El Amacen makes the city’s most authentic Argentinian fare. Slowly.
Six years ago, I moved back to Toronto from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and sought out whatever Argentinian flavours I could get my hands on. I found good parilla (a smorgasboard of barbecue) at Dufferin’s Sky Ranch and bought dulce de leche in Latin supermarkets, but the one craving I couldn’t fulfill was a proper empanada. Those most readily available, namely the Chilean versions in Kensington Market, were too big, too bready and too tame. (Mind you, ask a Chilean about Argentinian empanadas and they’ll say they’re too small and greasy, so there.)
Then, in 2010, I came across a newly opened café at Queen West and Dovercourt called El Almacen. The sign featured the same hand-painted, two-toned font used by countless cafés in Buenos Aires and that feeling carried on inside, with pressed-tin ceiling tiles, dim lighting, a long wooden bar and a chrome-eagle-topped Elektra espresso machine.
There, in a glass warming case, were rows of the most glorious, golden empanadas I had seen in years. The dough was light, flaky, almost translucent. These were empanadas in the style of the province of Mendoza, land of Malbec wine. Each one was filled with caramelized onions, chile pepper, chopped egg and minced beef that baked together into a juicy, greasy flavour bomb.
The empanadas are made, each day, by the hands of Mexican Estela Velasco Cortes, who co-owns El Almacen with her Argentinian-born husband, Silvio Rodriguez. Velasco-Cortes carefully crimps the dough around the cooked beef. It takes time, like everything at El Almacen, a point of pride for Rodriguez. “My main goal here is to slow things down.”
Born in the small city of Godoy Cruz in Mendoza, Rodriguez moved to Toronto as a child in 1980, at the height of Argentina’s military dictatorship and bloody Dirty War. His family and other Argentinians settled around Finch and Wilson, though the community never really coalesced into anything solid. According to estimates by Argentina’s consulate, there are only about 8,000 Argentinians in the GTA.
“Argentina’s an immigrant nation itself,” says Rodriguez. “We all come from different backgrounds, and when people came to Toronto, they assimilated very easily.” Italian Argentinians folded into the Italian community, Jewish-Argentinians into the Jewish community, Croatian-Argentinians into the Croatian community and so on. Various attempts to bring Toronto’s Argentinians together, through events or social clubs, fizzled over the years. “We’re not very organized,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a very laid back community.”
Growing up in the restaurant business in Toronto (his father and uncle waited tables downtown, and Silvio once worked at the Green Room), Rodriguez always had the idea to create a café that would introduce the Argentinian ritual of drinking yerba mate and coffee to Torontonians. What he never imagined was how it would bring together his community.
Since El Almacen opened two years ago, the café has become a de-facto home for Toronto’s Argentinians. It began with the FIFA World Cup two summers back, when Argentinians around the GTA gathered to cheer Diego Maradona’s ill-fated squad. Every weekend after that, the same faces would appear, taking over El Almacen (which, during the week, is a typical laptop-heavy coffee shop), their voices carrying over in Castellano, Argentina’s Italian-accented twist on Spanish.
It became a meeting place, says Hugo Slepoy, an architectural artist from Buenos Aires, who has lived here since 1980, and whose drawings of both his native city and his adopted one adorn the walls of the café he frequents most weeks.
Customers sit for hours, slowly nursing metal straws of yerba mate or small cups of cortado coffee (an espresso with a little milk), chasing it with sips of seltzer, eating alfajores (shortbread sandwiches filled with dulce de leche caramel spread) and square pieces of layered spinach-and-boiled-egg pasqualina phyllo dough pie. In this cappuccino-in-a-paper-cup town, it’s the best approximation of Argentina’s languid café society you’ll find.
Sometimes Slepoy and older Argentinians are joined by more recent arrivals from the country, second generation Argentinian-Canadians exploring their heritage or friends who’ve recently visited Argentina. Each time, Rodriguez will present them with a place setting for mate: a thermos of hot water, a bowl of dry mate tea, another for sugar and a mate container (often a hollowed gourd or wood cup). He’ll show them how to arrange the bombilla (a metal straw), top it with mate leaves and cover it with water until the slightly bitter tea bubbles. Then, he’ll advise them to take it slow, pass it in turns and savor each sip.
Wars and revolutions were started in Argentina’s cafés, he says. Art too. This isn’t takeout. Mate forces you to slow down, talk in turns and listen. It takes time. Just like building a community.
El Amacen, 1078 Queen St. W., 416-516-2898. #WQW