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AGAVE Y AGUACATE (214 Augusta, at Baldwin, 647-208-3091, agaveyaguacate.blogspot.com) Complete takeout dinners for $15 (lunches $10), including tax, tip and an iced hibiscus tea. Average main $5. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11 am to 6:30 pm. Closed Mondays, holidays and Tuesdays after long weekends. No reservations. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: three steps at door, no washrooms. Rating: NNNNN
Taking its name from the cactus that gives us tequila and the Spanish word for avocado, only tiny Agave y Aguacate has the cojones to serve Toronto what owner/chef Francisco "Paco" Alejandri calls "authentic Mexican soul food." That's a tall order in a city where Mexican cuisine is synonymous with Mission-style halibut burritos.
"The problem with the restaurants here is that they don't have properly trained kitchen staff," says Alejandri. "The food they make's okay but not that good."
Alejandri should know. Not only is the Central Mexico-born cook a graduate of the prestigious Stratford Chef School, he's also worked in some of the best restos around, including Scaramouche, Torito and Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar. Despite the training, Alejandri didn't intend to open his own spot until he had a vision one day last fall while shopping in Kensington Market.
"My mother had just passed away, and I was having a rough time," says the fedora-clad Alejandri. "I looked up in the sky and said, ‘Mummy, please help me,' and there it was in front of me."
The answer to his prayers turned out to be a low-rent Latin American food court that houses a Mexican bakery as well as several take-aways selling cheap churros, arepas, pupusas and empanadas.
It's not just Alejandri's dapper duds and vibrant graffiti-style mural that make him stand out like a sore thumb. While his neighbours come equipped with little more than microwaves, Alejandri cooks almost everything from scratch on a pair of pricey induction cookers. It's a time-consuming process - and you thought the Danforth's El Sol was slow!
All is forgiven after the first bite of salpicon steak salad ($4.50/tax-inclusive), a worth-the-wait explosion of tender shredded flank, chopped seeds 'n' all jalapeños, ripe tomato and raw red onion in freshly squeezed lime juice. If that weren't enough, Alejandri finishes the sizable plate with scoops of buttery avocado, fried-to-order tortilla chips and liberal lashings of peppery arbequina olive oil from Catalonia. Nothing is done in advance.
No Taco Bell tostados, Agave's spicy chipotle chicken ($5.50) comes dressed with pickled pink onion, sautéed cabbage, real crema fresca - not sour cream like just about every other local so-called cantina - and what Alejandri refers to as "well-fried" beans - mashed black beans unapologetically fried in pork fat.
The gorgeous green tostada ($4.25) sees a bed of perfectly executed guacamole piled high with sliced tomato, organic queso fresco cheese - from fancy-pants Monforte Dairy, no less - and fruity jam-like guajillo chili and tomatillo salsa.
The attention to detail is staggering. Who else would bother to season pinto bean soup ($3.50) with crumbled queso, crushed pasilla peppers, a swirl of crema and freshly deep-fried tortilla strips at the last minute so that all its flavours are at their most potent?
And where else can you knock back Mexican meatballs in chipotle gravy on a Portuguese sub spread with beans, avocado and queso ($6.99) alongside a glass of house-made hibiscus agua fresca ($1.50)?
But no matter what you order, don't leave without at least one slice of Alejandri's extraordinary lime charlotte ($2.75), a multi-tiered tiramisu clone layered with vanilla custard, lime zest and more of that fab Spanish olive oil.
"I'm well aware of my weaknesses," says the modest chef when asked why his food doesn't come faster. "Everything has to be as fresh as possible. It's the only way."