181 Bathurst Street
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and beer/juice: $35
So I was at one of the many restaurant opening media thingies we get invited to. And while the booze was flowing, the food was sparse, and small when it actually appeared. On an empty stomach, a couple of glasses of merlot can hit a gal (even a strapping lass like myself) pretty hard, and it wasn’t long before I was past the point of tipsy. Not quite at plastered, but in that window where Mexican food is the ONLY thing that will fit the bill.
My husband Greg had been bugging me about checking out the reworked menu at Johny Banana. We had tried to go there once when it was a lounge, but it was loud and kind of obnoxious and we’d never actually eaten there. With Suresh and Nina from Spotlight Toronto in tow, we stumbled to the corner of Queen and Bathurst in search of great Mexican food. We’d have taken passable or even mediocre Mexican food at that point, but fortunately there was no need to compromise. Johny Banana rocks in the manner of a hurricane.
The Bathurst Street space that had always seemed quite dark and small in its previous lives (Azul, Canteena, Johny Banana version 1) is now bright and spacious, with modern seating along one wall that is graced with Latino movie posters. Mexican wrestling toys and figurines are also a fun touch.
Owner John Martin told us that he had not been happy with the space as a bar/lounge and decided to just concentrate on making great Mexican food instead. The menu is scaled back and the focus is on quick service and take-out orders.
We start with the house specialty, the Pork & Roll tacos ($6.95 for 3), a stir-fried pork with pineapple, onion, chipotle chili and melted cheese. Think Don Ho goes to Mexico. Since we know that the mellow flavour of pork pairs exceptionally well with sweet and acidic pineapple, it only makes sense that the addition of onion and chipotle would make for the rockinest taco in town.
Not knowing just how large a large burrito really is at Johny Banana, I figured I was hungry enough to finish one off. Not even close, and I enjoyed the second half of my chicken mole burrito ($6.95) for lunch the next day. I’m assuming that the spicy chocolate mole sauce was homemade, but it tasted a lot like the Dona Luz brand I buy for cooking with at home. Which isn’t a complaint. If it didn’t need to be thinned out with water, I’d eat that Donna Luz stuff straight from the jar. In any case, what I got was a soft warm whole wheat burrito, loaded with beans, rice, and moist tender chicken permeated with spicy chocolate.
The husband opted for the La Pamplonada quesadilla ($7.15), loaded with a mild chorizo sausage, mushrooms, green onions and cheddar and Monterey jack cheese. This was a fairly mild offering, spice-wise – fortunately Johny Banana offers six varieties of salsa from the non-spicy avocado-line to the “extremely hot” chipotle.
The drink menu is similarly scaled-back, with beer as the only alcoholic beverage. There is also soda and the Mexican canned fruit nectars Jumex ($1.50), but none of the sweet Mexican soda, Jarritos. The featured drink is most definitely the spicy, hot and rich Chocolate Azteca ($3.50).
The only dessert on offer is neither made in-house or officially Mexican, but the Chilean alfajores ($2.75), a light short-bread style cookie layered with Argentinean Dulce de Leche and rolled in coconut, were a sweet way to finish the evening.
By the end of the meal, I was happily sober. The chips and burrito had done their job, but had also managed to impress. This is fantastic food, prepared to order, so while the premise is fast (customers can call or fax in their order in advance, even specifying a pick-up time), it still manages to be healthy, authentic and really, really rockin’.
Don’t wait for one of those Mexican food-craving benders to check out Johny Banana. It’s even better sober, when it can be truly appreciated.