ESPRESSO MI VIDA (392 Pacific, at Dundas, 416-761-0000) Complete meals for $17 per person, including all taxes, tip and a coffee. Average main $5.50. Open Monday to Wednesday 7:30 am to 6 pm, Thursday and Friday 7:30 am to 7 pm, Saturday and Sunday 9 am to 5 pm. Unlicensed. Access: barrier free. Rating: NNNN
Espresso Mi Vida (My Life) is a great neighbourhood café, even if you have to leave your neighbourhood to get there.
The whole experience is defined by the hospitable presence of the Pillajo sisters, Monica and Maritza, and mother Elizabeth. The room is a simple, welcoming space, and the food, an intelligent hybrid of Latin American styles with contemporary culinary touches, combines the virtues of homemade flavours and reliable professionalism.
Mi Vida’s got what a thousand restaurant consultants can’t deliver: heart.
We start with the ensalada ($3.99), a pretty, frilly small plate featuring kale, sweet, firm cubes of beet and passable tomatoes (it’s still April) in a dressing that extols the pleasures of good olive oil.
The salad is followed by the Cubano sandwich ($5.50) and the Ropa Vieja quesadilla ($6.50). The sandwich is a double pigger: ham and roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mayonnaise on crusty white bread. Everything works well together, and the roast pork is especially tender.
Incredibly, many kitchens find sandwich grilling an insurmountable challenge. Mi Vida’s light toasting and thoroughly heated interior guarantee that there will be no Cubano embargoes.
The quesadilla excels with slow-cooked shredded beef, richly flavoured beans and lots of gooey cheese. The spicing is deep, mellow and mole-like. It can all be juiced up with the accompanying mild salsa. Both these dishes are commendable for their focus. They don’t come sided with superfluous afterthought starches, thoughtless greens or pointless garnishes: the mains get the full attention of the kitchen and deserve the full attention of the diner.
Washing all this down is Manzana orange pop ($1.75) and an Inca cola ($1.50) whose colour might be described as Chernobyl yellow.
Mi Vida’s less-is-more dessert philosophy eschews the usual myriad of seen-’em-all-before contracted concoctions in favour of a short list of pleasing items. Guava cheesecake ($3.99) is a solid, respectable offering, but it’s bested by the tender, crumbly, caramel-centred, puck-shaped alfajores ($2).
Quality and flavour extend across the menu: perfect pastry empanadas ($2.99) with astute fillings like fig and queso fresco; moist tamales ($3.50) stuffed with shredded chicken, egg, raisins and olives; sweet plantain pie ($3.50), full-flavoured fair trade coffee and Kensington’s Jumbo empanadas.
In the words of disco legends Hot Chocolate (which Mi Vida also makes), Every 1’s A Winner.