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Warm yourself from the inside out with the city's latest takes on tacos, ceviche and more
CAMPECHANO 504 Adelaide West, at Portland, 416-777-2800, campechano.ca
Even though the restaurant is just seven weeks old, Campechano’s owners might balk at being called “modern Mexican.”
“The aim was to create something very classic, like you would find in Mexico, as opposed to our version of Mexican food,” says co-owner Raena Fisher. Adds her partner, chef Daniel Roe, “It’s as close as it can be to a Mexican taqueria. We’re not trying to come up with anything new it’s just what it would be in Mexico.”
Roe grew up in Mexico, moved to Canada when he was 20 and spent the last 10 years cooking at spots like La Carnita and the Black Hoof. His cousin, who owns several taquerias in Mexico, offered to go into business with him, and we can sample the results in an airy little spot on Adelaide that once held Sadie’s Diner.
The menu is short: just six tacos (“the most common ones in Mexico City,” Roe says) and four quesadillas, which more closely resemble monstrous tacos packed with oozing queso than the panini-pressed pub apps you’re probably expecting. There’s also a sea bass ceviche ($8), tiny in size but big in citrusy punch when spooned onto chips, and perfect little cubes of flan ($4) for dessert.
Most popular thus far is the namesake Campechano taco (a Mexican classic, the name translates to “good-natured”), featuring steak, chorizo and frizzy chicharrón crisps, with a drizzle of coral-orange sauce made from morita chiles ($4.75).
That morita sauce is applied liberally, adding smoke to the shredded chicken tinga ($4) and the steak and seared peppers ($4.50). (That’s one of their few concessions to Canadian tastes: in Mexico, you’d never have salsa pre-applied to the taco – everyone just knows what sauce goes with what taco from childhood onward, Roe explains.) Camarones tacos ($4.75) come with chubby shrimp in a sweet-and-spicy glaze, sprinkled with pineapple and cilantro for freshness.
Did they have to tweak things to account for Canadian ingredients? “Quite the opposite – we figured out a way to bring Oaxaca cheese straight from Oaxaca,” Roe says.
They also imported corn – not flour, but dried yellow and blue corn kernels – to make their own tortillas, which they press and grill to order, unheard of even in perpetually taco-crazed Toronto.
“The tortilla is the foundation of everything,” Fisher explains. “If you went to a pizza place, you would expect that they make their own dough in house, but Mexican food we’re just learning about in Toronto. In Mexico, if you go to a taqueria, you’d never see a packaged tortilla.”
The couple’s ideal of Mexican authenticity extends to the candy-coloured mural that stretches along the back wall of the restaurant: a couple dreams of symbols of Mexico – not sombreros or Dia de los Muertos, but street vendors selling esquites, bottles of Coca-Cola and Mexico City’s iconic statue of Angel of Independence.
“At the end, the couple in the dream arrives at a taqueria and gets to enjoy all the pleasures of Mexico,” Fisher says.
Art always imitates life, but the results are rarely this tasty.
Though Reforma’s going through changes, Gobernador tacos with shrimp and tequila crema – an early menu fave – will remain.
REFORMA 35 Baldwin, at McCaul, 647-748-6448, reforma.restaurant
Reinvention is built right into the name of Andres Marquez and Keyvan Foroughi‘s newish Baldwin Village restaurant, which itself began as a reimagined version of Foroughi’s last restaurant, Agave y Aguacate.
“Life has a funny way of unfolding,” says Marquez, who until recently was a partner at Fonda Lola. Foroughi, meanwhile, became chef-less when Francisco Alejandri departed Agave y Aguacate last spring.
“Both Keyvan and I found ourselves in situations where we needed an outlet or a way of following what we wanted. He’s a passionate Mexican food fan, and I’m an advocate of Mexican food as well.”
Along with a new paint job for Agave’s cozy two-floor home, they came up with a card of mostly traditional tacos, flautas and apps. The resto has seen a slow and steady climb to popularity with Baldwin Village locals and OCAD students. (There were, of course, a few obstacles: “When the Blue Jays were doing well, we saw a decrease in business.”)
Three months into Reforma’s existence, it’s on the verge of another overhaul, with Marquez refitting the menu’s selection of apps and tacos to include a wider cross-section of modern Mexican cuisine.
“Instead of changing the menu for winter, like most chefs do, we thought, ‘Let’s maybe change the direction,'” he says. (The restaurant also suffered a burst water pipe at the start of the new year – so, hey, what better time to take a breather?) “We want to mess around with what Mexican food can be while still keeping it Mexican and traditional, with a lot of Canadian ingredients.”
A few faves will still be there when the restaurant reopens this week, including the choriqueso ($10), a gloriously indulgent mess of chorizo and melted cheese. “Whenever I go to any Mexican restaurant, whether it’s in Mexico or elsewhere, I judge it by the queso fundido,” Marquez says – and by that measure, Reforma’s kitchen is undoubtedly stellar.
Also remaining are the shrimp-and-cheese Gobernador tacos ($9 for two) and steak tacos, though Marquez plans to change them up with a French-inspired sauce. The cocktail menu will also be pruned, though the signature bittersweet beet margarita will remain. “I love the combination of hibiscus tea and beet. I drink it in the morning – without the tequila, of course.”
So how about that new direction? Marquez says he’s eager to think outside the tortilla and explore game meats and their history in Mexican cuisine. He’s using traditional mole poblano sauce as a starting point.
“I want to apply it in more of the traditional sense. It was created to be eaten with wild turkey. Others were eaten with boar or other game. I’m hoping to not just do a traditional mole, but really show people what mole should be, not just a chocolate sauce.
“Mexican food can be more than simple tacos. Hopefully, people will be able to take that challenge on.”
SPICEMAN MEXICANA 596 College, at Clinton, 416-551-6532, spicemanmexicana.com
Five years in Mexico might have taken him out of the Toronto spotlight, but Greg Couillard is a local culinary legend: since 1975, he’s opened or cooked in no fewer than three dozen Toronto restaurants. (His most recent, Spice Room, closed in 2010.)
Now the executive chef at a Mexican resort, he’s temporarily returned to his significantly frostier old turf to serve as the consulting chef at Spiceman Mexicana. Known locally as a seemingly ceaseless revolving door of restaurants, the former Lucky Bastard will be a proving ground for what the partners behind the spot hope will become a fast-casual franchise. “Yes, it is a tough space,” he writes via email. “Let’s hope we can bring positive energy to this location, starting with a good taquería at a fast casual pace.” A new location in Liberty Village is already set to follow in mid-2016.
With Mexico’s culinary influence broadening his decades-long obsession with spicy food, Couillard says he’s hoping to translate that influence into authentic street eats at a palatable price. Seafood tacos, including grilled octopus, crunchy mahi mahi, and shrimp, are the menu’s cornerstone. “At present, the box stores offer little in fish tacos. Seven Lives [is] probably the only one that does, and [does] it well,” he says via email.
Rounding things out are plates like chili and guac, and plenty of tequila to wash it all down. To see what the “rogue chef” has in store, swing by on January 21 from 5 pm onward for the grand opening bash.
For a glorious, shining month and a half, Dundas West had a taco shop to call its very own. Magnifico opened in early October and served tacos, burritos, spicy shrimp and mole meatballs in a boldly coloured room before quietly shutting its doors on November 28.