By: Lisa Jackson
If you’ve dined on Mexican in Toronto, you may want to revisit the experience. Apparently, Toronto has been lagging in the Mexican cuisine department.
“When I first opened the restaurant, people in Toronto didn’t know Mexican food,” says Arturo Anhalt, owner and chef of Milagro Cantina. “But Milagro is the real deal, with proper service and authentic dishes.”
Sixteen years ago, Anhalt uprooted his life in Mexico and moved to Canada. He worked in the hospitality sector in Mexico City, but grew weary of his country’s political climate. After a rough day, Anhalt drove to the Canadian embassy in Mexico City, and asked about immigration.
Arriving in Toronto, Anhalt was disappointed with the Mexican options in the city (or lack thereof).
“Burritos and empanadas aren’t Mexican,” he says. “Forget about hard shells and sour cream. I wanted to introduce Toronto to how Mexican food can be done.”
Mission accomplished. Anhalt filled the taste gap, opening Milagro Cantina with his brother in 2006. The menu is inspired by the homemade foods that Anhalt grew up eating, served in a rustic eatery. The traditional dishes are from all culinary regions of Mexico, and prepared using classic techniques and fresh ingredients.
“My father was a true foodie,” says owner. “I grew up with Mexican flavours with international influences.”
It’s really no surprise that there are now three locations in Toronto, and Milagro Cantina has earned a reputation as being one of the best in the city for Mexican cuisine.
We start with a tequila tasting. Throw everything out the window that you’ve been taught about tequila. You’re not supposed to sling it back like it’s a spring break party at the frat house.
“Tequila should be sipped and enjoyed at ease,” says Chef Anhalt. “It’s not for shaking and shooting, like at the resorts.”
Basically, treat it like a fine wine. Savour the smoky oak flavour of the tequila, and then sip the tangy tomato juice that accompanies it. Consider: what are the tastes?
After the tequila warm-up round, the ceviche arrives – a coastal dish made with fresh raw seafood cured in citrus juices and spices. The sweet taste of the Tropical De Pescado ($14) stands out: fresh snapper mixed with olive oil, mango, cilantro, red onion. The avocado slices on the side nicely neutralize the zingy flavour.
Many people expect tacos to be served in hard shells. Not the case in Mexico, according to Chef Anhalt. The Rosarito Taco ($12) arrives in a warm, soft tortilla, heaped with sautéed shrimp, refried beans, avocado slices, salsa, and crema (a thickened cream).
“This dish has been on the menu since we opened,” says Chef Anhalt.
Unless you have a giant appetite, share the Plazera Tostada ($5): tacos stuffed with pulled pork carnitas (“little meats”), warm tomatillo salsa, cotija cheese, and a mountain of crema. This is a messy one.
“You’re not eating a real tostada unless you fill your nose with crema,” says Chef Anhalt. I feel vindicated for my goopy hands.
But it’s worth getting down and dirty for this dish. The pork is so tender and juicy from being braised in lard for four hours.
For a main, take Chef Anhalt’s advice and order something that’s not a burrito and empanada. If you can only choose one dish, go for the Cochinita Pibil ($18) – a plate of shredded pork served with fried plantains and tortilla chips. It’s incredible: the pulled pork is marinated in vinegar, orange and spices, and then cooked for nine hours in a banana leaf. It’s smoky and sweet, with citrusy and tomato flavours bursting on the tongue.
If you’re a die-hard chicken lover, try the Mole Poblano ($18): roasted dark meat covered in a mole sauce mulled with 35 ingredients – one being chocolate.
I can barely manage dessert, but it’s hard to say no to a Custard Crème Brulee made with goat’s milk. I’ll take it.
Milagro’s 3 locations in Toronto:
Downtown Cantina – 5 Mercer St. (416) 850 2855
Uptown Cantina – 3187 Yonge St. (416) 487 2855
Queen West Cantina – 783 Queen St. West (416) 366 2855
Learn more at: http://milagrorestaurant.com/
— Lisa Jackson