This is working out to be the summer of the Taco, the diminutive Mexican sandwich, once familiar with fillings of ground beef, roast pork, but now el ultimo grito of wraps, thanks mostly to the Californians who tweaked some irresistible adaptations, the Korean Taco stuffed with bulgogi and kimchi, and the Fish Taco. As well, the Taco is the Social Media’s snack of choice. A T-spot has only to announce an opening on Twitter and Facebook for Millennials to hone in like heat-seeking missiles. A few weeks ago, La Carnita, less than a year old as the pop-up hit of the T-spots, finally went bourgeois at 501 College (at Bathurst) and was quickly overwhelmed.
The owners, Andrew Richmond and Amin Todai of OneMethod Digital and Design get the brass ring for superb marketing. Todai is a seasoned pro, co-owner of Lucien and Lou Dawgs, and knew the bureaucratic red tape involved in opening a resto. So the pair avoided the usual kerfuffle by selling street art with tacos on the side, from their downtown Toronto office. Kaboom! A knockout tease. For a year, La Carnita has been playing peekaboo with pop ups, food trucks, now you see it, now you don’t, brilliantly exploiting the growing appetite for something akin to Singapore’s spontaneous hawkers.
The newly formal La Carnita is open from 5-11 pm, six days a week, and doesn’t take reservations, so I reckon that I have to be there on the dot to have any hope of snatching a table in the 80-seat venue. I don’t want to wait to be summoned by cell from some neighbouring bar for a five-buck TWEAT which takes less than 140 seconds to swallow. It’s not as if I’m being asked to wait for a three-star blow-out. What surprises me is that my neighbours on the line don’t even know the name of the place. True, its only ID is a doormat saying Gringo. But still how did they find it? Osmosis. “We just heard it was good”.
Question now is can La Carnita keep its off-the-cuff appeal on a routine basis? The Medieval Mexican makeover of the streetcar layout goes some way to overcome a space that seemed so unprepossessing when occupied by Cinq 01 and Briscola. Now the joint beckons with dusky allure. Haven’t heard it in years, but now I’m humming from The Pyjama Game – “I know a dark secluded place/A place where no one knows your face/A glass of wine/ a fast embrace/It’s called Hernando’s Hideaway. Ole! “
Comfort is minimal. We’re seated at a little round table by the bar and service is prompt. Margaritas $11 are fresh but seem hardly strong enough to contain the advertised 5 oz of Cointreau. We sink into the Tacos, $5. The house special is cutely named In Cod We Trust. Absolutely smashing. A soft tortilla wrapped around Cod deep-fried in beer batter , limey cream , pickled red cabbage, green apple, cilantro, and soy-based Voltron Sauce – inspired by Wu-Tang Clan’s hip hop, perhaps Drunk Pain. Another two-chili thrill, Crispy Avocado & Frijoles including avocado, jicama, chipotle sauce, cheese and cilantro. The Tostada de Lengua, a toasted plate holding beef tongue coated in cashew sauce, pineapple, radish and bean sprouts is spoiled by its gooey texture, When we eat the anemic Pollo Frito, Peanut mole sauce, pickled green cabbage and a fresh veg sauce, we realize how absolutely essential a fiery chili has been to the other tacos: we also realize they all taste much the same.
We take a flyer on Chiles Rellenos $7, definitely not street food but a classic, a fruity Poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, inflated with tempura. Here, the dish is compressed into negligible croquettes. We end with Paletas, Mexican ice lollies $3.5. Lime pie is creamy with a crumble crust, while pineapple is spiked with not enough chill. But say, in Mexico, they use fresh fruit. Why when fresh’n’local/sustainable is every restaurant’s favourite lecture – we note the cod is “wild-caught – isn’t there a local strawberry/black pepper lolly or a raspberry/chili?
By six the joint is jammed, a palpable hit, noisy too with music and 80 jaws crunching simultaneously. We step into a warm evening and realize we’re peckish. How lucky the excellent Grace is right next door, a legacy resto with dishes to savour for fifteen minutes or more.
La Carnita,501 College, 416-964-1555. Closed Mondays. lacarnita.com, For two: food plus tax: $38. Out of Four stars: ** Food, service, Vibe