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Just Opened: El Almacen brings authentic yerba mate to Queen Street West

Just Opened: El Almacen brings authentic yerba mate to Queen Street West
(Photo by Catherine Hayday)

Along the still-evolving stretch of West Queen West between Dovercourt and Ossington, Silvio and Estela Rodriguez have quietly opened El Almacen—“the general store”—a café specializing in the South American infusion yerba mate. Made from an evergreen holly of the same name, the drink has a distinctly earthy, barn-ish flavour. Natural food lovers are likely familiar with prepackaged options, but this is Torontonians’ first chance to have yerba in context: served in a cured gourd, drunk through a bombilla (a filter-tipped metal straw), and passed between friends over a lazy few hours of good conversation.

Silvio Rodriguez can have a gourd of mate ($3.75, plus $1.75 per additional person) properly prepared (with a soft froth and some dry leaves on top) in minutes, but he takes his time educating his clientele in yerba’s secret codes. Being served a sweetened mate from a suitor is a sign of interest; mate served with cinnamon means “I’ll wait for you”; and orange peel means “I’m thinking of you.” A short list of don’ts includes not pulling out the straw (which clogs it) and resisting the habit of stirring, which lets air in.

Wearing a leather apron and standing in front of his collection of mate vessels, Rodriguez is both enthusiast and proprietor, and keeps newcomers from being over-anxious about breached etiquette. “I’m not going to get rich off of mate,” he tells us. Silvio sells plain yerba, as well as mate that has been cut with other flavours. “Yerba is very friendly; you can mix it,” he says, indicating that the café’s current options include mint and lemon verbena. Espresso-based drinks are also available, brewed in a sleek silver Elektra machine.

In keeping with the communal aspect of mate, Rodriguez’s whole family is connected to El Almacen. Silvio did the flooring and ceiling work himself; his father painted the name on the window; and his brother is responsible for the art on the walls. Estela, a former Bymark pastry chef, makes the empanadas ($2.25). Silvio’s family also cures the gourds used in the shop. Variations on the mate vessel are common in Argentina, ranging from gourds to bamboo to cows’ hooves, but Torontonians don’t have to decide whether they can stomach an afternoon sipping from a foot. Silvio is sticking to the tamer glasses and gourds—at least for now.

El Almacen, 1078 Queen St. W., 416-516-2898.

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