When word got around that La Carnita, the darlings of Toronto’s new pop-up restaurant trend, were setting up a brick-and-mortar restaurant, many foodies held their collective breaths. Would an every-day restaurant lose some of the excitement and exclusiveness that its “Tweet today, gone tomorrow” incarnation had? Could they keep quality and innovation going over time when they’re serving food on a daily basis?
The answer is very simple. La Carnita’s restaurant breathes the culture and vibe that grew with the various pop-ups and food events. It’s a logical progression of an idea that matured over the past year, and we diners get to reap and eat its delicious rewards.
It’s inevitable that people will compare La Carnita to Grand Electric, so let’s get that out of the way. La Carnita is like Grand Electric’s gainfully employed older brother. It doesn’t have the fun “f-you!” punk attitude that Grand Electric has. It’s more grown up and has a sophisticated hip-hop feel. Think of East LA meets Ossington meets New York with hip hop playing – but not blasting – but with less hip irony that other west-end joints are thought to have. There are also three visible differences: La Carnita does not have a patio, La Carnita focuses on tequila (versus bourbon) and La Carnita has more inside seating than Grand Electric. La Carnita will also take your phone number and call you when your table is ready, where Grand Electric doesn’t offer that courtesy anymore.
From the bat-signaleque Meathead sign in the front, to the gold-toothed “GRINGO” threshold welcoming you into the restaurant or the graffiti-tagged walls and chicken-coop light fixtures inside the restaurant, you’re hit with a chiq yet cool-trash vibe that greets you at every turn. It’s clear that Andrew Richmond, the guy behind La Carnita, has a background in design. Every element of this place has been carefully selected to reflect La Carnita’s “steez”.
The menu is focused and to the point. We came for the tacos but wanted to also eat our way through the delicious starters.
We ordered the tortilla chips with mezcal chipotle pate. The crispy, house-made tortillas and the pate were lightly sprinkled with a zesty chilli powder, combining the creamy liver goodness with a nice kick of heat.
The Mexican street corn tastes as delicious as it looks. The gentle dribble of Mexican crema and queso played well off the grilled corn flavours, with the nice chilli kick to chase the flavours down. Normally I wouldn’t be squeeing over corn, but this corn is squee-worthy.
The avocado mango salad is a nice take on the Thai style of mango salad. The presentation was nice; you have a few springs of cilantro and shredded mango sitting on top of a perfectly-ripened half avocado. The flavours were excellent, with the creaminess of the avocado playing off the citrus tones of the mango quite well.
And now: taco porn.
With six tacos on their menu, its easy for a couple to order one of each. So we did, and ate our way through: cod, beef tongue, skirt steak, chorizo, chicken and a vegetarian taco. The toppings are also more intricate than what you find at other taquerias. Each taco was delicious with the beef tongue being my favourite and the ever-faithful fish taco (named “In Cod We Trust”) being Robin’s list topper. None of them disappointed.
More taco porn:
For dessert, we decided that we needed a palate cleanser. We shared the key lime paleta. Its now what you expect when you’re ordering a key lime dessert.
This fruity key lime pie-flavoured ice pop is a delicious combination of tart and sweet, with a graham cracker-like crust that has a pinch of salt to it. I’m not sure how quickly the paleta melts, since ours disappeared in 2 minutes.
La Carnita’s Underground Market and pop-up days may be on hiatus, but that’s not a bad thing. Toronto now has another great option to get our Latin American soul food fix, and it’s a pretty perfect way to get that fix. Come for the tacos, stay for the ambiance, tequila and the rest of the delicious menu.
Photos by Robin. Text by Richard.