Tacos might not be the first thing you think to seek out in Toronto, but with an explosion of both traditional and reinvented Mexican restaurants across the city, they should be. Hipper taquerias like the bourbon-slinging, hip-hop-blaring Grand Electric and La Carnita remain mobbed night after night, while the city's food fans have taken to loudly championing their favorite hole-in-the-wall taco joints in response. There are plenty of places in Toronto to get basic, sloppy Tex-Mex (Sneaky Dee's, I'm looking at you), but today we'd like to salute the places that treat the taco as an art form. Here's a by-no-means exhaustive roundup of the most fun you have with a tortilla in Toronto.
Still the granddaddy of Toronto's modern-Mexican restaurants, Grand Electric is singlehandedly fueling profits at nearby Parkdale bars by forcing hopeful diners to kill time with a pint across the street. (There's great drinking to be had inside as well—check out the exhaustive bourbon list, or grab a spicy Caesar or bourbonnade.) The tacos ($3.50) are worth that wait: The braised beef is rich, smoky, and sweet, and the gloriously fatty scrapple might be the best use of pork by-products since the hot dog. GE's best-kept secret, though, is the unbelievable ceviche—pillowy chunks of tuna suspended in a light sauce, served on a crispy tostada with jalapeño rounds and fried onions sprinkled on top.
A relative newcomer to the Kensington Market neighborhood, the minuscule Seven Lives specializes in fish tacos. Their signature is the Gobernador, which pairs meaty smoked marlin with shrimp and melted cheese; another solid bet is the octopus, which features plenty of grilled tentacle chunks and coins smothered in nutty pumpkin seed mole and sour cream. They'll set you back $5 on average, but two of these double-tortilla monsters can easily make a meal. Grab a house-made juice of the day (if you're lucky, it'll be horchata or watermelon juice) to wash them down.
This College St. spot started as a food truck that cleverly skirted regulations by offering limited-edition art prints alongside tacos. They're not cheap —an average taco is $4.75, with many inching higher—but you'll be glad you shelled out for their In Cod We Trust, featuring fried Pacific cod topped off with their house-made spicy Voltron sauce and some pickled cabbage and julienned apple for crunch. If they're on special that day, grab an arctic char tostada (and, while you're at it, some honey-habanero ribs and churros for dessert).
This Toronto chain, which currently boasts three locations, came on the scene long before the recent nouveau-Mexican craze, and their food still stands up. A la carte orders are off the table—you order in pairs (or threes, plus rice, for an extra $7 a plate). You won't regret committing to their octopus-and-snapper tacos zorandeados, topped off with spicy achiote sauce and pineapple relish—they're so meaty it's easy to forget you're eating seafood (in the best way possible).
Tacos El Asador
This tiny Koreatown joint gets plenty of traffic—even in the middle of a weekday afternoon—from neighborhood fans. Order at the counter and your tacos ($2.50 each) show up in less than five minutes with a side of chunky, smoky house-made hot sauce and a bowl of onions and jalapeños. Their fish taco—featuring flaky, mild grilled snapper—is a standout; if you're in the mood for a kick of sweetness, grab a pineapple-and-grilled-pork taco el pastor.
Playa Cabana enjoyed a wave of hype (and some initial backlash from food reviewers) when it opened in 2011. The two sister restaurants that sprang up in its wake, however, point to the perma-packed Dupont joint's enduring popularity. Two years on, there's plenty to like at Playa Cabana: The service (at an off-peak hour) is fast and cheery, and the chunky guac, hand-pressed tortilla chips, and homemade hot sauces (bright habanero and smoky arbol chili) are first-rate. On the taco front, the chorizo, though on the greasy side, is rich, with an almost hoisin sauce-like flavor, and the halibut in the grilled fish taco was beautifully handled by the kitchen. It's worth evaluating that hype for yourself.
About the Author: Natalia Manzocco is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. Follow her on twitter @nataliamanzocco.