November 27, 2022

Meet a new wave of Mexican restaurants

On a snowy afternoon, Luis Bautista and Viridiana Cano of Puerto Bravo restaurant in the Little India neighborhood discuss what will be on their new menu. It’s a small restaurant, with exposed brickwork and a handful of bistro chairs inside. The food here is an ode to the cuisine of Tampico, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico in the southeastern part of the state of Tamaulipas.

“We know people love our food, I think it’s time to reveal some new dishes,” Bautista said. “I’ve been cooking in Toronto for a long time, I feel like there’s enthusiasm now and an appetite for more Mexican food.”

Toronto has had Mexican restaurants for decades, and you’ll find pockets of them in neighborhoods such as St. Clair’s Hillcrest Village, Kensington Market and Danforth. There are also a handful of Mexican restaurants in the famous Plaza Latina in North York. Over the past few years, there has been a wave of new Mexican food establishments and stores popping up in all corners of the city and reaching into Prince Edward County.

Now there is a cabal of cooks who delve deeper into the traditional cuisine rooted in the region while taking the kitchen in new directions.

“Tampico is a city known for its unique style of Mexican cuisine. It is very seafood friendly and very bright in flavor,” Bautista said.

Bautista and Cano quickly gained a following for their small menu of tacos, octopus tostadas, and shrimp aguachile, but they were eager to move on: a deeper dive into Tampico cuisine. Luis is inspired by his parents’ restaurant, Lap Tripa, in Tampico.

“There are a number of dishes we’re waiting to put on the menu, dishes we’ve never seen in Toronto before,” he said.

The update to the winter menu comes after much encouragement from its regular customers.

Cano presents one of the restaurant’s most popular tacos: a corn tortilla topped with fried shrimp and sour cream. A few slices of pickled onions then a healthy helping of salsa brava, an adobo Bautista made using three types of Mexican chili peppers reconstituted with butter, lard and orange juice. “It usually takes us 28 hours to do, it’s a long process,” Cano said.

Bautista then brings a plate of cooked oysters still in their shells called ostiones a la diabla, inspired by Rockefeller oysters and a popular dish in Tampico restaurants. The oysters are marinated in a Maggi and chipotle sauce then topped with bacon and a generous amount of asadero cheese before grilling.

“You should eat this immediately,” Bautista said. Maggi sauce brings a touch of umami and herbs to the meaty oyster, complete with a thick coating of gooey cheese.

One of the newest places to open in the city is Fonda Balam on Dundas Street West. Chefs Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Guajardo, both formerly of Quetzal, opened the place last year with chef Matty Matheson, first as a pop-up before moving into a permanent space serving soup from tripe and pork belly, pork carnita tacos and chicken mole enchiladas.

The place quickly became known for its beef birria, a traditional Michoacan-inspired beef and chili soup that has become an increasingly popular dish in the city.

While the United States is perhaps best known for its Mexican cuisine, Canada is catching up.

“We can’t compete with the large Mexican population in the United States and the deep-rooted history of migration there,” said Samantha Valdivia, chef and co-owner of La Condesa in Prince Edward County. “So it took us a while to move beyond the tacos and the kinds of generational restaurants that our parents may have started.”

In 2017, approximately 11% of the US population identified as Hispanic of Mexican descent. In contrast, the latest Canadian census from 2016 shows that about 0.37% of its population identifies as Mexican.

Valdivia previously cooked at Cocina Economica in Corktown, owned by the Playa Cabana restaurant group and focused on dishes such as whole sea bream marinated in adobo before being wrapped and grilled over charcoal; as well as bone-in lamb cooked in barbacoa in an ancho-chili adobo.

“We were bringing new dishes to Toronto at the time. It was perhaps too early for such a restaurant to exist,” said the Mexican-born chef.

Cocina Economica closed in 2019. Vildivia and her partner (and later La Condesa sous chef) Rizal Adam hosted pop-ups at Prince Edward County’s Parsons Brewing Company, which led the couple to find a space to open La Condesa, named after a neighborhood in Mexico City, later that spring.

Ostiones a la diabla, inspired by Rockefeller oysters, are oysters marinated in Maggi and chipotle sauce, then topped with bacon and a generous amount of asadero cheese before grilling.

“Mexico City is a very exciting foodie city, it’s very progressive and I think that’s one of the reasons we care so much about food here,” Vildiva said. “The nixtamalization revolution is one that immediately comes to mind, where chefs were looking for ancient ways to process corn instead of buying processed cornmeal from the grocery store. It also feels like there is more experimentation.

One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is flauta: fried corn tortillas are served on a bed of tomatillo sauce, topped with potatoes, spinach and cotija cheese.

This excitement from diners also encourages Bautista and Cano to explore more of Tampico’s cuisine.

“When we opened our doors, I wasn’t sure I could enter my culture. But the response has been overwhelming, so even within months we are adding new items,” Bautista said.

He then pulls out a plate of shrimp smothered in a dark brown sauce.

The peeled prawns are fried, then cooked a second time with the homemade adobo. Compared to other presentations of fried shrimp with sauce I’ve had in Mexican restaurants, this one had an intense smoky aroma, with deep earthy tones from the guajillo, chipotle, morita peppers.

“It’s something classic Tampico, I think you’ll love it. We call it camarones in salsa bravas,” Bautista said.