Toronto's La Carnita’s anti-hero persona saves patrons from mediocrity (and natural disasters)
It’s Monday. Hurricane Sandy is starting to make her way up the Eastern coastline and Toronto is beginning to feel her wrath. A picturesque calm Fall night and its accompanying gentle sinking leaves is violently interrupted by the banging intermittent bursts of rain showers and nagging gusts of wind flooding every corridor of the city. I’m in the middle of it all. People are texting and softly stirring around me with news of the damage and cautions to prepare for blackouts. Yet all this chaos seems so far, so unreliably false even though I’m literally two feet away from it. All I seem to tune into is Tupac’s God Bless the Dead playing and the smell of lime and chorizo dancing delicately under my nose. Maybe I’ve gone to a better place? Probably not – I’m just having a great time eating Mexican food and going against all heeded warning.
Walk into La Carnita any night (even weekdays) and join a crowd of people huddled behind the snow curtains waiting to be seated. Tables operate on a first-come-first-serve basis – a true antithesis to the Perley Gates model. Walk further into the restaurant and witness its worship to the street; graffiti pieces ignite a wall and brighten the room from its darker pillars. Go down the stairs and see its trademark skull imprinted colourfully along the corridor like a tattoo sleeve.
La Carnita’s flagship trademark, a sugar skull, is more than a reflective appreciation of Mexican fare and Día de los Muertos (the day of the dead). This cartoonish design pays homage to street culture: an unadulterated fringe that celebrates risks and cults of difference, a sentiment true to La Carnita’s founding. Founder Andrew Richmond worked at a creative media firm and decided to merge pop-up dining with street art. From a risky experiment of social media tweets grew a purveyorship of artists and chefs that designed taco-centric food/art masterpieces to the blueprint a sugar skull. Like taking big gambles in a game of dice, Andrew’s bet won him the birth of La Carnita – a temple paying homage to those Mexican food carts past and hope for an entrance to dining visual renaissance.
Apart from the cool persona that La Carnita casts, the food is also exceptional. Their daily specials highlight more traditional Mexican street flavours that aren’t readily available in normal tex-mex restaurants. Wednesday’s Tostada De Lengua is a blend of beef tongue, cilantro verde, cashew sauce, grilled pineapple and entice curiosities. Pit each day of the week against one another and repeat visitors will come; Friday is the day of the Carnita-confit pork, jalapeno sauce and mango sauce.
Even on the off-chance that a daily special doesn’t match a palette, the staple menu will surely satisfy. In cod we trust is the taco rumoured to have gained La Carnita notoriety in its early infancy phase. Served with a secret sauce, lime crema, and green apple, this sweet approach to seafood is a welcoming break away from traditional meat-centric taco repeats and harkens at the Baja affiliates of Mexico. Even for stricter vegetarians, the crispy avocado and Frijoles taco will surely warrant and nod of satisfaction (similar to the bounce your head will make when listing the restaurant’s ’90s rap playlist).
All the tacos are evenly priced at $4.75 each, making it an affordable journey to tastes unknown to the Western mouth. For dessert, opt for a churro, the Mexican big brother to the American sugar doughnut. Three sticks of this sugary snack served with a chocolate dipping sauce is enough to warrant sacrifice to Aztecan gods for more sweet indulgence. While the menu is expected to change every few months, the daringness of flavour and meat pairings won’t disappear.
As it saddens me to see the journey into curious tastes come to an end with the bill, my begrudgingly to cope with hailing a taxi and drudging through gusts of wind with a full stomach are placated by the bill, surprisingly. With every bill, comes an exclusive numbered print of an artist’s interpretation of La Carnita’s sugar skull. Sometimes colourful, other times mood-interpretive, this parting gift is a firm reminder to every patron that braving your tastes and expressions invites reward. While the Mayans might be right of a world ending, a new one opens up its doors just in the midst of chaos.
by Chris Chu
La Carnita, 501 College Street, Toronto, Ontario