Toronto is beyond “peak taco.” It is at the summit of Mount Taco, gazing onto a sea of guac below. And the tide, as it happens, is rising.
Next weekend, College street’s self-proclaimed “gringo taco joint” La Carnita will be hosting its second annual art-meets-tacos festival at the Evergreen Brickworks. It’s called DOS, following last year’s UNO. This time, they’ll be joined by 40 international street artists as well as superstar chef and recent James Beard Award winner Paul Kahan of, among others, the wildly popular Chicago cantina Big Star.
La Carnita, the brainchild of ad man-turned chef Andrew Richmond, began two years ago as a pop-up in his office; to get around the city’s restrictive food-service rules, they distributed tacos as a “bonus” to patrons purchasing limited-edition prints. Along with Parkdale’s Grand Electric, it signalled the current moment in the city’s culinary landscape: a instance in which people are perfectly happy to line up, sometimes for more than an hour, to eat gussied-up Mexican street food made by gringos.
“We’re very respectful to Mexican tradition, but we definitely go outside the bounds of what is traditional,” says Mr. Richmond, whose brick-and-mortar taqueria opened last year. “We get playful with it.”
Mr. Richmond cites his regular, work-related visits to Silicon Valley and the surrounding, heavily Latino-populated Bay Area as the inspiration for starting his restaurant back in 2011. Back then, he says, no one downtown was doing Mexican food – at least, not the way he wanted to experience it. Now, in addition to La Carnita and Grand Electric, the city has trendy taco sanctums in Yorkville’s Playa Cabana and its Junction sister stop Playa Cabana Cantina. A third Playa Cabana location –Playa Cabana Hacienda – is slated to open next week.
Too much too soon? Maybe, but Playa Cabana director of operations Matthew King sees tacos as an ideal fit for diners’ current inclinations.
“In the past couple of years, people’s tastes in restaurants have really swayed away from the whole fine dining [experience of] sitting at a table with a tablecloth on it,” he says. “The taco really facilitates that easy, relaxed sort of fun-environment dining.”
Toronto’s newest crop of taco joints are nothing if not fun, boozy party-happy atmospheres where the music bumps and tequila flows. In that spirit, DOS – with its DJ battles and street art faceoffs – might be the most of-the-moment food party of the hot Toronto summer.
Mr. Richmond also credits the last few years’ economic instability for fuelling the public’s passion for street food, low-key settings, and the ubiquitous taco.
Colombian-Canadian food writer and critic Mary Luz Mejia has a different theory: demographics. “In the mid-2000s, I saw there were more and more Latinos coming [to Toronto] and setting up shop,” says Ms. Mejia. “And that starts influencing the more mainstream chefs who are – as most chefs are –always looking for something new to include in their food repertoire.” She points to the increasing local availability of other Latin comfort foods like ceviche, empanadas, and arepas as examples of an accelerating shift.
But, for the moment, spins on Mexican reign supreme.
“It’s salty and it’s spicy and it’s rich and that makes for really delicious food that people crave,” says Mr. Kahan – who, like Mr. Richmond, was turned onto tacos during visits to California. “When I worked for [celebrity Mexican chef] Rick Bayless, I felt like cooking Mexican food is cheating – it’s too easy. It’s got this intense flavour, rich depth and heat.”
Whether the city will tire of tacos, or if that’s already beginning to happen, is tough to assess. But Mr. Richmond suggests today’s taco boom is signalling a sea change. The guac is turning.
“The fact that there’s more on menus across the city opens doors to other Latin food and other Mexican food,” he says. “It opens eyes to what is above and beyond the taco.”
Special to The Globe and Mail