Say hola to Toronto’s Little Mexico

Say hola to Toronto’s Little Mexico

The neighbourhood's hole-in-the-wall taquerias have been joined by new-wave taco slingers, torta stuffers and mescal mavens.

Inside El Rey, Grant van Gameren's temple of mescal. Inside El Rey, Grant van Gameren’s temple of mescal.

Seven Lives
69 Kensington Ave., 416-803-1086

Torteria San Cosme
181 Baldwin St.,

El Rey ★★★
2A Kensington Ave.,

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For a neighbourhood defined by constant upheaval, Kensington Market inspires a lot of NIMBYism. Its self-appointed preservationists flip out at every hint of corporatization that might transform it into another Yorkville; they particularly fear the spectre of Starbucks.

I get it: I worry for my favourite Latin American hole-in-the-wall businesses, because after years of false starts, once-thrifty Kensington Market is undergoing an artisanal facelift. Commercial rents have doubled and tripled, and new neighbours include some of the city’s most famous restaurateurs. Cold-pressed juiceries, twee cookery stores and a pricy barbecue takeout now live side by side, somewhat awkwardly, with the El Gordo food court, where one counter sells soft-serve ice cream in a churro cone, and the mom-and-pop restaurant El Trompo, which was one of the first in Toronto to wrap tacos al pastor in hand-slapped corn tortillas.

My worries, so far, have been for naught. There may be more German sedans parked in the Green P, but the Kensington personality—with its clouds of patchouli and pungent fish, dive bars behind doors you hadn’t noticed, and sidewalks slick with smeared fruit—has yet to be washed away. What seems to have happened is a gentle gentrification that, I’m happy to report, has reinvigorated and added to the neighbourhood’s existing Latin American roster.

In a sense, Kensington Market was always waiting to become Little Mexico. Augusta Avenue, with its patched-together, graffitied, tin-sided storefronts, could pass, with minimal set dressing, for a Juarez barrio in one of the more serious Jennifer Lopez movies (with Lopez as a cop with something to prove, not as a Cinderella figure). Kensington Avenue, with its leafy canopy, soap bubbles floating out of psychedelic stores and bumper-to-bumper VW vans, reminds me of the yoga-on-the-beach town of Tulum, the sort of place where hours pass slower and smoothies are the principal food group.

El Trompo now competes with La Tortilleria, also known for its fresh corn tortillas, as well as Seven Lives, which began as chef Sean Riehl’s stand in the El Gordo food court but grew so popular—the tacos would regularly sell out during lunch—that it moved into a dedicated storefront on Kensington Avenue. From the moment they unlock the door, there’s a queue stretching along the sidewalk. The last time I stopped in, I lucked into one of the few remaining special-of-the-day tacos, containing a full fillet of pan-roasted steelhead trout, the flesh pink and the skin crispy-crackling. Most people order the gobernador taco, a pile of shrimp and smoked tuna melded together by gooey oaxaca cheese, though I’ve found that all of the seafood options are great, unlike the meat options, which are often dry and blah.

Seven Lives' offshoot paleteria sells fruity frozen pops. Seven Lives’ offshoot paleteria sells fruity frozen pops.

In the spring, Riehl took over the lease of a storefront across the street, opening a paleteria, also called Seven Lives, to peddle sorbets (I liked the prickly pear and tequila), soft-serve sundaes, and a mesmerizing case of fancy popsicles in flavours such as hibiscus, mango-chili and passion fruit cheesecake.

When Seven Lives moved to Kensington Avenue, it helped create a second axis of Mexican restaurants. At the top there’s Torteria San Cosme, which specializes in tortas, the Mexican equivalent of a sub. Arturo Anhalt, who co-owns the group of Milagro restaurants, opened San Cosme earlier this year. He struck a balance between Mexican authenticity—which mostly takes the form of imported tamarind candies, Corona, sugary pop and furiously bubbly Topo Chico sparkling water—and loyalty to the neighbourhood. The tortas are made on plush buns baked across the street at Blackbird, and filled with steak or pulled pork from the neighbouring butcher Sanagan’s. It’s in the same prime location Kensington stalwarts worried would become a Starbucks, and I recommend you eat your sandwich at the counter that faces the street, where you can watch the parade of characters passing by—on weekends, every other millennial appears to be carrying a banjo. There are usually eight or nine tortas on the daily menu, and they’re all delicious, especially if you’re in the mood for a lunch that’ll keep you full for the rest of the day. The standouts are the Milanesa (a breaded chicken cutlet with slices of avocado, manchego cheese and a relatively mild chipotle mayo that’s easily corrected by one of the available choose-your-dosage hot sauces), and the Nopales (avocado, bouncy panela cheese, sautéed cactus, and a salsa of tomatillos and serrano chilies). There are churros for dessert, but, if you have room, I’d go for a cob of corn they’ve coated, street-style, with crema and cotija cheese. The banjo-carriers on the other side of the glass will stare with jealousy.

Torteria San Cosme's Milanesa torta. Torteria San Cosme’s Milanesa torta.

Street-style corn on the cob, also from Torteria San Cosme. Street-style corn on the cob, also from Torteria San Cosme.

At the southern end of Kensington Avenue is the clearest evidence of the neighbourhood’s newfound status as a magnet for big-name restaurateurs: El Rey, Grant van Gameren’s newest restaurant, which opened at the start of the summer and has one of the market’s loveliest patios—bubbles from that vintage store occasionally pop against your head. Soon to join him: Jen Agg, the proprietor of Dundas West destinations the Black Hoof (where van Gameren used to be chef) and Rhum Corner, who is opening a wine bar and restaurant called Grey Gardens on Augusta.

Van Gameren grew up in Mississauga and became a Spanish cuisine specialist with his College Street instant institutions, Bar Isabel and Bar Raval. He and his business partner, Owen Walker, are big mescal connoisseurs (yes, that’s a thing), and a Mexican restaurant seemed like a natural next step.

Van Gameren has an exacting reputation to live up to, so El Rey promised to be something more than just another taco shop. He and Walker hired two talented Montreal chefs, husband and wife Julio Guajardo and Kate Chomyshyn, whose menu for El Rey is short: a dozen items, many of which are snacks, like pinwheel-shaped chips with salsa, or chili pepper–dusted popcorn. It looks modest, but the results are special. They hand-grind red, blue and yellow corn for tortillas and cure their own soft chorizo.

In the early weeks, a featured tostada with guacamole and a garnish of roasted crickets had all of Toronto talking; crickets are a common snack in Mexico but here serve mostly as an attention-getter (I guess it worked). When I visited, there were no insects on the menu, unless you count the grasshopper salt on the mescal margaritas. Instead, there was a delicate ceviche of scallop and halibut; a plate of sliced heirloom tomatoes, red, green and yellow, fanned out in a marinade of aguachile and topped with a single, plump, deep-fried whole anchovy; and skewers of grilled cubes of beef heart. I typically lack the heart for heart, but I found them tender and far from gamey, and especially tasty with the accompanying chimichurri. I gulped them down.

El Rey's grilled beef heart. El Rey’s grilled beef heart.

And a Campechana-style seafood cocktail, also from El Rey. And a Campechana-style seafood cocktail, also from El Rey.

One menu item, a seafood cocktail, divided our table of four—even more than the prospect of crickets. It’s prepared in a classic Campechana style, with oysters, clams, slender-sweet Nordic shrimp and curls of poached octopus tentacle, all in a broth of tomato, chili, cilantro, cucumber, and lots and lots of lime. You spoon the cocktail onto saltines and munch away. It’s meant to be shared with a group, but here’s the challenging part: the cocktail comes served, as is Mexican tradition, in a tall ice cream soda glass, with all the bits of seafood floating in that brownish-reddish broth. It’s not the most appetizing presentation. My dinnermates stuck to their drinks, and they missed out on the best part of the night. The broth was fantastically layered and spicy, the seafood as perfect and fresh as at van Gameren’s other restaurants.

As you’d expect, El Rey has a serious mescal list, from which van Gameren and Walker serve tasting flights or mix cocktails like the Open Window, in which the smoky liquor is modulated by lime and a pineapple syrup. Mescal is a good match for Chomyshyn and Guajardo’s complex little snacks. And those cocktails are likely the most refined ever to be served in Kensington. That’s one argument for change.