1 of 5
2 of 5
3 of 5
4 of 5
5 of 5
LA CARNITA (501 College, at Palmerston, 416-964-1555, lacarnita.com) Complete meals for $40 per person, including tax, tip and a pint of micro-suds. Average taco $5. Open Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
The 14-year-old in our posse is outraged. "Thirteen bucks and change for a 40 of Old English? That's twice what it costs at the liquor store."
Welcome to La Carnita, kid, the permanent pop-up taqueria where a ghetto-sized bottle of malt liquor goes for a major chunk of your weekly allowance, and tacos are five bones a pop.
But what tacos! Co-owner/chef Andrew Richmond's take on the fork-free snack du jour may be as authentically Mexican as the funky cantina's faux-painted walls, but there's no denying his considerable kitchen skills.
Take his signature In Cod We Trust, a fresh white-corn tortilla from Kensington's La Tortilleria generously piled with beautifully battered wild Atlantic cod, pickled red cabbage and tart Granny Smith apple. A healthy squirt of lime and lashings of both mellow crema fresca and what chef calls Voltron sauce (a spicy tamari-based concoction named for the 80s anime super-robot, the 14-year-old informs us) send the sustainable fish into overdrive.
As its name suggests, Pollo Frito sees great chunks of Southern-style fried chicken dressed in peanut mole sauce, barely pickled napa cabbage and roughly chopped tomato salsa. Just as delish, crisply deep-fried cubes of buttery avocado play against sour epazote-stewed beans and peppery chipotle sauce, a leafy sprig of coriander to garnish.
Richmond keeps it relatively simple with Carne Asada - seared strips of rare skirt steak tossed with sweet mango salsa and crumbled Parmesan-like queso anejo - and offsets his terrific house-made chorizo with pickled red onion and sharp cojita cheese.
Those offended by offal should steer clear of Tostada de Lengua (translation: a deep-fried taco topped with tender beef tongue, grilled pineapple and beet sprouts in an incendiary hot sauce that could spark a nuclear meltdown).
There's more to La Carnita than a whack o' tacos, including starters like halved avocados stuffed with ripe mango, toasted pumpkin seeds and Hostess Hickory Sticks cleverly fashioned from deep-fried plantain ($7). A meant-to-share tray of tortilla chips dusted with powdered ancho chili comes sided with chipotle-spiked chicken liver pâté ($6.50), while perfectly charred corn on the cob arrives slathered in yogurty crema fresca and more anejo cheese ($7 for two). You won't want to share these suckers.
Desserts are not to be missed. Think of paletas as the Mexican equivalent of popsicles, from sorbet-style strawberry to a convincing spin on retro key lime pie coated with crushed graham crackers. Salting caramel is nothing new, but Richmond ups the ante by sprinkling both his dulce de leche paletas (all $4) and the dulce de leche that accompanies his doughnut-like churros ($5) with flaky sea salt and chicharrón, aka pulverized pork rinds.
Draining the last of our $11 Who Shot Ya? cocktails - bourbon sours named for a Biggie Smalls tune, which explains the smirk from the 14-year-old - we can no longer ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the 78-seat air-conditioned room: is La Carnita better than the very similar Grand Electric?
On food alone, the two are on par, though GE gets the advantage on price - $3.50 per taco versus 5 bucks. The noisy Christmas-tree-lit restos look virtually identical, but Grand Electric wins out with one of the better backyard patios in town, always a major draw.
Hence the lineup. Both have fast and friendly servers, most notably the food runner at La Carnita, who could qualify for the 100-yard dash at the next Olympics.
But the scene on College is far less frantic than on Queen. You can walk in most times, score a table and it doesn't feel like someone's staring at your back with a stop watch in hand. The next time we're in the mood for trendy tacos - and a 40 - we know where we'll be heading.