I finally had the chance to check out La Carnita on College Street. I know, I’m a little late to the game since the taqueria has opened almost two years ago. I must admit, after binging on tacos from Grand Electric all this time, I was a bit hesitant to think that there could be anything better. Nevertheless, it was a Saturday and I needed to have a bit of fun so off I went to try something new and trying not to judge. Totally worth it!
The Scene… Located near the corner of College and Palmerston, La Carnita, the creation of Andrew Richmond, a designer turned chef, and entrepreneur Amin Todai, started out as an occasional pop-up taco party that advertised only on Twitter selling $10, limited-edition screen prints at its events and giving the tacos away for free. Since then, it gained a cult-like following that is evident by the crowd gathered at the front entrance waiting to snag a table. The 80-seat room is casual and inviting. Hard to believe this used to be an upscale restaurant before La Carnita took over the space. The restaurant is filled with people – some waiting for a table, others enjoying a drink or two at the bar while they wait to be seated.
Street-style artwork adorn the walls and random reclaimed items are used for light fixtures and decoration. Room is filled with picnic-style tables across from the bar, benches and smaller tables further down with large booths on the other side and family-style tables for bigger parties along the centre. Actually, more tables than I thought one could fit into this cozy space. It’s all well put together without looking “trendy” and what brings it all together are the loud 90s hip-hop and R&B beats blaring from all around me.
The Play-By-Play… It’s a 90 minute wait, so as I was running a bit late, my friends leave a cell number and we wait at a nearby coffee bar until we get The Call. Around 8:30pm we walk back into the restaurant waving the phone indicating that we’ve been summoned. The room is packed. There seems to be some confusion about the table so we’re asked to wait by the bar. The crowd is interestingly mixed. Couples and friends enjoying a casual dinner out, group of girls in LBDs and Loubutins starting a night out with a bottle of “Baller Champagne” (that’s what it’s called on the menu), and friends celebrating a birthday. The mixed crowd makes for great atmosphere.
We’re seated at a small table unsure how we’ll fit everything we plan to order on the tiny surface. But there’s no time to complain, because we’re being asked for our drink orders. The menu, both drink and dinner, is simple and reasonably priced so you can try a lot without breaking the bank. As we sip on the Jingle Bird, a delicious light citrusy drink (don’t remember what was in it exactly…sorry) we start with appetizers. An order of light and crispy tortilla chips arrives with a side of light but flavourful guacamole and corn salsa.
We follow that with the not-to-be-missed Mexican street corn. The cobs are flame-roasted so the kernels are still crisp but also smoky and gently charred in places, with a squirt of Mexican crema, a crumble of cheese, a squall of fiery chili powder and a jet of lime. Messy?…Yes! Tasty?…A thousand times yes!
Now, on to the tacos! I try not to compare to Grand Electric, but I can’t help it. We order the fish, chicken, and beef ($5 each). The fish taco, “In Cod We Trust” includes a generous chunk of beer battered cod, pickled red cabbage, green apple, Voltron sauce (a spicy tamari-based concoction named for the 80’s anime super-robot), lime crema and of course, cilantro. My tastebuds prefer the GE fish taco, but this one definitely gives it a run for its money. Next up is the chicken taco.
The Pollo Frito, is filled with a battered chunk of chicken, a peanut mole sauce, pickled green cabbage and salsa fresca. This one I could eat all day. The mix of these ingredients bring out the perfect combination of flavours. The beef cheek taco with Ancho braised cheek, lime avocado, green cabbage, pickled jalapeño and crispy shallots is equally as delicious.
To let our bellies rest and to pace ourselves, we order another drink. This time we go for the Carnita Margarita ($11) and it’s a good choice because it’s one of the best Margeritas I’ve had. As we half-sing-along to Aalliah’s “Are You That Somebody” we scan the menu for dessert and decide on churros which arrive with caramel for dipping. Nothing like fried dough dipped in sugar to end the night.
The Wrap… This place doesn’t take reservations so be prepared to wait, it’s worth it. You might be hungry and grumpy when you’re finally seated, but your mood will quickly improve, and you will not feel rushed out. In fact, as we lingered, rather than politely announcing that it’s closing time, our server asks if we’d like another drink. We do, of course. Even though it’s busy, the service is friendly, thoughtful and most importantly attitude-free. Later on in the evening, when there was a bit of a turn over in the crowd, our server invites us to move to a much more comfortable booth. As the night progresses, the music gets louder and the crowd shouts conversations more loudly, and it’s perfect, because when your belly is filled with tasty tacos and Margaritas, does anything really matter?
And now great news for the East-enders! La Cartina is opening another location in The Beach, at 1953 Queen Street, next door to Hogtown Smoke and across the street from the now-defunct Licks flagship. The 85-seat space will be similar to the College Street location, with one significant difference – it will also house a standalone dessert stand called Sweet Jesus, run by La Carnita pastry chef Sasha Bogin. The new outpost is expect to open in June just in time for beach weather.