So little about La Carnita, the stylish, epically popular and 100 per cent of-the-moment new taco restaurant that opened on College Street in early June, makes sense on first inspection.
The restaurant was conceived and developed not by restaurant professionals but by a boutique downtown ad firm called One Method Digital and Design, largely as an experiment in brand building and social media. Before the restaurant was a restaurant and the brand was the toast of city food fanatics, La Carnita was an occasional pop-up taco party that advertised only on Twitter and flouted city health and licensing rules by selling $10, limited-edition screen prints at its events and giving the tacos away for free.
Andrew Richmond, the business’s 37-year-old executive chef (he hesitates to call himself that, but it’s what he does), has never worked in a restaurant. He admits that much of his training came via the Internet. “It’s amazing what you can learn on YouTube,” he said in an interview this week. “It’s a ghetto course in culinary skills.”
Yet in the two months since La Carnita opened, with its booming soundtrack of old-school hip-hop, its signature “In Cod We Trust” and beef tongue tacos, and its supremely friendly, fun, attitude-free service, the restaurant has become a clubhouse for the city’s young, urban, overeducated creative professional set.
And somewhat improbably, the 80-seat room is also one of Toronto’s more extraordinary casual restaurants. Mr. Richmond and his staff nail not only the service, design, price-point, and all-important atmosphere, but even the food, though it’s simple, is generally outstanding. If I had any stake in a chef’s school, I’d be looking nervously toward YouTube right now.
By 6:30 p.m. most nights the room is heaving: The suits who’ve come in after work for a craft beer and a taco and remembrance of lives past make way for twenty-something men in Nantucket red chinos and hand-made brogues with pink flambe laces, and lithe, bespectacled young women with a whisper of the first-year bookworm about them, wearing gauzy, 1960s print sundresses and J.Crew pencil skirts. As the night progresses, the music crescendos and the crowd shouts conversations ever more loudly and laughs into smartly-made margaritas, snifters of mescal and $100 bottles of “Baller Champagne,” as the drinks menu calls them. Everybody bobs to DJ Jazzy Jeff, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in his pre-reggae years. The pop-up taco party has put down roots.
The menu is short: a handful of shareable appetizers like swordfish and coconut ceviche, or rice and corn frituras, then five or six tacos for $5 each, and either churros or paleta ice pops for dessert. It reads like a takeout menu you’d find in a little town in Jalisco if its restaurant was run by a gang of stoner white kids.
The frituras, made from a mix of soulful brown rice, juicy fresh corn kernels and tangy cotija cheese, come golden brown and steaming from the fryer, topped with spicy habanero hot sauce and a little tangle of cabbage and cilantro slaw that’s tossed with crema – Mexico’s lime-goosed take on crème fraîche. They hit all the notes spectacularly: taste, colour, texture, and just $8 for two of them.
Mexican street corn is also superb: Two cobs come flame-roasted so the kernels are still crisp but also smoky and gently charred in places, with a squirt of that crema, a crumble of cheese, a squall of fiery chili powder and a jet of lime.
There’s an avocado and mango salad that goes way beyond what’s expected, with toasted pepitas, lightly browned coconut and fried plantain matchsticks.
Among the tacos, the cod and tongue versions are the standouts. The cod is excellent, battered, fried, topped with a genius cumin, chili and cinnamon sauce then garnished with juicy-sourish green apple. The tongue comes sliced on a crispy tostada, topped with cashew-enriched hot sauce and toe-curling char-grilled pineapple; 95 per cent of the chefs in this city will never balance deep, meaty savoury against lift, crunch and acidity with this much finesse.
A few of them aren’t quite as good; they’re fine but forgettable. The fried chicken taco is soft one night and in need of acidity, while the crispy avocado and frijoles taco looks like a fraternity gag and tastes unreasonably flat.
For dessert: credible, if sometimes uninspiring churros (one night they’re fried a bit too long), and superb Mexican ice pops including frozen key-lime pie rolled in graham cracker crumbs. Yes, the paletas are every bit as good as they sound.
Though many of the recipes are Mr. Richmond’s, he was wise enough to hire Jon Hamilton, a chef who helped to lead Pizzeria Libretto’s Ossington location, to run his kitchen. You have to be in control of your ego to cede control like that. This is one of the most welcome characteristics at La Carnita: Though the place is young, cheap, stylish and one of the busiest restaurants in the city, the staff nonetheless seem eager to earn their patrons’ business.
You can’t help contrasting it against another popular taco spot, Parkdale’s Grand Electric, where the service, though friendly, is often rushed, the creature comforts are limited, and they’ve stopped taking mobile phone numbers from the supplicants who turn up for tables each night; if you want a seat and don’t get there to line up before opening, you have to wait outside on the sidewalk until they call your name.
The food at Grand Electric remains the city’s taco bar gold standard: Chef Colin Tooke’s Baja fish taco is easily one of the most consistently satisfying sub-$5 dishes in Toronto. But is it worth the hassle? A little less now.
There’s a brand new cool kid in town.