16 of our favourite Mexican restaurants in Toronto right now
Our go-tos for tacos, tortas and tequila
Every link in the Playa Cabana chain offers a slightly different variation on a common theme, so why should the latest outpost be any different? The distressed vintage decor is here, as are the subway tile, exposed brick and neon—even if it’s only one accent piece. Bartenders sling a wide range of Mexican-themed beer and cocktails, but smoky mescal, not tequila, is the booze of choice. Chalkboard menus list dishes heavy on house-ground corn accents, like tender pieces of goat on a deep-fried disc of masa. Chicken mole, the kitchen’s crown jewel, offers complex layers of acid, toast and spice; it’s just not worth the long wait it takes to arrive when service stalls. For dessert, pan de elote, a cornbread cake, is a warm slice of heaven that balances modest sweetness with oversized, crunchy grains of sugar and a buttery dollop of whipped cream.
The casual Mexican restaurant’s namesake taco, a mix of beef and too-tame chorizo, is elevated by a sprinkling of crunchy chicharrones. But as the city approaches peak taco, it takes something special to stand out. Here, it’s the tortillas made with imported corn that’s ground in-house. The vegetal notes in the delicate discs shine in the quesadillas, stuffed with beef or mushrooms and loads of oaxaca cheese. Fresh sea bass ceviche, swimming in citrus, honours tradition with its tongue-puckering brightness. he lone dessert, a lightly spiced flan, exists at the delectable crossroads of cheesecake, butterscotch pudding and crème brulée.
A recent addition to Dave Sidhu’s Playa Cabana group of Mexican restaurants is hidden in one of Corktown’s quietest corners—but mid-week, the place is full and everyone is tipsy from potent margaritas and sangria ladled out of clay pots. Large platters of slow-cooked meats are sold by the pound, accompanied by rice and beans, pickled onions and more fresh tortillas. Pork side ribs are wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted in a paste of achiote, chipotle and guajillo chilies. For dessert, the kitchen bakes little cornflour cookies sandwiched around dulce de leche and dusted with coconut. They’re so good you’ll want to order more to go.
Mid-week, the tables are packed with tourists and Distillery District condo-dwellers, all making merry with pitchers of house margaritas. Chef Olivier Le Calvez serves Mexican food for the masses (tacos, burritos, churros) best enjoyed on the sprawling patio decorated with chandeliers and firepits. A mortar of guacamole, crushed tableside with a pestle, comes with salty, house-made tortilla chips—this combo, paired with a margarita, is enough for a good night. Baja tacos are stuffed with hunks of cod coated in crispy beer batter and slathered in creamy chipotle coleslaw: they’re pretty standard as far as fish tacos go. The tres leches cake is a nice enough finish.
Mescal is the inspiration behind this Mexican bar in Kensington—nearly 40 kinds are served in flights and blended into expensive cocktails. Clay copitas of the stuff cover the tables of the lantern-lit patio. The short menu, overseen by co-owner Grant van Gameren, makes an effort to transcend Tex-Mex clichés with traditional ingredients and preparations, yet the food isn’t too serious. The hulking guacamaya torta stuffs a chewy, avocado-slathered bun with luscious grilled pork shoulder, crunchy chicharron and cilantro, while the sope brings an earthy potato-corn shell filled with salty refried beans, spicy minced chorizo and mellow salsa—a sunny-side-up quail’s egg binds the whole mess. There are a few mehs amid the mmms, like a blue corn quesadilla that tastes of little more than bland tortilla and queso fresco. And the staff, though knowledgable, are so aloof they could be mistaken for a comedy troupe parodying attitudinal servers.
El Trompo’s west-facing patio is the perfect place to watch day turn into night in Kensington Market. Inside, the room is splashed with bright colours and sombreros on coat racks. To start, a creamy, cilantro-flecked guacamole gets freshness from tomato and onion and zip from a sprinkle of cilantro. Huitlacoche, a trendy corn fungus, makes a smoky, earthy filling for a quesadilla, but the dish only comes to life with a spoonful of hot salsa. The terrific tacos are five per order, with fresh corn tortillas and fillings like al pastor (spicy marinated pork and sweet pineapple chunks) and chipotle-peppered shredded chicken. Potent margaritas in plastic cups will get you drunker than a Tijuana tourist.
Ian McGrenaghan and Colin Tooke started the taco trend in 2011 with their Parkdale taqueria and bourbon bar. Securing a table can take up to an hour even on weeknights, but once you do, the staff treat you like a good friend. Taco options include Baja fish, arbol chicken and beef shoulder dressed simply with cilantro, onion and lime. Mason jars of key lime pie (graham cracker crumbs, lime curd and a pile of whipped cream) capture the mood—sweet-tart, a little trashy and totally enjoyable.
The third outpost of Andrew Richmond’s wildly popular chain bears much of the same trendy visual branding that embodies so many gentrified taco joints (stylized sugar skulls, a whole lotta neon), but the Financial District location seems more grown-up, if only because it’s not the size of a dressing room. The two-floor space fills up quickly with downtown diners keen on the tacos piled improbably high, making them impossible to eat with grace. Menu standards like fried chicken thighs dressed in shaved cabbage and dripping with honey, hot sauce and a creamy peanut mole are pleasurably crunchy. Squash quesadillas stuffed with three types of cheese, chopped flowers and pepitas are served alongside a mountain of cream whipped with butternut squash. Even the desserts are a delicious mess—the sugar-crusted tubes of fried churro dough that dribble cajeta, for example, or the overloaded paletas and ice cream cones supplied by Sweet Jesus, Carnita’s sister dairy bar in the same building.
If your relationship to Mexican food extends no further than taco joints run by gringo hipsters, then it’s time to experience the joys of the cuisine as interpreted by chef Elia Herrera. She presents the dishes of her native Veracruz with technique and polish, in a dining room that’s just as sophisticated. Rajas poblanas, a marvellous creamy casserole of chicken, corn and poblano pepper mopped up with house-made corn or flour tortillas, configures familiar south-of-the-border flavours in novel ways.
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Chef Jose Hadad’s excellent tacos compress intense flavours into a few quick bites, especially the Michoacán version, packed with tender shreds of slow-cooked pork. The best deals on the menu at this Baby Point spot are the tortas: hefty Portuguese bun sandwiches with fillings like cotija cheese and house-cured ham. Unfortunately, the service, although perky, is tediously slow.
There are only two locations of this middle-of-the-road Mexican restaurant, but it feels like it’s part of a much larger chain: the decor is cactus cantina, the menu is ridiculously long, and sycophantic servers cheer on every dish as their favourites. However, the rooftop patio at the Queen West outpost is a magnet in summer, doing a brisk trade in icy cervezas and tart margaritas. Creamy, lime-licked guacamole is a good way to start, as is the tender octopus ceviche with its smoky chipotle dressing. Mains, like a pulled chicken enchilada drowned in an overly sweet mole poblano, are disappointing. An unconventional yet irresistible flan is made with cream cheese that gives it a dense, creamy texture.
At the second of the Playa Cabana restaurants, the menu is longer and more varied, and the crowd—no doubt owing to its Junction location—is more local than scenester. The food, however, is hit and miss. Here, ceviche is tart and spicy, with a healthy dose of jalapeño, and the guacamole is creamy and heavy on lime, the tortilla chips perfectly crispy. Each fish taco, while an obscene $6 each, contains a solid chunk of fried fresh halibut. But the burrito gets a low mark, with an overcooked chorizo filling—proof that, as at most Playa empire restaurants, Cantina is sometimes best enjoyed for drinks and snacks.
Rebozos remains one of most reasonably priced places to find a plate of tacos. Mexican expats visit for the barbacoa special—platters of steam-cooked lamb served with warm, thin tortillas and freshly blended salsas. The thick, boat-shaped tortillas in the sopes are handmade and nestled with lettuce and refried beans. Their toppings are the same as those available for the tacos: beef tongue, spicy and tender; cochinita pibil, pulled pork’s earthier cousin; and tinga, ribbons of chicken stewed in cilantro, peppers and tomatoes. The tepid temperature and scant pork in the pozole is a shame, because it would otherwise be the best in the city. The broth is rich and thickly spiced, and the hominy retains its bite.
Just when we thought Toronto had reached the maximum municipal quota of taquerias, Seven Lives opened in Kensington Market. The 10-seat, mostly takeout shop is packed, the staff is often overwhelmed and the meat tacos routinely sell out. The fish tacos, however, are excellent. Options include smoked marlin, spicy grilled shrimp and fried mahi mahi, all expertly cooked and zestily seasoned. The best of the bunch is an incredible octopus version in a nutty pepita mole. A self-serve condiment station is stocked with top-notch house-made sauces, including a sweet blend of dried pasilla chilies and roasted tomatoes.
This Kensington sandwich shop, owned by Arturo Anhalt of the Milagro restaurants, specializes in tortas, the Mexican equivalent of a sub. The tortas are made on plush buns baked across the street at Blackbird, and filled with steak or pulled pork from the neighbouring butcher Sanagan’s. There are usually eight or nine tortas on the daily menu, and they’re all delicious, especially if you’re in the mood for a lunch that’ll keep you full for the rest of the day. The standouts are the Milanesa (a breaded chicken cutlet with slices of avocado, manchego cheese and a relatively mild chipotle mayo that’s easily corrected by one of the available choose-your-dosage hot sauces), and the Nopales (avocado, bouncy panela cheese, sautéed cactus, and a salsa of tomatillos and serrano chilies). There are churros for dessert, but, if you have room, go for a cob of corn they’ve coated, street-style, with crema and cotija cheese.
Somewhere on the spectrum between Mexican fast food chains and hipster taco joints is Wilbur on King West. Diners order at the counter, grab bottles of Mexican cervezas (or craft sodas from a state-of-the-art fountain) and take a seat in a sleek room. There’s a self-serve hot sauce and salsa bar with condiments like a tart house-made pineapple-habanero salsa—the perfect pairing for a grilled avocado taco layered with feta-like cotija cheese and smoky, creamy chipotle crema. The pulled pork burrito is sadly dry and under-salted, but the grilled Mexican street corn smothered in more crema and cotija is a winner.