By now it’s no secret that the Mexican food craze has taken over the city of Toronto. Maybe it’s due to the lack of available Mexican food leading up to the now city-wide food trend, but it didn’t take long for it to explode. From tiny spots with only a handful of available seats like Parkdale’s Grand Electric, to massive restaurants revamping (and re-naming) to emerge as a over-the-top ‘authentic’ Mexican restaurants such as the Distillery District’s El Catrin, it seems like almost every restaurant in the city has at least added some sort of taco fusion to their menu.
But just because something has taken over the city, doesn’t necessarily mean the city is doing it well. When I was a kid, my family packed up and we backpacked through Central America for six months. It was an amazing experience that involved trying some of the greatest food in the world. The key element that always stands out to me when I think of authentic Mexican food is freshness. Not to mention, simplicity. Like traditional Italian food, only a few fresh ingredients are needed to create a powerful dish. My qualm with most of the new Mexican food I’ve had in Toronto is, well, that it doesn’t taste fresh, or authentic. Tacos are overloaded with grease and heavy sauces like mayo, and don’t get me started on finding a generic, store-bought soft white shell underneath that tastes like flattened Wonder Bread.
When I was invited to a Media Tasting at Milagro Cantino on Mercer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was familiar with the restaurant, but no more than having visited the Queen West location once for a friend’s get together that involved drinks rather than food. Just as trends go wild in Toronto, it often feels like the only restaurants you hear about are the newly-opened ones featured on BlogTo that promptly ensue round-the-block line ups that last for months. Personally, I prefer to go to restaurants where I can not-only enjoy amazing food, but also relax. I often avoid trekking to any ‘It’ restaurants just to avoid line ups and frenzied crowds. My favourite restaurant finds? The ones that are under the radar.
Walking into Milagro Cantina on Mercer (the first location opened by Mexico City-born brothers Arturo and Andres Anhalt) the first thing I noticed was the amazing decor. If I could just move everything inside into my own home, I would be happy forever. The second, was the calmness of the restaurant. Sure, it was only 6pm but there was just enough of a crowd to make you feel comfortable.
To start off the evening, I ordered a Margherita Milagro — a fantastically spicy version of the traditional margherita cocktail and one that I will be going back for many times over.
Sitting down to dinner, our first course of Guacamole Con Totopos and Salsas de La Casa were paired with an impressive line up of shot glasses filled with Milagrito ‘Ven a Mi’ Mexcal Reposado; a light, sweet, smoky-nosed mescal with a light body and a creamy mouth-feel. I gave up tequila shots after university, but this beautiful reposado was more like sipping on a smokey and smooth whiskey that I would gladly add to my own liquor collection.
Our second course commenced with the delicious Ensalada Cesar. If you think this seems like an odd dish to be served at a Mexican restaurant, you will be surprised to know that the Caesar salad actually originated in Tijuana, Mexico. Alongside the Ensalada Cesar came the Tostadita De Pulpo (crisp corn tortillas with tender lime marinated octopus, tomatillo, and chipotle chilies en adobo) and Sope Plazero (a corn masa base with braised pork carnitas and warm tomatillo-serrano salsa topped with cream fresco and queso cotija).
Next came the Cochinita Pibil, a southern-style pork butt in achiote and orange juice marinated, roasted in banana leaves, pulled and served with fried plantains, picked red onions and salsa Pancho. We also had Mole Poblano, which is a roasted chicken in a Poblano style red mole sauce prepared in-house with chipotle mulato, ancho and pasilla chillies, peanuts, raisins, almonds, Mexican chocolate and 20 other ingredients.
Last but not least came dessert, which, to my surprise, was one of my favourite courses. Surprising because I’m not a much of a dessert lover, normally. The Flan De Queso Al Caramelo is a traditional home-style cheese flan with burnt sugar sauce that had me squealing with every bite. The Natilla De Cajeta is Mexico’s take on Crema Catalana, a custard prepared with goats milk cajeta, eggs and heavy cream with a bruleed sugar top.
Milagro Cantina is the first Mexican restaurant (on the trendier side, and not counting little hole-in-the-wall places found on Bloor Street and in Kensington Market) where I felt the food was not only delicious, but truly authentic. So much so that I begged them to publish a cookbook at the end of the night. For anyone who frequents the King West area, this is definitely a place to visit. I work in the area and often get tired of going to the same places, and am always stumped for where to go when I find myself near King and John. For a cocktail, or full blown feast, I doubt you could ever be disappointed going to Milagro Cantina’s Mercer Street location, neatly tucked away, just south of the city’s theatre district and strip of tourist-trapping restaurants. Go, today.
Thank you Milagro Cantina!