It can be argued that Origin may have been the “origin” of the current small plate trend in Toronto. A couple of years and two new Origins later, Valdez opened. The link is Steve Gonzalez. A contestant on the first Top Chef Canada, he has followed the leads of later contestants Carl Heinrich and Ryan Gallagher, who left previous posts at established Toronto eateries to gamble on new ones. Steve went from chef de cuisine at Origin to the proprietor of Valdez, a King Street Latin street food eatery which promises a return to Gonzalez’s Colombian roots and, of course, a sharing and small plate concept.
The decor is a mix of a saloon and a Mexican cantina. A large wooden bar is showcased in a long but narrow space filled with bright chairs and worn tables, both painted with reds and blues and greens. A large bar graces one wall of the long but narrow dining room. Coffee sack, art and other paraphernalia grace the walls of this stylish abode.
There is an array of standard cocktails (and a few crazy ones), beer and wine. I opted for a Tecate, which was presented in psuedo-michelada style. Instead of a glass with lime juice and hot sauce (among other things), a lime wedge and a squeeze of hot sauce was strewn along the top of the can. Served glassless, I opted to pop the wedge into the can and drink it like that. I liked the combination although I found it odd that the option for no hot sauce wasn’t offered as I imagine it wouldn’t be for everybody.
The menu is simple, divided into 4 parts; ceviche (self explanatory), stuff (small plate) ,more (bigger plate) and dulce y algo (dessert). Well, maybe the ceviche isn’t so self explanatory. Given the diversity of the choices, I opted for the flight:
There is the traditional “cocktel de camaron” with tomato, citrus, cilantro, chilis and corn nuts. Pretty delicious.
There was the “passion” and “atun japones”, each offering a refreshing twist on tuna (albacore and ahi respectively) by meshing traditional latin and modern Asian flavours such as yuzu, ginger and ponzu. An intriguing twist but something I would expect at one of the numerous izakaya joints at every street corner in town.
The “mixto” was a trio of octopus, mussel and squid bathed in squid ink with some citrus, maize and sweet potato. The ink was the overwhelming flavour, so some will take it or leave it.
The vegan ceviche was a mix of fruit and veggies which included jicama and other latin staples in a simple citrus sauce. Nothing remarkable.
From the “stuff” menu we opted for tradition, ordering the highly touted guac and chips, empandas and chorizo del jefe (sausage). The guac and chips created some controversy at the table. I loved the guac. It had a great texture and was well balanced with citrus and spice. The chips were a combination of plantain, yucca, potato and taro which I thought was ingenious both to the eye and the tongue. The others at the table were more ho-hum about the guac.
The empanadas, on the other hand, were rather disappointing. Offering no flare compared to the rest of the menu, they were rather dry and bland to the extent where the delicious aji sauce which accompanied couldn’t save them.
The chorizo sausage was a bold and delicious addition to the menu. A squeeze of lime provided enough acid to intensify the well seasoned and moist pork sausage. It rivals some of the best I have had in Toronto. The arepas were nice as well.
As for “more”, we decided on two very different dishes; the delicate Giggie’s trout (togarashi+Quinoe+yuzu+mango+avocado+fried shallots) and the more manly Bandeja (seared pork+rice & beans+plantain+fried egg+avocado+arepa). This trout dish was a concert of primarily asian flavours around some beautifully cooked filets. The dainty dish was a bit out of place served in a Mexican saloon but would be palate pleasing for a pescatarian who so happened to tag along for the party.
The bandeja, on the other hand, was the hardcore latin inspired dish more synonymous with the name Valdez. Bandeja simply means platter, but I would be prone to rename this bandeja buena mierda. Hidden beneath a perfectly cooked sunny side up egg was rice, beans, avocado, arepas and most importantly, tender and juicy pork. With each bite you got a little more or a little less of each component but each was an adventure in Latin America cuisine. No togarashi, no yuzu (although I love the damn stuff), and no ponzu. Just simple, flavourful food presented with simplicity and respect.
Perhaps the word “Latasian” street food may be a better description of the food served at Valdez. Although traditional Central and South American dishes are the foundation of the menu, the are a number laced with Asian flavours. The chips and guac and bandeja stole the show with the chorizo sausage taking honorable mention. I was less impressed with the ceviche and trout, perhaps because my brain was programmed to consume the simple and standard flavours of Latin cuisine as opposed to those I can get at a hundred places elsewhere. The empanadas were a bit of a bust minus the delicious aji sauce. I enjoyed the Tecate, served psuedo-michelada style, from both a nostalgic and taste perspective.
The decor and vibe is fun, trendy and even a bit dangerous. I was reminded a bit of the bar scene from Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk to Dawn”. George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino wannabees line the bar except in this case, samurai sword wielding ninjas names Yuzu, Togarashi and Tobiko enter the scene to join the locals in a battle against the blood hungry vampires looking for a late night snack. Ok, that may be a bit much, but if Steve Gonzalez can offer fried rice and frijoles, I can use my imagination just the same.