Auténtica Spanish Food and Empanadas is the closest thing this city has to a Little Santiago.
It’s somewhat of a cruel notion, but tough times may just be the best catalyst for great eating in this world. Take Elena Bazaes. economic reality forced her to pursue a dream she had put on hold for more than two decades, and Toronto is richer for it. A native of Valparaíso, Chile, Bazaes was the only one in her family who ever enjoyed cooking. After college, where she studied home economics, Bazaes ran a bakery out of her garage for several years. Drawn to Canada in 1986 by the promise of a more secure future, she took a job as a machine operator for an auto-parts manufacturer. It was solid, well-paying work, and it gave her a good life in her new home.
In 2004, after years of auto-industry layoffs, Bazaes lost her job at the factory, and, with few other options, returned to her kitchen, where she began baking the dense Chilean breads and sweet pastries that had always been her passion. She sold them to friends and neighbours, first from her Brampton garage, and later in a convenience store; she quickly earned the support of the Chilean community, which spread the gospel of her empanadas. “The best gift for me was, and remains, word of mouth,” says Bazaes, standing at the counter of Auténtica Spanish Food and Empanadas, the bakery and restaurant she now runs in Plaza Latina, a rag-tag Latin American food court and mall just off Finch, east of Islington.
One bite of her signature beef empanada is all that’s required to see why it’s buzz-worthy. A flat, imperfect square of golden baked dough envelops a filling that’s packed, end to end, with a mix of ground beef, soft onions, hardboiled egg, and olives so juicy, you need to eat it carefully over the counter so you don’t splatter your clothes. In a city rife with empanadas filled (literally) with hot air, this one is a pilgrimage-worthy champion, especially when eaten with generous dollops of pebre, a smoky tomato and ground-pepper hot sauce.
In Latin America, Chile is known for its work-focused, often conservative culture, and Chileans in Toronto tend to fly under the radar as a community, despite numbering around 10,000. Many came in the decades following the 1973 coup of General Augusto Pinochet, though today Toronto’s Chilean community lacks a geographic center—we have no Little Santiago to speak of. “They’re all over,” Bazaes says, waving her hands in the air, as she mentions corners of the GTA where friends and family have settled (“Brampton, North York, Etobicoke”), often into the communities of their spouses. “Chileans can blend into any culture,” she says, adding, with a laugh, “they’re good at conquering women from other countries.”
Now divorced, Bazaes takes tremendous pride in the fact that she is running her business as a single woman. Despite a slowdown in Chilean immigration owing to the country’s recent economic stability, she says the demand for her food in her community remains strong. “The second generation, they’re born here,” she says, “but they are Chilean in their blood.”
It’s easy to see the cultural influence. Chileans—who make up 40 per cent of Auténtica’s clients—are famous for being quick eaters, known to take a meal standing or on the run. The food at Auténtica is made for portability. The mainstays are sandwiches like the churrasco, a paper-thin pan-fried steak topped with melted cheese, and what seems like half a mashed avocado, placed between the split halves of pan amasado, a dense, buttery bun that also happens to be Chile’s national food.
A more traditional dish is the humita, a steamed-corn porridge that’s been a staple of the Inca and other Andean people for centuries. Tied with a simple string, the cornhusk wrapper opens to reveal a mass of coarsely ground, home-made cornmeal that’s so perfectly yellow and summer-sweet, it tastes as though you’re eating the sun itself.
Chile’s early-evening tea (called La Once) lends itself well to Auténtica’s baked goods, which are bound by a river of dulce de leche. Crisp and chewy churros come filled with it, and the milhojas, a puffy cookie sandwich, is both held together with it and rolled in it. However, the most delectable is the tres leches cake, in which the dense caramel sauce is layered between tiers of cinnamon-dredged butter cake, which is then soaked in three kinds of sweetened dairy (condensed and evaporated milk, plus cream). It’s a calorie bomb, so you might as well call it dinner.
It’s not unusual for Auténtica’s regular customers to bring in visiting relatives from Chile, often straight from the airport. “It brings them joy to see Chilean food and atmosphere in a little Chilean spot in Canada,” Bazaes says with a smile, dusting off powdered sugared hands on her faded pink apron. “My community is the most beautiful community I know.”
Auténtica Spanish Food and Empanadas, 9 Milvan Drive, 416-742-2917. #YRK