Critic: How tequila-fuelled taquerias like Playa Cabana became the city’s buzziest places to eat—and party

Critic: How tequila-fuelled taquerias like Playa Cabana became the city’s buzziest places to eat—and party

Playa Cabana Cantina
Playa Cabana Cantina in the Junction is the latest in a string of buzzy new taquerias. Right: Tequila is a serious concern at Cantina—this oak-aged Burdeos sells for $90 an ounce

Grand Electric ½
1330 Queen St. W., 416-627-3459

La Carnita
501 College St., 416-964-1555

Playa Cabana
111 Dupont St., 416-929-3911

Playa Cabana Cantina
2883 Dundas St. W., 647-352-7767

Playa Cabana is on the ground floor of a slim Dupont semi just off Davenport, a convenient pit stop after a wardrobe binge in Yorkville. Regulars call the restaurant “Playa,” like it’s their clubhouse. On weekends, a bouncer poses at the door. There always seems to be a posse of chatty smokers blocking the sidewalk out front, the volume of their squeals in direct proportion to tequila consumed. Last summer, the restaurant’s back patio grew so loud that a group of neighbours from the million-dollar lofts next door called their lawyers and the cops.

Then Jake Gyllenhaal amplified the buzz. He was in town for a couple months last spring to shoot a psychological thriller called An Enemy. Tweeting fans documented his every public sighting, turning Playa into one of the toughest tables in the city. It makes sense that the iPhone generation’s Paul Newman would bless Playa with his presence: Mexican is the food of the moment. In New York, Chicago and L.A., a new wave of Mexican restaurants is applying the tenets of foodie philosophy—fresh, local, artisanal—to a cuisine often associated with tins of refried beans and margaritas from slushy machines. A taqueria is no longer the generic name for a taco street stall, but an exclusive restaurant with a DJ and a hyped young chef who treats soft-shell tacos like five-inch-round canvases to be layered with as many outré ingredients as possible—things like deep-fried offal, fluorescent kimchee and sous-vide goat.

Playa’s two main competitors for Toronto’s taco dollars are Parkdale’s Grand Electric, run by two former Black Hoofers, and Little Italy’s La Carnita, which was founded by a graphic designer and an ad man. Both opened just over a year ago, sparking the Mexican trend here. The truest measure of a taqueria is its fish taco, and the best I’ve ever tasted was at Grand Electric: a deceptively simple combination of lightly battered, buttery tilapia, a smear of full-fat sour cream and a tangle of matchsticked radishes. Their pig tail taco is a minor miracle of tender, tangy pulled pork topped with a daub of lime-zipped guac, while the chicken taco, fiery red from a chili marinade, is tempered by crumbled queso fresco. The small dining room is rough and spare, all barnboard and Edison bulbs—a period-appropriate complement to the 20-something clientele with their Edwardian moustaches, hand-knit leggings and encyclopedic knowledge of Prohibition-era drinks. Grand Electric was an early adopter of the try-your-luck no-reservations policy. The penitent lineup outside would have been shortened by a second-floor expansion, but the owners’ application didn’t meet zoning bylaws and was put on hold. Much to the displeasure of the local councillor, Gord Perks, the restaurant helped popularize its stretch of Queen West into “Partydale.” Perks has instituted a temporary new business moratorium while he decides whether bourbon snobs are a force of good or evil.

La Carnita, on the comparatively uncool College strip, makes a show of its hipness with a skull logo, graffiti walls, a section on the menu titled Baller Champagne and a tamari-based taco sauce named after the ’80s anime series Voltron. It’s one of the most carefully branded restaurants in the city—they even give you a La Carnita–inspired screen print, numbered and signed by the artist, with your bill. The food, happily, isn’t an afterthought. A plate of freshly fried tortilla chips comes with a standout, intensely smoky chipotle chicken liver pâté. The taco toppings aren’t as inventive as Grand Electric’s, but they’re still uniformly tasty, especially a version with crisp-seared Arctic char layered with grilled corn salsa, a light cilantro sauce and microgreens. On a Friday night, the room is a curious mingling of types: execs celebrating the end of the week, a table of frat boys in Gap plaids sipping stubbies of Negra Modelo, couples Instagramming their chorizo tacos, and uptown moms in twin sets, on a girls’ night out. For dessert, everyone orders paletas—creamy chocolate popsicles coated in crushed peanuts. This is the theme park version of a taqueria—the logical next step is to franchise.

Cantina’s ceviche, chili shrimp bucket and chorizo tacos—all best enjoyed with stiff margaritas

For all their unorthodox taco architecture, these Mexican restaurants are preoccupied, to varying degrees, with an elusive ideal of authenticity. At Playa, a framed mani­festo hangs by the front door, declaring that absolutely everything—even the queso fresco and Mexican sour cream—is made from scratch on the premises or by honest-to-goodness Mexican artisans ­living in Toronto. For example, a diminutive woman, strategically placed for maximum visibility beside the open kitchen, rolls corn tortillas by hand. This authenticity obsession often pays off: a greasily delicious crisp-fried tortilla combines oozing Oaxacan cheese and crumbled Mexican-style chorizo (also made in-house). Poblano chilies, stuffed with more cheese, then battered and fried, have a slow burn that’s an excellent excuse to slather on that amazingly thick sour cream.

Dave Sidhu, Playa’s owner, hasn’t let the fact that he isn’t Mexican get in the way of his ambitions to build a mini taco empire. He was born in Miami to Filipino and Indian parents, moved to Toronto when he was a kid, and learned all he could about Mexican food by backpacking around Mexico and working in New York taquerias. Before Playa, he co-owned the short-lived Chimichanga, which had one location in York­ville and one at Yonge and Eg, and served standard Mexican fare—chicken mole and buckets of Corona. He upgraded to a more artisanal formula at Playa, turning it into such a hit that he opened a second location, Playa Cabana Cantina, in the Junction last December, and plans to open a third this summer called Hacienda at Avenue and Dupont. Cantina is easily the best place to get a drink on the increasingly hospitable section of Dundas, west of Keele, which is otherwise home to vegan cafés and vintage stores like Smash, where Sidhu found many of Cantina’s furnishings. The restaurant is twice the size of the original, with a 20-foot bar and high ceilings that allow for a huge reclaimed neon sign announcing you’re in the West Toronto Meatpacking District. The two restaurants share a similar menu, but the Junction one puts more emphasis on daily seafood and has a raw bar for oysters (surely a Junction first). I couldn’t get enough of a whitefish ceviche, with its perfect balance of lime pucker and chili heat. Baja tacos, the lightly beer-battered whitefish topped with a crunchy red cabbage slaw, were a close ­second to Grand Electric’s version.

The place creates the illusion that you’re in a restaurant on Puerto Vallarta’s boardwalk—a considerable trick in a city far removed from a true playa. Latin pop plays overhead and vintage Mexican movie posters hang on the walls. The party atmos­phere may also have something to do with the abundance of booze: there’s a long list of 50 sipping tequilas, including Gran Patron Burdeos, a high-roller favourite for $90 a shot. The most inventive cocktail on the menu combines tequila with drops of Aztec chocolate bitters and lemon oil, a squeeze of lime, the fashionable-again aperitif Lillet and a funky jolt of cilantro syrup. Like the best Mexican inventions, it starts with a tongue-tingling burn, then slowly reveals its depths.

Of the new taco class, the Playas are the least contrived and fussy and will probably last the longest. They’re also the best at traditional Mexican recipes like the churro, sugar-coated doughnut sticks drizzled with creamy caramel. Mine arrive at the table in a cloud of cinnamon steam and disappear in seconds.