busy I did it your way. But never again."
Smiling through gritted teeth, I make my way out to the sidewalk, unlock my bike and coast downhill back to the core, all the while plotting my print revenge. But once home, my takeout spread commandeering the coffee table, I'm even further annoyed because -- damn! -- this is good stuff. So much for payback.
While not a huge serving, Sopa De Marisco ($9.95) is a chili-spiked seafood and tomato broth thick with mussels (both black Atlantic and green New Zealand), rings of chewy squid and a pair of tail-on shrimp. Though an aluminum foil-wrapped pack of four warm corn tortillas has been sent along, since I'm home I toast slices of Portuguese cornbread for dunking. Not only do they hold together better, but the dense crusts also give the dish a needed textural contrast.
Gift-wrapped in a deep-fried flour tortilla, veggie-stuffed Chimichanga Tijuana ($6.95) -- like the rest of the taco, tamale and tostada lineup available with chicken, beef or chorizo fillings -- gets extra kick from lime-infused pico de gallo. Disappointingly, other than rice its interior holds little more than a few cubes of eggplant. A small serving of torn iceberg leaves topped with out-of-season pink tomatoes, and over-processed refried beans sprinkled with feta offer no encouragement.
Refried plantain, Platanos Fritos ($3.25), makes a great finish. After being deep-fried whole, this near-banana gets sliced, dusted with confectioner's sugar, sided with a strawberry 'n' sour cream and presented on the splayed-open skin. Simple and satiating.
Since I owe them one for dragging them to the diabolical Diablo, I take the Literary Device and club kid Jennifer Convertible for dinner at El Palenque. Although it's not even 7 on a Tuesday night, the somewhat dumpy patio -- worn Astro-turf, plastic plants, corrugated fibreglass panels overhead -- is nearly full.
Sarcastic comment Drinks and starters chosen, we wait 40 minutes for them to arrive, despite the Device's sarcastic comment to the lone server: "Excuse me, but didn't we order something?"
When something does eventually show up, it's not worth the wait. Planchitas, described on the menu as Mexican pizza, finds a paltry 5-inch tortilla under-loaded with feta, sausage and bland tomato sauce.
Guacamole En Molcajete --roughly mashed avocado pulp served in the volcanic-rock mortar it's made in -- is nothing of the sort. Brought to table on a small, chipped scallop-shaped dish, this guac resembles pallid, taste-free mush with a handful of commercial chips on the side (both $4.95). For the genuine article, check out Plaza Garibaldi on the Danforth.
The Device's carafe of sangria ($4.25 glass/$9.95 half-litre/$19.95 litre) comes clogged with fruit and ice that make it nearly impossible to pour. Priced at $3.15 on the bar list, my Heineken adds four bucks -- before tax and tip -- to the tab. A sugar rush with a paper parasol, banana margarita ($5.95) reminds Convertible of drunken nights at Dairy Queen.
Much later, the mains appear. My Pollo En Mole ($11.95) finds a very thin grilled chicken breast smothered in a taste-intense blend of crushed garlic, onion, pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and earthy bitter chocolate. The bird would have much more flavour if it had been cooked in the mole instead of having the mole added to it at the last minute. On the side, there's more boring beans and salad, as well as first-rate rice completely free of frozen vegetables. Couple this with the complete absence of both sombreros and Gipsy Kings, and you get a Tex-Mexican restaurant, despite its claims to the contrary, unlike any other in town.
Camarones Al Mojo De Ajo ($9.95) disappoints the Device. She expects more than seven overcooked and medium-sized butter-sauced shrimp. Asking for the heat to be turned up on her Fajitas A La Mexicana ($11.95), Convertible suspects that El Palenque's usual mild heat has been goosed by several shakes from the Tabasco bottle.
Tons of food, though.
653 St. Clair West, 656-0725.
Not as authentically Mexican as it claims to be, this cute cantina has some very good dishes hidden in between mainstream taco, burrito and fajita platters. A large Astroturf-carpeted backyard patio attracts lineups every night despite the decidedly Tex-Mex menu. Complete dinners for $30 per person ($14 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Open Monday 5 to 11 pm, Tuesday to Saturday noon to 11 pm and Sunday noon to 10 pm. Fully licensed. Smoke-free. Access: two steps to dining room, two steps to patio, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN