Location1330 Queen St. W.
Price$80 for dinner for two with wine, tax and bourbon
At 5:30 on a cold Sunday evening, we pull up in front of Grand Electric. They don’t open until 6 p.m. but there are already three people lined up outside. We join the line.
5:40: 18 people in the line. Shivering.
5:50: 23 people.
6:01: 34 people.
6:02: They open the door.
All 34 of us get in, though the people at the back of the line have to sit at the bar. We’re seated at the red picnic table right at the front, so for the duration of our meal we want to put our coats on every time the door opens (which is often). All of this because 1) they don’t take reservations at Grand Electric and 2) it’s true, they’re serving kickass Mexican.
If shivering in the lineup before 6 p.m. isn’t your aperitif of choice, give the guy with the clipboard your cell number, go to a bar, and in an hour or two they’ll call to say you have a table. Enjoy that.
The thing is that, despite the table business, the Arctic drafts and the pulsing bass of the loud music, it’s a great restaurant.
Grand Electric is the child of ex-Black Hoof chef Colin Tooke, who, after leaving that restaurant in 2011, went to Chicago and did a stage at Big Star, an uber-hip bar that’s famous for serving excellent tacos and other casual Mexicana executed with panache. And that’s precisely what he’s doing at Grand Electric, complete with the big bourbon menu and the cool, quipping servers.
The menu is on a blackboard, which our server invites us to get up and peer at. Walking around is welcome. $3.50 for a taco? Come on. It can’t be any good.
First they bring the guac ’n’ chips. This guacamole, like Kensington’s Agave y Aguacate’s, is the result of blending avocado with mashed chilies, coriander, garlic and onions. It dances a jig on the taste buds. It doesn’t hurt too much that the corn chips are house-made, warm, and also assertively seasoned.
Then come the $3.50 tacos. Where to begin? The intensity of flavours, the complexity of construction, the fealty to pure ingredients – it’s all almost too much to take in. The owners are right. It’s electric.
The pigtail tacos are crazy good, slightly sweetened pulled pork not unlike southern BBQ, with marinated red-pepper shreds, green onions and that grand guacamole. The pork belly al pastor taco is also not to be ignored: Fabulous crackling pig skin on the outside, soft, slightly sweet flesh on the inside.
Some of the tacos sit on soft tortillas, some on crisped ones. Spicy chicken arbol tacos are superbly tender, red-cooked spicy chicken topped with grated sharp cheese, marinated onions and sour cream. The fish tacos feature deep-fried ungreasy fish topped with slivered radish and house-made real Thousand Island dressing. Beef-cheek tacos are tender, slightly sweet ’n’ spicy pulled beef topped with sour cream, green onions and coriander.
But is queso and poblano the sine qua non of the taco world? We are forced to order a few more plates of it in order to understand the existential implications of cheese that good. It’s deceptively simple: a small round of barely fried, gilded fresh cheese atop a substantial mound of braised poblano chilies, in all their hot smoky complexity. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Go with four people. Don’t do any thinking. Just say to the waiter: “One of everything.” You’ll need to order more after a while, and you’ll know what you want more of. It would be hard not to have more of the chicken frito, crunchy little cuties in sweet citrus-chili glaze. Or the chipotle shrimp served ceviche-style on a crisp tortilla with citrus mayo, parsley, marinated onions, deep-fried peanuts, chilies, green onion, a hint of sugar, and sour cream. Also charmingly ceviche’d are big chunks of tuna tossed with citrusy yuzu mayo and topped with julienne of radishes, jalapeno and deep-fried crispy shallots.
Pozole rojo is pretty much the only thing they bring cutlery for. It’s soup; it comes with spoons. The pozole is built on fantastic stock. It’s strong and spicy, brimful of chicken, pulled pork and hominy. The waiter promotes it as a hangover cure and suggests adding the two house-made salsas, one green from tomatillo and the other fiery red with scotch bonnet peppers.
The kitchen cannot put a foot wrong. Even a commonplace item such as spicy squid rises above the ordinary. Dressed in super-thin batter, it’s a little sweet and a little spicy, sitting pretty on a soft tortilla with tomato, guacamole, jalapenos and sour cream.
And how dare they reinvent key lime pie? I thought I had it down. But mine (and every other rendition I’ve ever met) is the approximate texture of Jell-O. Their version, served in a tiny Mason jar, is streets ahead, the silken texture of crème brûlée.
One of the restaurant’s rough wooden walls is adorned with a cow skull, red light bulbs for eyes. Gangsta rap plays loud. Bourbon flows. A silver-and-black hearse pulls up right in front and the driver walks in to give her cell number for a table. All the food is served in aluminum cake tins. At the end, when they say you can pay only with debit or cash, I ask why no credit cards. “’Cause we don’t like the man.” Do they really mean it? Or is it just a hipster affectation? And if it is, do we care? Not with food that incandescent.