Earlier in the year I wanted to do something with a bottle of Mezcal Agua Santa which was recommended to me by a friend of mine over the often more expensive and celebrity endorsed options in the LCBO . What made the story even better is that the founder of this Mezcal, Carmen Marron, lives in Toronto and tells a great story of moving to Canada from Mexico and the perseverance needed to get such a difficult business off the ground. It’s a stellar example of a female immigrant’s passionate entrepreneur spirit and you can taste her Mexican pride with every sip. For a cocktail, my mind wandered to some take on a margarita. To me, Mezcal is the scotch of the white spirits, offering a unique smoky flare to a drink similar to what a peaty single malt might do in a something like a “penicillin”.
I’ll be honest on this one….I relied on google to try and find a Hip song what would complement my use of mezcal. Even worse is the fact that I did a search by simply typing Mexican and the Hip in the search engine. The top result was “The Completists” which is a rather short and mellow song in the middle of the Music @ Work album. Specifically, there’s a few lines in the song which reference Mexican pot and a desert so that worked for me.
Like scotch, with Mezcal a little goes a long way. Quite often a Mezcal margarita or sour will be paired with its cousin tequila to temper a bit of the smokiness. I also think a pinch of salt is a must for most mezcal cocktails..that smoky salt combination is incredible. I didn’t sway too much from a traditional margarita this time but used orange juice instead of simple/agave syrup and added some Angelica bitters for good measures.
1 oz tequila blanco
0.5 oz mezcal
0.5 oz triple sec
0.5 oz fresh orange juice
0.5 oz lime
2-3 drops of angelica or mole bitters (I used Dillon’s)
Dash of salt
Add everything except salt into a shaker and shake with ice. Poor into a rocks glass with ice and sprinkle with a dash of salt. Garnish with cucumber or lime.
I’ll admit that this is not my most creative concoction but things like a margarita don’t really need a lot of shake up (pardon the pun). That said, it goes well with my less than creative pairing with a Hip song…but I don’t want to sound defeated.
You lured me with your bad intentions You lured me with your Mexican pot You lured me with desert dimensions You lured me a lot.
The Completists- Music @ Work , The Tragically Hip
Day 5 was a triple hit of triple D. After a subway up to Wrigley field a few days earlier, I figured I’d venture past US Cellular field to at least lay eyes on the White Sox home field. That, and it was on the way to another DDD that was a cab ride from the conference centre. I shyed away from hitting up Nana’s on Sunday in an effort to avoid the brunch crowd so I figured a late breakfast/early lunch on Monday would be safer. It’s a clean breakfast and lunch nook with an open kitchen, small tables and a bar to sit at. I had a chance to talk to the owner who told me the restaurant is dedicated to his mom who, after being diagnosed with diabetes, made radical diet and lifestyle changes which got her off of medications and made her diabetes manageable. The premise is fresh and organic foods served with a Mexican flare.
There are two things which definitely draw me to a dish: I’m always intrigued by traditional dishes which are given a twist and anything that is local and in season. Today was no exception. Instead of my normal tendency to fill my veins with sausage and pork gravy, I was drawn to the nanadict, an interesting version of classic eggs benny. The english muffin is replaced with pupusas, the ham with chorizo and the hollandaise with a poblano cream sauce. The pupusa was a bit bricky and the eggs were poached American style (meaning a little too long). I loved the chorizo, especially with the poblano cream, which was rich and had a fresh flavour with a subtle bite. A little cilantro on top would have been great, The earthy potatoes and acidic greens added a nice balance to the dish.
The local/seasonal draw was the garlic whistles which were served with a sprinkle of fried cheese. They were tender and delicious. The cheese, a shot of hot sauce and a squeeze of lemon recommended by the owner blended nicely with the garlic flavour. A great side dish!
Nana’s is a cute nook featuring breakfast, lunch and dinner rooted in family values and giving back. They sponsor the Benton House, a local agency dedicated to reducing hunger in Chicago through diner donations. The owner is present and proud. The menu has lots of choices, many with Mexican/South American influence and all based on local and in-house ingredients whenever possible. It’s a feel good place although I imagine too much poblano cream or chorizo may not leave you feeling too good the next day.
Verdict: 4 Guyz
Stop 2– bopNgrill
I got out the cab with a couple of colleagues only to avoid a summertime monsoon by seconds. With wind blowing and stop signs rattling, I was happy to be in the safe confines of bopNgrill, a DDD featuring burgers and bop plates. When I watched the show, I could almost smell the sizzling mushrooms through the television screen as Will Song meticulously created Americana with Asian influence. I was drawn to the umami burger that was featured on DDD and looked absolutely delicious. The Philly Bulkogi egg rolls featured on the show are only available on weekends, so that wasn’t an option. We also split the kimchi burger which featured my fave…a fried egg with bacon, cheese and kimchi. My sense of Smellivision was correct. The delicious smell of earthy mushrooms and truffles in the umami burger radiated throught the air. The burgers were cooked a perfect medium and had a dripiness which required a napkin run or two. They were well balanced and extremely flavourful. As a matter of fact, after one bite the clouds parted and the weather seemed to clear up. A coincidence??? I think not.
Verdict: 5 Guyz
Stop 3- Hopleaf Bar
After bopNgrill, I hopped in a cab and faced a dilemma. I had hopleaf, another DDD pegged for a visit, yet it was game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals in the city poised to win. Did I want to venture to a place with a ridiculous choice of beer or did I want to settle for bud light and a crowd of drunkards cheering for the Hawks? Actually, it wasn’t really a dilemma. The day before, the barkeep at Haymarket raved about this place and hell, there may be a TV at Hopleaf so we could at least keep an eye on things.
The cab dropped us at the front door. After paying the fare, we were stopped by a gent who demanded ID. My dad and I have a running joke. He was asked for ID at 42 and I said I’d beat him. I’m not 42 yet but that fact I was asked on this occasion says I still have a chance. That said, it’s pretty standard practice in Illinois to ID everybody. Hopleaf is considered a tavern so nobody under 21 is even allowed in the place. We seated ourselves in the bar area and examined the multi-page beer menu. . As for a TV…not a chance. The bar staff looked like the Grateful Dead and the patrons had anything but hockey on their mind.
The beer selection is extensive, ranging from breweries down to the road to hot spots across the USA. There is also an extensive selection of Belgian and Belgian style brews as well as a few European stragglers as well.
The Snaggletooth Bandana is a great Illinois IPA from Naperville combining a hoppy punch with strong tropical fruit flavours. I was fortunate to try a Troublesome Gose from Off Color, a Chicago start-up brewery which had it’s official launch at Hopleaf that night. It was a classic wheat beer with medium spice and a refreshing finish. One can’t go to Chicago without sucking back a Goose Island offering. In this regard, I opted for a cumbersome pils which hit the spot. With three of us there, there was lots of sipping and sharing but be assured there is not shortage of choices. The staff are very helpful as well, quick to offer advice, good or bad, regarding any of the pints. For example, I ordered a pint of a cucumber beer and, at the advise of the bartender, was offered a sample first and quickly realized a pint was just not feasible.
As for the food, the menu is a concoction of dishes with most made in-house. Since I was already pretty stuffed with the combination of bopNgrill and beer, we ordered a few things to split and stuck with the signatures; mussels with frites ($13), charcuterie trio (headlined by house made head cheese) ($14) and the the brisket sandwich ($13). As a result of a camera malfunction I don’t have pictures but I can say that each dish was terrific. The mussels were classically done. The charcuterie plate was well executed and well thought out. A minor fight between the four os us almost broke out for the last smear of rilette. I was a bit reluctant about the brisket. It’s a tough cut to perfect and the fact it wasn’t a smokehouse left me a little suspicious. My opinion changed with the first bite. It was delicate and tender and competitive with some of the best briskets I’ve had.
Great beer and great food make this a great place despite the lack on television and a less than cozy atmosphere. The bar has a bit of staleness but doesn’t translate to the food and drink. The mussels, brisket and charcuterie were amazing. The service is great from a beer recommendation perspective. Otherwise, you’re on your own. The bar area doesn’t doesn’t even have a waitress. Plus, you gotta leave the kids at home and bring you ID because if you don’t have it you might as well be 12 because you’re not getting in. Despite the lack of a TV, two loud waves of screams a minute apart from a sports bar next door told us everything we needed to know. The Hawks scored twice in the last two minutes to secure the Stanley cup and the party began….
In many ways, the Toronto lunch melee has become as competitive as the dinner one. As opposed to the drawn-out, cocktail promoting, upselling strategies of the evening scene, the lunch philosophy is a bit different…quick, fresh and cheap. There are a few main events on the midday fight card; the burger battle, the ramen rivalry, the sushi skirmish and the burrito brawl. I plan to tackle each of these battles separately but first there is a need to discuss Banh Mi Boys, a popular lunch spot that beats by its own drum, offering real fusion flavours unique to this Queen West take out joint. I tried a variety of offerings including the Banh Mi (sandwich), tacos, steamed Bao (buns) and even a few fries.
The Banh Mi sandwich threw me into blissful confusion. A baguette topped with delicious tofu (yes those words can co-exist) and topped with a signature mix of pickled carrots, cukes and cilantro jilted my gustatory system with an offering of French, Mexican and Asian flavors. The bread was surprisingly delicious, with a texture competitive with other gourmet sandwich offerings spattered throughout town. It was comforting yet edgy but quite satisfying and at a decent price point of $5.49.
Tofu Banh Mi Sandwich
Kimchi fries….hmmmm. An interesting concept providing you like kimchi..and fries. Supplemented with mayo (maybe a bit too much) and green onions, this $5.99 dish (although it is quite a sizable portion) is a definite deviation from standard poutine offered at almost every food truck, gastropub burger joint within a 15 km radius. Kimchi is one of those “in moderation” type foods I could only take these fries in a small dose. The mayo offered a creamy texture and rich flavor but the fact that the meltiness of the cheese and heat of steaming gravy was missing left me just a little sad.
The $3.99 taco was also unorthodox, moving away from the traditional mexican corn or wheat shell toward a thicker, stretchier chapati-type cortex surrounding, in this case, a southern type pulled pork filling and topped with the right amount of kimchi, crunchy cabbage and those incredible pickled carrots.
Tacos and Steamed Bun with Jicama Salad
Even a decent braised beef cheek and the magical carrot elixir couldn’t save the bao (see above) which tasted as if it might have been steamed a while ago. It lacked the melt-in-your-mouth-wonder-bread-dipped-in-a-bit-of-sugar taste I associate with a perfect steamed bun. Sigh.
I applaud Banh Mi Boys’ understanding of fusion cuisine to mean more than adding salsa to pizza and calling it Mexican-Italian. This is one of the more unique lunches you can score along the busy Queen street corridor, mixing flavours and concepts together create a tantalizing smorgasbord of pungent, sweet and savory gusto surrounded by world examples of starchy staples at a decent price. Currently, Banh Mi Boys stands alone but given it’s apparent success and unique concept, there will no doubt be other contenders throwing their culinary aprons in the ring attempting to attract those not interested in burritos, burgers or one of the other ubiquitous main events peppering every downtown street corner. I can taste the jalapeno, panko-coated bologna calzones already.
Grand Electric is a place you wanna hate. No reservations, long lines, cash/debit only and no split bills not to mention an irrelevant website makes planning a dinner with friends a bit cumbersome. Nonetheless, once you’re in you become one of the cool kids, even if for a short time. Loud old-school rap cuts the air amongst the touque-wearing animal heads as you stare at a blackboard scratched with nouveau-Mexican fare and double take when you see tacos for only 3.5 each. You get sucked into the gluttony and place order after order from the kitchen as you succumb to the communal rave of taco nirvana. It’s nothing short of a tongue-tickling trance.
The tacos are terrific. Whether you opt for a safer arbol chicken (slightly spicy), basa fish (battered and flaky) or vegetarian taco (crunchy corn) or a more adventurous choice such as beef cheek (tender and rich) or pig tail (crispy and flavorful), there is little disappointment. Each choice is stuffed to the point where it is a hot mess; accompanied with variety of condiments, whether it be the abundant guacamole with the beef cheek or the salty cheese with the chicken. From a value perspective, they are head’s and (pig) tails above the competition considering other moxy establishments ask $10-12 for a pair of clearly inferior products.
The blackboard menu describes the pozole as dope. After the first bite, I couldn’t argue. Each spoonful offered tender hominy and pork suspended in a fragrant broth which was addictive like liquid nicotine. It was spiced perfectly, offering an edgy punch with every bite. In the end, it was heart-warming and addictive dish well worth of the dope proclamation.
The spicy squid redefines calamari which has unfortunately become a generic term for spongy rings of breaded squid served with some kind of generic dipping sauce. Grand Electric offers a mountain of tender hoops sprinkled with peppers, green onions and a spicy red coating which eliminates the need to be masked by seafood sauce or garlic aioli. You’ll wanna share this one although be warned that a few fork fights may ensue, even among good friends.
Not surprisingly, desserts include anything that can be shoved into a mason jar. In this case, it was a key lime pie and a dulce de leche cake. Served together, there were in total contrast; one was tart, smooth and cold and the other was sweet, crumbly and served piping hot. In the end, they were both average for what they were but provided a very satisfying end to a terrific meal, although some may not enjoy the extreme sweetness and tartness of these finishing touches.
The hang-up is the utter pretension that characterizes many of the restaurants in Parkdale. There’s a “my house is bigger than your house” or maybe “my hole-in-the wall is less inviting than yours” mentality which resonates throughout the neighbourhood like cracks in the sidewalk. Case and point….I have a friend of mine who has been there at least a dozen times. She does the 60-90 minute wait like everybody else and brings new people almost every time. On her last visit, she was cut off. So was her table of four. Why? Too much bourbon? No, she was informed by the hostess that, after less than an hour of sitting, their “time was up” and they would not be served further. They were given the bill without further discussion. She attempted to call the owners on three occasions, has left messages and no calls have been returned.
Personally, I found the service pretty good once I went through the mandatory waiting period (even at 1045 at night). I did, however, feel a little inferior. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t sport a raven tattoo or know all the lyrics to 2 Live Crew. Either that or I don’t have a fetish for social sodomy…afterall, I haven’t read 50 Shades and probably never will. Hey, maybe the next restaurant in Parkdale (providing the ban is lifted)can offer moderate asphyxiation in between the appetizer and main course.
The food is amazing! I do, however, heed a warning penned beautifully by Dr. Seuss over 20 years ago in “Oh, the place you will go!”…..
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be the best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
can happen to you.
The food is grand, the atmosphere is electric and this joint may be topping the rest and is the best of the best according to many pundits, critics and self-proclaimed foodies. The hang-up is self-righteous attitude that one receives in atttempt to get some good squid. On the heels of an expansion, consideration should be given to modernizing the approach to improved service that will maintain and even enhance the electricity. In a world where people show less attitude starting revolutions against social injustice or going from rags to riches to make millions, Grand Electric should put things into perspective; they make tacos…..although they are pretty freaking good.