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Chef Amaranta Enriquez holds the cactus salad.
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The patio hums at Valentina.
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Eduardo Victoria Peñuela preps the Tostada Valentina (right); a rabbit taco goes well with a lime margarita.
VALENTINA (61A Bellevue, at Nassau, 647-748-1828) Complete dinners for $30 per person (lunches/brunches $25), including tax, tip and a Caesar. Average main $10. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 am to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 1 am. Weekend brunch till 3 pm. Closed some holidays. Licensed. Patio.Access: barrier-free, washroom in basement. Rating: NNN
Named for the inspirational Yaqui general who fought alongside Pancho Villa in the Mexican revolutionary war - and not the first woman in space - Valentina is only one of two new insurrectionist cantinas to open in Kensington Market of late. The second - Pancho y Emiliano - is facing our firing squad (see page 29).
You'll likely remember Valentina as the Bellevue, the spatially challenged boîte that ran out of steam last winter. It comes with one of the sunniest patios in the nabe.
Current owner/chef Amaranta "Amy" Enriquez came to Toronto from Mexico City, where she taught a university course in the history of Mexican cuisine, only to end up running the line at Squirly's. She launched her long-planned Valentina just three weeks ago. It's been a zoo ever since.
Take last Saturday, for example. Snagging the last table on the asphalt out front, we're soon sipping house Caesars ($7.50) made with jalapeño-infused vodka while laying waste to a bowl of La Tortilleria corn chips sided with two high-octane salsas, one milder and green, the other incendiary and fire-engine red. A first-rate cactus salad follows, rife with black beans, fresh corn and diced nopalitos in a vibrant lime 'n' chili vinaigrette ($8.50).
Valentina's signature tostada finds a deep-fried corn tortilla piled with shredded salt cod laden with chilies and garnished with terrific house-pickled jalapeños ($7.50). I've always wondered how to correctly attack a tostada. Knife and fork?
"Just pick it up and eat it," says the expert.
The kitchen's ketchupy Shrimp Diabla ($12.50) with delish deep-fried potato wedges is also strangely addictive, though the shrimp aren't as fresh as they could be given that we're two blocks from the nearest fishmonger. Same with the battered cod tacos ($8.50), despite their kick-ass mango slaw and chipotle mayo drizzle.
Best to stick with the pulled pork tacos laced with smoky achiote oil and dressed with fiery pickled onions (Cochinita, $7) and the cumin-kissed mixed pork and veal tacos finished with mild morita chili salsa (Los Arabes, $8). And no visit to Valentina's is complete without an order of the braised rabbit in Aztec mole tacos ($8.50, all for two) and a slice of first-time pastry chef Ashleigh-Marissa Reid's beautifully plated dulce de leche cheesecake ($4).
Those who automatically reach for the Tabasco bottle will have to ask for the house's hellaciously hot habanero sauce, since Enriquez and Victoria don't believe in the stuff. But where are the quesadilla combos with refried beans and rice we've all come to expect?
"It might sound ambitious, but we're trying to start a Mexican food revolution," laughs Enriquez. "There's a lot more to what we do than nachos and burritos."