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Playa burrito with chicken and black beans photographed at Playa Cabana Cantina in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Playa burrito with chicken and black beans photographed at Playa Cabana Cantina in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Playa Cabana: Mediocre Mexican falls short of promises Add to ...

  • Name Playa Cabana Cantina
  • Location 2883 Dundas Street West
  • City Toronto
  • Phone 647-352-7767
  • Website playacabana.ca
  • Cuisine Mexican
  • Atmosphere: The à-la-carte option at an all-inclusive resort on the Yucatan, decorated to look like a tequila bar in Tijuana.
  • Drinks on Offer: Margaritas by the glass and pitcher, a short list of easy-drinking beers, more than 50 tequilas.
  • Additional Info Best bets: Flautas, tortillas and salsa.

Restaurants’ promises matter. At Playa Cabana, the soon to be three-location Mexican chain that began last year with a single, impossibly popular squidge of a spot on a high-end stretch of Dupont Street near Davenport Road, the promises are extravagant.

Playa Cabana’s menu is built on “artisan-made, organic ingredients,” the company pledges.

In a letter to customers posted on Playa Cabana’s website and inside the doorway of that original location, executive chef and owner Dave Sidhu vows, “In spring, summer and fall, all of our produce is local except for avocados.”

“You will find nothing in a bottle or in a can in our kitchen,” he writes. “Everything is made entirely from scratch.”

When I spoke with him on the phone this week, Mr. Sidhu said that all of Playa Cabana’s meat, save the chorizo, comes from Grandview Farms, a family-run organic ranch near Thornbury. Impressive.

“The first Playa Cabana, we’re in a neighbourhood, Rosedale, Forest Hill, where people will pay for that kind of stuff, right?” he said.

Yes, they will. Playa Cabana opened a second location last December on Dundas Street West, in the Junction. It is booming. A third spot, on Avenue Road, is scheduled to open this month. And Playa Cabana’s original address on Dupont Street generally books out of prime, 7 p.m. tables three weeks to a month in advance; the best you can do with less than a few weeks’ notice is lunchtime, 5 p.m. or 9 p.m.

Yet after four recent visits to the company’s restaurants, two to the Dupont location and two to Dundas West, I am mystified by their popularity, and deeply skeptical of all those sourcing claims.

The original location is fine. The cooking is generally competent. The flautas, in particular – fried tortilla tubes stuffed with braised beef and sauced with bright salsa roja and zippy tomatillo – were irresistible. I’d happily eat those with a couple of beers and call it a night. The room is fun and filled with the sort of people who have expensive dogs. The music isn’t too loud, the house-made tortilla chips and salsa are tasty. The burritos were also good, and the tequilas list, with more than 50 selections, is encyclopedic. One of the tequilas, an añejo called the Gran Patrón Burdeos, sells for $90 per 1-oz shot.

The tacos are sloppy, unbalanced, with no real freshness or texture for the most part, save iceberg lettuce. They are fine, if you’ve never eaten great tacos. They sell for between $10 and $14 for three of them.

The tacos at La Carnita are better-made and tastier, and cost about the same; they’re even cheaper at Rebozos and the eternally delicious Tacos el Asador.

The new location in the Junction, decorated with old U.S. highway markers and vintage neon signs, is nowhere near that solid. The room itself is loud and fun; one evening recently the young, attractive staff snaked through the narrow space with an enormous white sombrero, which they placed on the head of a bemused older man as they sang him “Happy Birthday, Señor!”

But the kitchen in that Junction location is a disaster – the food was mediocre at best, awful in many cases. The mole, which is supposedly made from “27 chiles and nuts,” was dry and cakey when I had it. It tasted a lot like Nestle Quik mixed with off-brand hot sauce. The overcooked rice on the same plate bore the metallic tang of bouillon cubes.

One night, I ordered the tacos al pastor: “The famous tacos of Mexico!” The menu promised pork marinated with adobo seasoning, roasted slowly on a trompo rotisserie, served with pineapple. Picture your mother frying full-fat ground beef after school and dumping in a packet of Old El Paso spice mix, never bothering to drain the runoff. Now you know exactly how those tacos al pastor looked and tasted.

The lobster tacos were waterlogged, slack-tasting, as Mexican as Mike Duffy doing the Macarena. They came with juiceless wedges of lime whose pulp had developed a leathery skin from sitting out too long.

The “100% Ontario Grandview Farms organic, grass-fed, fruit-finished Wagyu beef” hamburguesa that my tablemate ordered one night was promised medium rare but arrived gray to its core, nearly flavourless, notably dry – an impressive feat of cooking. The fries tasted as though they’d been steamed.

Are the pitchers of margaritas at the Junction spot really made with freshly-squeezed lime juice? The pitcher I ordered one night tasted remarkably similar to powdered bar mix.

And those sourcing promises – they are a liability. One evening I watched a man in a Sysco uniform push two hand trucks of boxed oxtail, frozen octopus and other groceries through Playa Cabana’s Junction dining room. Sysco is a Houston-based foodservice distributor, the world’s largest. It is the restaurant-supply equivalent to Walmart, approximately, the last place a principled kitchen goes for local, sustainable, organic, artisanal groceries.

“If Grandview doesn’t have oxtail, then our chef will probably ask the guys from Sysco for it,” Mr. Sidhu said when I challenged him on his purchasing.

That wasn’t mentioned in his manifesto.

When you park the hype, and the organic and local claims (not to mention all of the company’s you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me health claims; check out that manifesto), it’s not hard to see Playa Cabana for what it really is. It’s mediocre Mexican for starched-collar white folks – it is safety in the guise of virtue and authenticity, an all-inclusive Sandals in the Yucatán, ringed with a chain link fence. Playa Cabana is Taco Bell for blue bloods, except that Taco Bell doesn’t try to pretend it’s better than it is.

If all of Playa Cabana’s produce save the avocados is sourced locally from spring through fall, as Mr. Sidhu’s manifesto pledges, where’s he getting that cob corn that’s on the menu lately, three months before Ontario corn season?

“It’s more like after the spring, going into the summer, when our produce season starts here in Ontario,” Mr. Sidhu said.

If local and organic are priorities, why was the “daily catch” this week farmed, imported tilapia, and not Ontario pickerel or yellow perch or wild shrimp from Quebec, all of them in season?

Words are cheap.

For dessert there are churros that, the night I had them, looked and tasted the way churros might look and taste like if the person making the churros had never seen or eaten a churro before. They were bland and dry, roundish like Timbits, deformed-looking, like maybe they’d grown up too close to a nuclear power plant.

I had the churros at Taco Bell once. They were really good.

STAR RATING GUIDE

  • No stars: Not recommended
  • One star: Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds
  • Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities
  • Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any
  • Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution

Follow on Twitter: @cnutsmith

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