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Review: El Catrin brings Mexican-for-the-masses to the Distillery District

(Image: Gizelle Lau)

(Image: Gizelle Lau)

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El Catrin Destileria 1 star½
18 Tank House Ln., 416-203-2121

Chef Olivier Le Calvez moved from Mexico City to Toronto to oversee this huge new Distillery District restaurant. The high-ceilinged room, formerly home to the Boiler House, is packed most nights with tourists, after-work tipplers and local condo-dwellers. Le Calvez’s extensive Mexican-for-the-masses menu contains a few jewels, such as flaky crab cakes and baja tacos—clumps of perfectly fried haddock cooled by creamy chipotle coleslaw and piled on flour tortillas. The night’s best dish is the intensely shareable chuleton a las brasas: a buttery, spicy 16-ounce rib eye served on a hot grill with sizzling jalapeño, corn and tomatillos. Other dishes have only one note, like the tacos al pastor (overwhelmed by guajillo) and a limpid, miniscule mahi-mahi ceviche that tastes only of tamarind. To close the meal, there’s powerfully rich Mexican fudge topped with bacon and walnuts and an impressive tequila selection.

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Openings

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Introducing: Fonda Lola, a new Queen West cantina that serves kombucha on tap

toronto-restaurant-fonda-lola-23-intro

Name: Fonda Lola
Neighbourhood: Queen West
Contact Info: 942 Queen St. W., @FondaLola
Owners: Ernesto Rodriguez, Howard Dubrowsky and pop-up chef Andrés Márquez, who is also involved with the Charlie Burger supper club
Chef: Howard Dubrowsky, the former chef and owner of L.A.B. on College

The Food: Traditional Aztec recipes inherited by Márquez from his anthropologist aunt. Mains include grilled steak with mole sauce and Ontario trout marinated in aguachile, a blend of lime juice, macerated jalapeños and cilantro. Taco specials change daily.

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Openings

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Introducing: Olé Olé, a new King East resto-lounge with an impressive social conscience

Name: Olé Olé
Contact Info: 169 King St. E., 416-363-9000, oleoletoronto.com
Neighbourhood: King East
Chef: Rodrigo Aguilar

The Place: A three-storey Spanish-Mexican restaurant and event space that gives 10 percent of every bill to children’s charities like the Terry Fox Foundation and Right to Play. The sleek space (formerly home to Hanif Harji’s Kultura) has been given a festive makeover with chunky black chandeliers, an Aztec-style mural and leather banquettes draped with colourful woven blankets.

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Must-Try

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Must-Try: Playa Cabana Hacienda’s sweet play on the fries-curds-gravy equation

Must-Try: Playa Cabana Hacienda Churros Poutine

At Playa Cabana Hacienda, the newest outpost of Dave Sidhu’s trendy taco chain, playful fusion dishes round out a menu of traditional Mexican street snacks. Tacos are stuffed with sweet Korean kalbi; huevos rancheros get a salty hit from crumbled Spanish chorizo; and churros—ridged Mexican doughnuts dusted with sugar and cinnamon—sub for French fries in a sweet take on poutine. A glass tumbler holds a half-dozen fritters, crunchy from the fryer and still warm enough to melt a tangle of shredded marshmallows (a convincingly gooey stand-in for cheese curds). The star, though, is the pool of cajeta: a thick, sweet caramel coaxed from sugar and goat’s milk. It makes a delightfully creamy dip for fried dough, but tastes equally sublime on its own. Don’t be ashamed to ask for a spoon. $9.

Playa Cabana Hacienda, 14 Dupont St., 647-352-6030, playacabana.ca

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Openings

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Introducing: Xola, a new spot for tacos, taquitos and tamales in the Beach

Introducing: Xola

Name: Xola
Neighbourhood: The Beach
Contact Info: 2222A Queen St. E.
Owner/Chef: Mali Fernandez, the former chef and co-owner of Danforth tapas bar Embrujo Flamenco, which closed last spring

The Food: Mexican dishes. Fish tacos, veal taquitos and gorditas topped with chicken, chorizo and huitlacoche, a truffle-like fungus that grows on corn. For dessert: chocolate tamales with sour cream.

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Recipes

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Recipe: spicy ceviche tostadas from Agave y Aguacate chef Francisco Alejandri

Toronto Life Cookbook 2012 Recipe: Ceviche Tostadas
Toronto Life Recipes | Appetizers
CEVICHE TOSTADAS
By Francisco Alejandri
Agave y Aguacate

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Restaurants

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Mexican pop-up Fonda Lola gets a permanent home on Queen West

Fonda Lola

(Image: Fonda Lola)

The recipe for the modern Mexican eatery has never been simpler: tacos + pop-up = permanent digs. Fonda Lola, which popped up this spring at Ossington bar Reposado and the The Stop Night Market, is the latest to capitalize on that formula—one that worked for La Carnita on College and Seven Lives in Kensington Market. The new restaurant opens in September at Queen and Shaw.

Fonda Lola, 942 Queen St. W., @FondaLola

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Openings

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Introducing: El Catrin, the Distillery District’s new Mexican restaurant

Introducing: El Catrin

(Image: Gizelle Lau)

Name: El Catrin Destileria
Neighbourhood: Distillery District
Contact info: 18 Tank House Ln., 416-203-2121, elcatrin.ca, @elcatrinca
Owners: John Berman, Mathew Rosenblatt and partners
Chef: Olivier Le Calvez, who moved to Toronto from Mexico City a month ago

The Place: The former Boiler House space has been given a mod-goth makeover with heavy black chandelier-style light fixtures, wall-mounted glow-in-the-dark skulls and a kaleidoscopic floor-to-ceiling mural by Mexican street artist Oscar Flores. Tables on the 190-seat enclosed patio are arranged around a fire pit.

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Openings

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Introducing: Playa Cabana Hacienda, the third location of the trendy taqueria

Introducing: Playa Cabana Hacienda

Name: Playa Cabana Hacienda
Neighbourhood: The Annex
Contact Info: 14 Dupont St., 647-352-6030, www.playacabana.ca/14-dupont/
Owner/Executive Chef: Dave Sidhu, who also runs the original Playa Cabana down the street and Playa Cabana Cantina in the Junction

The Place: A two-story space crammed with Americana, including neon signs, classic movie posters and an old-school gas pump. The upstairs patio seats 85.

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Restaurants

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Parkdale taqueria Grand Electric is now doing takeout

Grand Electric Takeout

(Image: Twitter)

Grand Electric fans can scarf their pork tinga tacos and squid hoagies without enduring the hours-long waits and blaring ‘90s gansta rap that, along with sublime Mexican food, have made the little shop one of the city’s buzziest taquerias. The restaurant, whose efforts to add a second floor were thwarted earlier this year by the Parkdale moratorium, announced the news over Twitter yesterday with characteristic insouciance. Still, if this guy’s into takeout tacos, then we are too.

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Restaurants

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Beloved taco spot Agave y Aguacate is back in Baldwin Village

Agave-y-Aguacate

Tinga tostada at Agave y Aguacate(Image: Renée Suen)

Mexican-born chef Francisco Alejandri opened a Kensington Market taco stand in 2011, ahead of the current craze. With only a couple of burners and a bar fridge, he made some of the freshest, tastiest and cheapest Mexican street food we ever had. When he closed shop last year, due to the chaos of cooking in the cramped food court, the city issued a collective groan of disappointment. Luckily, Alejandri is back.  This summer, he’s opening up Agave y Aguacate 2.0, a permanent restaurant—this time with a fully equipped kitchen, a proper dining room and a patio—in the space formerly occupied by the short-lived bistro Elle M’a Dit. Alejandri trained at several big-name restaurants, including Sassafraz, Scaramouche and Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, and his signature ceviches, tostadas and other meticulously prepared Mexican dishes reflect his pedigree.  The restaurant will be the latest of at least six new taquerias in the Baldwin-Kensington area but, if Anthony Bourdain’s rave review of Alejandri’s food is any indication, it’s sure to draw the longest lineups.

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Features

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Critic: How tequila-fuelled taquerias like Playa Cabana became the city’s buzziest places to eat—and party

Playa Cabana Cantina

Playa Cabana Cantina in the Junction is the latest in a string of buzzy new taquerias. Right: Tequila is a serious concern at Cantina—this oak-aged Burdeos sells for $90 an ounce

Grand Electric One Star ½
1330 Queen St. W., 416-627-3459

La CarnitaOne Star
501 College St., 416-964-1555

Playa CabanaTwo Stars
111 Dupont St., 416-929-3911

Playa Cabana Cantina Two Stars
2883 Dundas St. W., 647-352-7767


Playa Cabana is on the ground floor of a slim Dupont semi just off Davenport, a convenient pit stop after a wardrobe binge in Yorkville. Regulars call the restaurant “Playa,” like it’s their clubhouse. On weekends, a bouncer poses at the door. There always seems to be a posse of chatty smokers blocking the sidewalk out front, the volume of their squeals in direct proportion to tequila consumed. Last summer, the restaurant’s back patio grew so loud that a group of neighbours from the million-dollar lofts next door called their lawyers and the cops.

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Must-Try

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Must-Try: the Bulgogi Torta from A-OK Foods, a Mexican-Korean spin on a fast food classic

Monday Must-Try: A-OK Burger

The fundamental insight behind the addictive Bulgogi Torta from A-OK Foods: few sandwiches are as satisfying as a good, old-fashioned Big Mac. For this cheeky Mexican-Korean creation, chef Chris Jang stuffs sweet grilled rib-eye, a healthy dollop of guacamole and shredded lettuce inside a mayo-slicked Wonder Bread bun, along with a little melted provolone (bracing house pickles are on the side). The resulting sandwich is sweet, salty and fatty, and it melts in your mouth just like the McDonald’s original. Unlike the McDonald’s burger, however, there’s no gastronomical shame associated with ordering it. $7.50

A-OK Foods, 930 Queen St. W., second floor, 647-352-2243, aokfoods.ca, @AOKfoods

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Trend Watch

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Seven food trends at 2013’s Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association show

Each year, we head over to the annual Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association show to get a look at the big new food trends coming down the pipe. Of our twelve predictions from last year, some were dead on (Toronto couldn’t get enough of rustic Italian cuisine, street food and Mexican flavours), while others were perhaps premature (like our forecast of wide-spread home sous vide cooking and the death of cupcakes). Below, seven trends we observed at this year’s CRFA show:

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New Reviews

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Review: Playa Cabana Cantina, the Junction’s raucous new taco bar

Tacos al pastor at Playa Cabana Cantina (Image: Karolyne Ellacott)

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Playa Cabana Cantina 2 stars½
2883 Dundas St. W., 647-352-7767

playacabana.ca

Proof that the Junction is the next hot neighbourhood: it now has the city’s best tacos.

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