One of the hottest new restaurants in Toronto isn’t even a restaurant. On Thursday I had a unique opportunity to take a look behind the scenes of the purveyors of what is arguably Toronto’s best taco: La Carnita, headed up by Andrew Richmond who, when he’s not making tacos, is the creative director at OneMethod digital & design agency.
In the beginning, La Carnita was nothing more than a concept test. The concept: A pop-up taco shop. Buy a piece of limited edition art, get a few free tacos. Matt Webb, one of the graphic designers at OneMethod, made the logo and the iconic “meat-head” artwork that was handed out on the first pop-up day. Andrew originally just wanted to see what the reaction would be. “I think that the concept has been proven successful,” he said. The first pop-up was at lunchtime in the OneMethod studio (where Andrew and the rest of the La Carnita crew work) and sold out in 45 minutes. The second pop-up (also in OneMethod’s studio) with guest chef Scott Vivian of Beast Restaurant sold out in just 18 minutes. Their 3rd pop-up and their stand at Food Truck Eats were just as successful.
Last night’s pop-up was different from previous pop-ups because it was at a bar where patrons were able to get a beer and eat their tacos at a table and it was the first pop-up so far to happen at after work hours, starting at 6pm. The guest chef for the evening was Top Chef Canada contestant Steve Gonzales, formerly the Chef de Cuisine at Origin.
Anyone who’s watched Top Chef Canada will remember Chef Steve Gonzales as the fun-loving Latino chef who liked to put a modern spin on classic Latino food. So it’s fitting that he would partner up with La Carnita, making a taco called “The Latino Five-Spice”. I got to follow Steve and Andrew and the rest of the La Carnita crew around for the afternoon to see what goes into preparing for a pop-up restaurant.
When I got to F-Stop, Steve was outside on the patio grilling corn that was still in the husks for a tomatillo corn salsa while tinny Latino groves played from his iPod. He explained that by soaking the husks in water and making sure that they’re moist during the grilling process, you can get an amazing smoky flavour on the corn. Andrew said that he loves having guest chefs come in to cook with him because he learns a lot from them, and I can see why. I learned a lot about grilling just from watching Steve and asking questions.
For every pop-up, there’s a new location and therefore new challenges to overcome regarding the space. Deep fryers and tables were moved around, then moved back, then moved around again as Andrew and the crew tried to find the best possible set-up for the evening. I asked Andrew if he found the uncertainty to be frustrating, but he said that it’s one of his favourite things about the pop-up. This is clearly a man who likes a challenge.
Throughout the afternoon, everyone was going back and forth between F-Stop and OneMethod studios where the kitchen was located. Luckily, the two were only a few minutes’ walk from each other.
OneMethod’s studio is super cool, and it’s the kind of place that I’d hope to be lucky enough to work at if I were a graphic designer. I loved the quotes on the office doors. My favourite one was, “People ignore design that ignores people.” I also give kudos to everyone who continued to work hard all through the preparations for La Carnita, and to Andrew who was managing to do design approvals in between prep tasks.
The atmosphere in the kitchen was all business as Andrew and Steve finished their last bit of prep before heading back down to F-Stop to start cooking. Steve’s salsa was starting to take shape and the discarded corn husks were filling the whole studio with a warm smokey smell. I wonder if the graphic designers were getting hungry as I was?
Matt carried “meat-head” down to F-Stop, a sign that things were really getting close. One hour before the doors opened there was already a line-up.
Look at these beautiful little things! The Voltron fish taco (which I raved about in my post from Food Truck Eats) was looking just as dashing and delicious as I remember it. Steve’s Latino Five-Spice taco was a beautiful grilled adobo pork loin, re-fried black beans and charred tomatillo and corn salsa. It was true to Steve’s “Latino with a twist” style of cooking. The pork loin was moist and tender, and the salsa took it to another level. It had a perfect balance of spice, acidity and sweetness with a touch of smokiness.
And let’s not forget about the art! Thursday’s artist was Dushan Milic. Go and take a look at his work! I was really impressed by both his illustrations and his client list. He’s done work for The Walrus, The Globe and Mail and the New York Times, to name a few.
In about 90 minutes, 200 limited edition prints were sold and over 400 tacos were made. It was a thing of beauty to see how smoothly everything went. These guys are like a well-oiled machine. Considering that none of them has had professional training in the culinary arts (aside from Steve, of course), they worked like pros.
So what’s next for La Carnita? They want to keep doing pop-ups and have a few more ambitious ideas floating around (a whole-pig taco dinner with another well-known guest chef might be in the works but you didn’t hear that from me). Although nothing is in the works yet, Andrew would love to open up a full-out taquería where he could serve his tacos along with craft beer and local wines in a laid-back atmosphere. He worries that there might be a negative reaction from people who want them to continue to do the underground pop-up thing, but suspects that most people will be pretty receptive to the idea. I think so too. I mean, can you really imagine someone saying, “I don’t like being able to get this Voltron fish taco whenever I want it. I liked it better when I could only get one every 2 weeks and I had to wait in a huge line first!” ….Yeah. Neither can I.
To find out when the next pop-up will be, follow @la_carnita on Twitter.
La Carnita will be at the Toronto Underground Market on September 24.