I Should Have Turned Left at Albuquerque

jacalenchiladaEl Jacal
1056 Bloor Street West
Diner for two with all taxes, tip and soda: $60

“Hey, what’s this place?”

It’s a steaming hot Saturday afternoon, and my husband and I are standing on the sidewalk on Bloor Street, just east of Dufferin, about to have one of those relationship meltdowns provoked by a foolish misunderstanding. Our intended destination was A Touch of Convenience to try out the brunch offerings from chef Christopher James, but both of us left the house firm in the knowledge that the other knew where we were going. The husband wanted to go south on Gladstone, I was pretty sure it was north, but there was nothing in sight that looked like a convenience store, so we wandered the hot city streets in search of sustenance like so many Mexican immigrants wandering the desert on their way to the US.

jacalsodaOf course I’m not in any way comparing the inconvenience of two pampered and overfed foodies to the struggle faced by immigrating Mexicans, but it’s a nice segue into the theme of this piece, which is the difference between authentic Mexican food and the So Cal or Tex Mex versions we are more familiar with. For the place we had discovered as we stood sweaty and cranky on the Bloor Street thoroughfare was El Jacal, and it took everything we thought we knew about Mexican food and tossed it on its head.

There are always people who complain that you can’t get good Mexican food in Toronto, and for a long time that was true. However what some of these folks are really looking for when they say Mexican food is actually Southern Californian “Mexican”, and while I’d viciously cut anyone who came between me and a fish taco from Taco Mesa in Orange County, authentic Mexican it’s not.

So walking into El Jacal was a bit as if we’d stepped off of Bloor West and into a village cantina. Formerly Etobicoke’s El Jacalito, owners Antonio and Luz Adriana Romero moved their popular restaurant downtown to Bloor and Dufferin last year. The space is bright yellow and decorated with flags and stuffed animals. Anywhere else this would be garish and weird, but here, because of the family-friendly atmosphere, it works. Eating lunch with Tigger looking down at me from the windowsill makes perfect sense.

jacalsaladThe front counter doubles as a candy store and the shelves are full of many different kinds of Mexican candy and snacks. A few tables are occupied with men drinking Coronas or the popular Chelada ($6) – beer with ice, lime juice, hot pepper and salt. A couple of large tables are filled with families simultaneously eating lunch and watching the telenovella on the television hanging in the corner. Turns out, El Jacal is a popular spot for watching soccer games with Spanish commentary, so the TV is a real draw.

We peruse the menu with intrigue. This is definitely not Taco Bell. Wanting to try it all, we manage some semblance of control and order only as much as we figure we can eat as opposed to one of everything just for hell of trying it.

We start with a couple of refreshing, sweet Jarrito sodas in mandarin and pineapple ($2.50 each). The first dish to arrive is the cactus salad ($6.95), a basic iceberg lettuce salad topped with tomato, onion, avocado, tender cooked cactus and feta cheese. I am immediately addicted to the cactus, which is cooked and pickled. It would be overpowering on its own, but in the salad with the other vegetables and the cheese, it’s amazing. I’ve already started scouring the “Mexican” aisle at my local grocery store, but it looks like the procurement of cactus is going to take me to Perola’s in Kensington Market (note: found!).

Nachos “El Jacalito” ($5.95 small) are great, but come topped with the same salad (minus the cactus). The chips are fresh and crispy though, and there is refried beans underneath; we devour these along with a creamy house guacamole.

jacaltacoWe ask our server about the use of feta cheese, which appears in a number of El Jacal’s dishes. Apparently the mozzarella or Monterey Jack we typically associate with faux Mexican food is not used at all in Mexico, where dishes are served with a locally made fresh cheese. The closest approximation to be found here in Canada is a mild feta, so that’s what they use. That’s how you know you’re getting authentic cuisine. That and the fact that they refuse to make me a vegetarian version of the Enchiladas de Mole.

They’re happy to make a vegetarian version with Salsa Verde, but if I want chocolate, then I must also have the chicken. Twist my arm. Three enchiladas ($12.95) arrive covered in a pool of shimmering sauce, resplendent with garlic, chili and twenty or so other ingredients. There’s that feta cheese again, and a drizzle of cream. I’m in heaven.

The husband orders three tacos ($7.95 for 3) and plays mix and match, choosing Chorizo con Queso (sausage and cheese), Conchintia Pibil (marinated pork in annato sauce) and Suadero (a special cut of beef). All are tasty, although the pork one is a bit dry, and the beef gives me a weird sense of déjà vu that I cannot place, like I’ve had it before but can’t remember where.

jacalflanFor dessert, we split a Flan Napolitano ($2.50), a milk custard in a caramel sauce that leaves us groaning with delight, and a single Churro ($1.25); a little stick of heaven that arrives hot from the oil tossed in cinnamon sugar.

Our server advises us to come back on a Sunday when they make the churros filled with dulce de leche and customers can order the Barbacoa de Borrego (deep-fried pork) by the kilo ($45/kilo with cactus salad and tortillas). I’m actually more tempted to come by someday for lunch when El Jacal offers both a lunch buffet and a variety of specials (most $5.99), as well as their all-day Mexican breakfast.

So while many Torontonians will continue to complain about the dearth of “real” Mexican restaurants and will continue to eat the food at mediocre chains because they believe there are no other options, I’ll be getting my fix at El Jacal where the food is fantastic, the service is friendly and informative (even to us ignorant gringos), and Tigger, soccer and pork by the kilo rule the day. Getting lost was never so much fun.