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A seismic shift in demographics, trade policy and culinary tastes is shaking up the corporate cuisine of the past – to the delight of diners

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Jahaziel Moreno and her family run the Toronto restaurant Itacate. 'This is real Mexican food,' she says.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Jahaziel Moreno dips a bun into a cylinder of guajillo sauce and gently places the bundle, now dripping 1970s movie-blood red, on to the griddle. The sauce sputters, reducing, solidifying and encasing the bread in a rich, caramelized armour. Into the centre, Ms. Moreno stuffs chorizo, potato, lettuce, crema and mozzarella cheese to create a pambazo, a Mexico City street food staple, which in size and colour resembles a postfight boxing glove more than a sandwich.

A decade ago, you couldn’t find food like this in Toronto. For a long time, going out for Mexican here meant corporate fast-food chains. But now, Toronto is starting to change, thanks to fewer trade restrictions, the ever-shifting winds of food trends, changes in immigration patterns and restaurants such as Itacate, run by Ms. Moreno, her sisters and parents.

“Here there are a lot of Mexican restaurants. But it’s like Tex-Mex food,” she says. “This is real Mexican food.”

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One of Itacate's pombazos, a staple of Mexican street food.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Moreno’s family came to Toronto from Mexico City in 2007, drawn by a city that felt safe, prosperous and in need of good Mexican cuisine.

At their 15-seat restaurant at St. Clair and Oakwood, far from the high prices (menu and commercial real estate prices, inexorably handcuffed) and soaring ceilings of the downtown gastronomic temples, all of the care and artistry is on the plate.

Bare halogen bulbs light the space, and the walls are adorned with a faded Jesus clock, flag of Mexico and a handful of luchador masks.The restaurant is a butcher shop, too, operated by Ms. Moreno’s sister Lizette. But she cuts meat to order, so a display case at the back is lined only with off-cuts: tripe, bile, a cow’s foot. Some of the seats have no leg room, so you have to turn sideways, hunch or just eat standing up.

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A patron checks her phone as a Mexican sandwich, featured on the midnight menu, sits on the counter.

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A pastor carnita.

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Itacate also serves as a butcher shop.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

“In the GTA, Mexican food is hit or miss,” says Jerry Flores, assistant professor of sociology of the University of Toronto. “It’s actually more miss than hit.”

Prof. Flores, whose studies include ethnography, says that Toronto comes by its weak Mexican dining options naturally, pointing out how far we are from Mexico and that we don’t share a border or a history like the United States does. As of 2016, there were nearly 130,000 Canadians of Mexican origin in Canada, compared with 36 million in the United States. “We’re north of the wall, really far from the Mexican border,” Prof. Flores says. “And the Latin population isn’t large enough here to produce a competitive and vibrant food scene.”

But since the days when chain restaurants such as Chi-Chi’s were flooding the market with their Tex-Mex chimichangas, several factors have changed. The first was the North American free-trade agreement. Before NAFTA, if you wanted ancho chilies or epazote, you had to find a supplier in Mexico. In addition to large, economy-shifting effects, the tariff-free exchange of some goods across our borders made ingredients from Mexico more accessible here.

“Before no one knew what Mexican cuisine was about. People would think chimichangas or burritos,” says chef Elia Herrera, who came here from Veracruz in 2003 and even at that time found it nearly impossible to source the chilies and herbs she needed.

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Chef Elia Herrera is shown in 2014 at Los Colibris on King Street West, which recently closed. Today she has a food stall called Colibri on Richmond Street.Danielle Matar/The Globe and Mail

Since then, food has continued to move more easily between the three partner countries. Ms. Herrera recently shuttered her three restaurants – Los Colibris, El Caballito and El Patio – all located in one building on King Street West, when the landlord tried to raise her $52,000 monthly rent by 30 per cent. She’s now the owner of a food stall called Colibri in Richmond Street’s Assembly Chef’s Hall. Today, Ms. Herrera has no problem sourcing everything she needs through distributors in Chicago. And along with the flow of goods has come an increased awareness of the cuisine.

“Now, people are starting to know what the real thing is. They’re falling in love with the flavours, the combinations, the history.”

The second thing to happen to Mexican cuisine in Toronto was the wave of postrecession taquerias opened by non-Mexicans. Although focused on tacos, these restaurants made Mexican food part of the city’s dining experience, and, in the process, made higher prices, compared to fast-food Tex-Mex, the norm. While these businesses, including La Carnita and Grand Electric, with their expensive downtown locations, extravagant decor and blaring hip-hop, had everyone’s attention, the quality of Mexican cuisine elsewhere in Toronto quietly became outstanding.

That’s because the third and most significant factor was that Mexicans came here. According to the most recent census data, about 3,000 people emigrated from Mexico to Toronto between 2011 and 2016. That’s more than triple the 900 Mexicans who came here through the entire 1980s.

Prof. Flores credits the uptick in part to the cultural influence of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Migrants who spend eight months a year growing food in Canada might not move here themselves, but they return home every year with descriptions of what the country is like. The border-tightening impact of 9/11 and an escalating anti-Mexico policy and attitude from the United States government has also made Canada a more attractive destination.

“Being told that you’re not wanted,” says Prof. Flores, “it makes you look elsewhere.”

The population of Mexican-born Torontonians, at around 10,000, is still incredibly tiny when compared to the almost 200,000 people here born in Philippines or the almost 100,000 born in Sri Lanka.

But the increase has been enough to build an audience for the kind of personal, scratch cooking found at Itacate, or even smaller restaurants like La Chilaca in Kensington Market, or Comal y Canela at Jane and Lawrence.

Every weekday at 6 a.m, Yasmen De Leon opens Comal y Canela to serve breakfast to factory and construction workers in the area, most of whom are Mexican. Sometimes, diners arrive straight from the airport, luggage still in their hands.

The reason is the handmade nature of everything – pozole, birria, menudo – in her 12-seat room.

For example, the last thing she does every night is finish making nixtamal, a full-day process of soaking and cooking corn, grinding it to produce a masa dough. The final product, a corn-focused exterior for quesadillas, a light as tempura shell holding a small pillow of mozzarella, panela and queso fresco cheeses, took months to perfect and takes about 16 hours to make every day.

Or take the carnitas, which are made from pig ears, snout, shoulder, leg, side rib, maw and tongue, simmered in their own rendered fat for four hours inside a copper pot along with oranges, evaporated milk and Mexican Coca-Cola, as well as a dozen spices.

“If one ingredient changes, we have to change everything,” Ms. De Leon laments. “Mexican Coke is so expensive. I tried to save some money by using regular Coke. But it tastes completely different. And the people I gave it to taste, they knew something was missing.”

Growing up here after immigrating from Mexico, Ms. De Leon missed the flavours of home. She was consistently disappointed in the state of Mexican food when eating out in Toronto.

“I would see carnitas or mole at a restaurant and get so excited. And I wanted to cry because it wasn’t mole or carnitas. It was junk food. I didn’t want a better version of Taco Bell. I wanted real Mexican food. And one day I got fed up.”

In the summer of 2017, Ms. De Leon jumped at the opportunity to take over the Jane Street restaurant from its previous owners.

These days, her only obstacles have been space and speed. Determined to make everything by hand, she is limited by the size of her kitchen. The Morenos are also chafing at the constraints of their restaurant’s size. So is Ms. Herrera, currently cooking out of her food hall space while looking for a new restaurant location.

But if these entrepreneurs could overcome the geographic, legal, cultural and trade barriers to come to Toronto, make a home, raise the standard for Mexican cuisine and establish a loyal customer base, they’ll overcome their real estate obstacles.

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Jahaziel Moreno prepares food at Itacate.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

A restaurateur’s road to Canada

The rise of authentic Mexican food in Toronto is due in part to an increase in immigrants from the country. The road to Canada isn’t always easy though, as Yasmen De Leon’s experience shows.

Today she owns Comal y Canela in the city’s west end at Jane and Lawrence. As a child in Puebla, Mexico, her mother owned a seafood restaurant and her father was an industrial engineer. But between criminal extortion and an endless stream of minor government officials demanding handouts, life was unsafe and business was untenable.

When Ms. De Leon was five, without warning, they left in the middle of the night. While hiking over the border into California, a member of their migrant group was shot and killed by a “coyote” (smuggler).

“It was so cold that they covered me with the dead man’s jacket.”

After spending four years in the United States undocumented, then another six years in Canada on a wait list for refugee status, the family returned to Mexico, then Guatemala, where Ms. De Leon’s father was murdered.

That’s when her mother, with her five kids in the car, drove back to Canada, crossing all borders illegally, Ms. De Leon says.

Eventually, after joining a support group in Toronto for people with PTSD, Ms. De Leon’s mother was convinced by the members that she wouldn’t be deported by applying for status again.

“My story is not everyone’s story,” says Ms. De Leon. “There are such a variety of Mexicans coming here. But they all miss the food back home.”

You don’t have to know Ms. De Leon’s story to appreciate her food. Just be aware that there is always unseen effort that has gone into what shows up on the plate.