At the Junction Triangle’s Cocina de Doña Julia, Latin American standards get taken to the next level.
This should probably come as no surprise, but if you happen to go to Cocina de Doña Julia, a small Ecuadorean restaurant on Dupont, west of Lansdowne, you’ll be sure to find Julia Calle herself, working away tirelessly in the sweltering kitchen. She’s pretty much there from the moment the restaurant opens on Friday morning until it closes on Sunday night. “Everything here is made by hand,” she says, patting down fistfuls of wet cornmeal on banana leaves, and piling them with shredded pork, chopped garlic, carrots, peas, and raisins, which she then wraps and ties with a string of banana leaf to make tamales that’ll steam for half an hour. “And when I say hands, I mean my hands,” says Calle, holding out her strong palms for validation.
Calle’s kitchen is dedicated to the authentic cuisine of Cañar, the mountainous region of Ecuador where her hometown of Azogues is located and which was once a central part of the Inca empire. Though she has lived in Toronto for more than three decades after moving here at 18 with her parents, Calle can still recall the smell of her aunt cooking up meals in the little restaurant she ran out of her house. It’s been 20 years since Calle started cooking professionally. Before that, she worked in administration at The Hospital for Sick Children, and began making tamales and other dishes for church dinners during Christmas and other holidays only. These proved so popular that she began catering out of her own home, like her aunt did, preparing dishes for events in Toronto’s small Ecuadorean and Latin American community, and building a loyal following in the process.
Six years ago, Calle opened up her eponymous restaurant in this little Junction Triangle strip mall. The décor is sparse: a few narrow tables, bright fluorescent lights and white tiles, a large television tuned to Latin American soccer matches, and some Ecuadorean flags. A giant metal bowl of chicharrones—bite-sized cubes of fried pig skin—sits on the counter, filled to the brim. Calle places chicharrones on each table, topped with airy fried corn kernels, as a crispy, salty welcome mat. “This is my appetizer,” she says, with a smile.
“I guarantee that everything you eat here, you’ll taste the freshness,” Calle says. “Nothing is pre-made.” For example, the shrimp ceviche, which her friend, Marta, the equivalent of her sous-chef, makes by quickly poaching a dozen prawns, which she peels, places in a bowl, and tops with freshly squeezed lime juice, pepper, and thinly sliced red onion. It’s a mix between shrimp cocktail and more commonly marinated ceviches—less acidic and more subtle, with soft slices of avocado floating in the broth along with the plump, sweet shrimp.
There’s a lot to Latin American food that’s familiar. Every nation has its empanada, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an empanada like those that Doña Julia serves. They’re the size of a paperback novel, light as a brochure and fried to a golden, bubbly crisp. The outsides are sprinkled with sugar and, inside, there’s just the faintest trace of gooey, mild mozzarella, which gives a salty edge to the sweet dough—it tastes like something you might find at a carnival fairground. The tamale she had so expertly folded comes out steaming from its shell, with the soft cornmeal acting as a sort of plate for the tender, sweet filling that’s risen to the top.
Considering that many of her Ecuadorean customers come from as far afield as Hamilton after church each Sunday, Calle’s kitchen doesn’t shy away from traditional off-cut dishes like tripe stew or sautéed organ meats. A house specialty is the Yaguarlocro, a thick soup with potatoes, tomatoes, and diced lamb kidney, liver and tripe, topped with an avocado and crumbled, fried lamb’s blood, which is sweet and tangy, but also funky in that way only offal dishes can be.
The restaurant’s most coveted specialty, which draws in everyone from far-flung Latin Americans to Junction artists and long-time regulars, is the hornado. Every day, Calle braises two giant pork shoulders, skin and all, which she shreds and serves with delicate pan-crisped mashed potato pancakes, a light coleslaw, and mote pelado, which are giant kernels of white corn, peeled so they almost flower and boiled until they are fork-tender. It could easily go up against any roast pork in Hogtown; the skin is sweet and crisp, the meat juicy, soft, and laced with just enough fat that it sings on the tongue.
“We try to make what we have the best,” says Calle, “so we can get everyone who comes in here to come back.” She doesn’t advertise, and relies only on word of mouth, but, even just working three days a week, Calle’s reputation is growing. “I won’t be rich, but I can pay my bills and survive. That’s enough for me.”
Cocina de Doña Julia, 1545 Dupont St. (at Perth), (416) 536-4577.