A Mexican Cantina in the Distillery District
A lot of thought has been put into El Catrin, the newest restaurant at the Distillery District. There’s nothing hotter in Toronto than Mexican Food -witness the lines of happy locals waiting for their Grand Electric, Carnita or Playa Cabana taco fix. The cuisine in general is playful and interesting, but to be successful in this city restaurateurs need to create atmosphere and experience. El Catrin has that in spades.
The former site of The Boiler House has been transformed. Authentic Mexican design elements have been seamlessly integrated into the indoor and outdoor space. Sit outdoors in the open air patio and you feel like you’re on vacation. There’s an endless list of tequilas to sample. The cocktails are inspired. After a few shots you might be brave enough to try the Pepino Diablo ($9)- a sweet and spicy concoction that includes muddled cucumbers, serrano peppers and agave nectar (no really, it’s great). Inside a boldly gigantic, two story folk art mural is the focal point of the room - setting the tone for the food.
You could start with housemade guacamole ($6) made traditionally, tableside with stone mortar and pestle. And yes there are tacos; all priced at $14 for sets of three. From classic “al pastor” - pineapple pulled pork and the “baja” fried haddock to the eccentric “gobernador” sauteed shrimp and lobster. The food at El Catrin is portioned and meant to be shared tapas style.
The menu is large. There are plans to streamline it. But if you think outside the box there are hidden gems that must be tried. Sopa De Elote ($4) is a shot of creamy corn soup. Delicate and sophisticated, it operates almost like an amuse bouche. The Ceviche De Atun ($8) features finely diced sushi grade tuna cooked in lemon juice and mixed with habanero pepper spiced watermelon. It is both savoury and refreshing.
Its curious to see braised beef short ribs ($14) on this menu. Don’t miss them. Slow cooked for a day in a lightly sweet mole and served over pureed sweet potato, this hearty dish is delectable. Also be sure to get the Camarones al Ajillo ($8 per) jumbo shrimp sauteed with guajillo, garlic and lime juice.
Like the rest of the food at El Catrin, dessert is meant to shared. Get the sample platter for two ($16) and be sure to try these three items (two classics, one not so much): Churros - mexican street donuts served with a trio of dipping sauces; tres leche cake - white cake made moist with sweet milk; and the mexican chocolate bar - a tiered pepper and cinnamon spiced, double smoked hazelnut chocolate confection.
El Catrin is raucous and fun, but very kid friendly too. There is a children’s menu and also a gluten-free menu. www.elcatrin.ca
Jamie Bussin is the Publisher of Tonic Magazine. Some people think he’s a bit of a food snob, but really he just likes to eat. Then he feels guilty and goes for a run.