Toronto’s most popular pop-up taco stand is now a permanent restaurant on College Street—here’s a look at what to expect.
It’s just past noon in the La Carnita dining room at 501 College St., and there are boxes of lettuce and peppers stacked in front of the kitchen pass, the menus have yet to be printed, the prices need finalizing, and the light bulbs in the overhead art fixtures are out of place. The back of a chair is being fixed and there’s a wobbly table in the rear that also needs attention. Owner Andrew Richmond’s phone lights up with incoming calls more often than a traffic light turns green. In five hours, his restaurant will be opening for business.
It was almost exactly one year ago that downtowners were introduced to La Carnita’s concept: a bi-weekly lunchtime taco shop that operated from the King West offices of the One Method design firm where Richmond, 37, was the director. Staffed by the firm’s employees—and a rotating chef to keep things in order—the whole event was advertised as a opportunity to buy a limited-edition art print with free tacos on the side, since there was no official licence to sell food.
They fooled no one; lines regularly formed out the office and down the block. The numbered prints that people received were seen as badges of honour for braving the crowds. Richmond knew he was onto something—and so did the rest of the city, as pop-ups from amateur cooks and veteran chefs alike flourished in the following months and “street food” (particularly the newfound interest in tacos) became its own type of cuisine.
“The art, the food, and the experience are good but we did ride the forefront of the taco and pop-up craze, so it really boosted what we were doing,” Richmond says. “I won’t deny that what we do is good and there was a lot of thought and effort, but we also have the luck of timing on our side.”
The taco idea came to him during his business travels to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where tacos are as ubiquitous as hot dogs. The aspiring restaurateur—Richmond says it’s been his dream for the past seven years—worked out a deal with his boss at One Method, Amin Todai (he’s also part owner of the restaurant), who let Richmond spend a part of his day developing the food idea. On July 7, 2011, the first taco—or, rather, art piece, was sold. Around the same time, his wife Hassel Aviles launched the Toronto Underground Market (TUM) as a way for him and other amateur cooks to get exposure.
And La Carnita got bigger with every event, as professional chefs like Beast’s Scott Vivian and Bellwoods Brewery’s Guy Rawlings came on board to cook (sometimes for free). Richmond also cooked a $150-a-head dinner for secret supper club Charlie’s Burger and, in April, thousands packed into the Evergreen Brick Works for the pop-up’s inaugural art show.
However, 80 seats are the most Richmond could accommodate at the new restaurant, which took two months to transform from its previous incarnation as Italian restaurant Briscola. It looks exactly like how a design firm would interpret a grungy atmosphere: deliberately distressed murals, a graffiti wall, cubes of chicken-wire filled with light bulbs, a light fixture on top of the bar resembling a power line, and a hot orange neon sign spelling out the restaurant’s name in the back. At the entrance, the tiles spell out “gringo”—the Spanish slang word for foreigner.
It’s a feature that patrons will have plenty of time to enjoy, as the restaurant isn’t taking reservations—for now, anyway.
“We want to make the dining experience as best as possible and didn’t want to throw in another logistical loop into what we’re doing,” Richmond says. “It’s something we want to look into and, probably within the first weeks or months, we’ll hopefully do some reservations in the back tables.”
In the kitchen is head chef Jonathan Hamilton, formerly of Pizzeria Libretto, sous chef Nathan Middleton* (ex-Jamie Kennedy Kitchens and 416 Snack Bar) as well as pastry chef Sasha Bogin, with whom Richmond will be working alongside at the plating station.
On the first night, the small menu consisted of appetizers like tortilla chips with guacamole, sikil pak (a creamy Mexican pumpkin-seed dip similar to hummus), and a mescal chicken-liver pate. There are also chiles rellenos (Oaxaca and ricotta fritters) and an avocado-mango salad. The six tacos include their now-famous cod tacos, a chicken with peanut-mole sauce, a duo of house-made red and green chorizos, skirt steak, a vegetarian fried avocado with black beans and chipotle sauce, and a thinly sliced beef tongue tostada with grilled pineapple radish. (They decided to price the tacos at $5 a pop.) Desserts include churros with a goat and cow’s milk dulce de leche and lime-pie ice pops.
“There are other people like Playa Cabana who are going super authentic,” Richmond says when asked about the inevitable comparisons to other taco-centric restaurants, particularly that one in Parkdale. “We’re not competitors; we’re all trying to make better tacos in the city for everyone, and we’re far enough from each other.”
He’s not ruling out future pop-ups, art shows or appearances at TUM but for now, the pop-up king has a restaurant to run.
La Carnita, 501 College St., 416-964-1555, lacarnita.com
CORRECTION, JUNE 13, 2012: The original version of this article featured an incorrect surname for Nathan; his surname is indeed Middleton. The Grid regrets the error.