With four locations in Toronto, La Carnita boasts “Mexican street cuisine and graffiti with a gringo twist”. One look at their website and you’ll get a feel for their urban grunge vibe as well as a glimpse at some of their delicious looking eats. A browse through and a quick google map was enough for myself to make this a little early week treat as I made plans to have dinner with Matt and Keeragh before they head off to the Jays’ game without me. That was my choice by the way; being third wheel to my boyfriend and best friend at Riverdance two weeks ago was enough for me, and as it turns out Stephen Amell is wrong about some things: you don’t have to love what your partner loves.
Thank God because even though I own a Smoak Blue Jays t-shirt (for geeky Arrow related reasons clearly) I can’t stand baseball.
Anyway, I snagged a reservation for 6pm giving us enough time to commute down after work, as well as the time to stuff our faces before the first pitch. La Carnita’s John Street location is just a ten minute walk from the Rogers Centre and not that far from St. Andrews station. It runs a bit cheaper than most of the sit-down restaurants in the theatre district and since we’d never been I decided to ignore some of the complaints about service that I read online in order to check it out for myself. After all, a lot of people won’t write a review online unless something was wrong so I like to give places a chance no matter what their rating is.
In terms of decor, La Carnita did not disappoint. One of Keeragh’s first comments through the door was “Casandra this is the most hipster place I’ve ever been to.” and she wasn’t exactly wrong. With low reddish lighting, a grungy industrial vibe and a mix of unique booth couches and metal chairs, La Carnita is quite charming. There is definitely an urban grunge vibe going on with the photograph walls and graffiti murals. Additionally the red toned lighting of the place certainly adds to this specific aesthetic. If only it didn’t make it so hard to photograph everything with an iPhone.
Like many restaurants, they definitely tried to squeeze as much seating into the place as possible making the restaurant a bit crowded especially right before a baseball game but we were lucky and got tucked away at a little table in the corner so things weren’t so bad.
I decided to have an unusual indulgence, well unusual for me. Most people who know me know that I don’t really drink that often anymore. I’ll maybe have a long island iced tea once every three months and that’s about it but after browsing the drink menu I decided to try the South Cider which was a can of Spirit Tree Cider mixed with peach juice, lemon juice and a sugar rim. The juices took the alcohol taste right out of the cider and made for an interesting mix. I’m not sure it was worth $10 but in general mixed drinks aren’t worth what they’re priced at. I suppose that makes it a lucky thing that I don’t indulge in them often.
Now, before we even got to the restaurant I had more or less decided what I was ordering. The number one on my list was the Mexican Street Corn because every picture on their website as well as their social media made my mouth water. My picture isn’t quite as great because of the red lighting but I promise you it was even better than it looked. The order of corn comes with two pieces of corn on the cob but you can add a third if you’re an odd number like we were. They come smothered in crema, queso añejo, árbol and ancho chili powder. And man oh man were they good.
I love corn on the cob to begin with but the toppings on these took them took the next level. There was just the right amount of spice with the chilli powder and it was balanced perfectly by the concoction of white sauces and cheese. I could have happily ate all three pieces but of course the whole point was to share.
With the corn out of the way it was time to focus on the tacos. It seems to be the going theme these days that most taco joints involve ordering single tacos at $5-8 a pop, which is maybe a bit expensive for a typically cheap meal but it works well when you want a little variety. After browsing through the list of eight different tacos I decided to start off with the In Cod We Trust and Mexican Chorizo.
The tacos were small but they came fully loaded. The Mexican Chorizo had pork chorizo sausage, habanero mayo, cotija cheese, mango salsa, guacamole, chicharron and cilantro. Once again, there was just enough spice and a whole lot of flavour. The mango salsa really brought it together for me because I just love mango but the flavour palette in general was quite delicious. It’s definitely one I would order again.
As for the In Cod We Trust, it seemed very similar to the fish taco mom and I tried at Seven Lives but with some different toppings. The cod was good, crispy and warm, though I would have liked some more of the lime crema or even some cheese on this one. Still, I was happy with my choice but if I had to choose between this or the chorizo it would definitely be the latter.
Matt and Keeragh both tried the Carne Asada which was a taco with flat iron steak, chipotle mayo, tomatillo salsa, lime avocado, crispy shallots and cilantro. While I avoided this one because of the lime avocado, they both really enjoyed it, especially the steak itself. Ever the larger stomach, Matt also put back the Pollo Frito (crispy chicken thigh, peanut mole,honey, Rossy’s hot sauce, green cabbage & salsa fresca) and the Tostada de Ceviche (albacore Tuna, guacamole, coconut milk, habanero, tomato, cucumber) both of which he enjoyed. It seems that it was pretty hard for us to go wrong here.
Of what we tried the corn was my favourite but amongst the taco selections it was definitely the daily special that stood out amongst the crowd. It was the perfect way to end the meal. The special of the day happened to be beef flautas, a crispy rolled tortilla stuffed with meat and cheese. We were all so excited to try them that I didn’t really get a picture but trust me when I say they were delicious. The meat was nice and salty and the crispy fried tortilla had a really nice crunch. Plus they were smothered in salsa verde which I have recently discovered to be one of my favourite new things. A topping of diced apples was also a random but nice touch.
As for the service complaints I read about online we didn’t really have any problems ourselves. We got stuck at a two seater table because we showed up half an hour early for our reservation but that was our own fault. After that the staff was nothing but gracious. Our main waitress was lovely and the other staff were always checking in as they brought out food and cleared our plates. It definitely appeared to be a team oriented joint. The food came quickly and I don’t have anything to really complain about. I think, like most places, it all depends on who you get and what is going on that night. Sometimes you’re just unlucky. Tonight, we were not.
I think I’d still pick Seven Lives over this place but that doesn’t negate the fact that La Carnita was quite tasty. Plus, it allowed for an actual sit down meal which is much harder to do at the small Kensington Market shop. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back, especially since La Carnita is partnered with a little Toronto gem known as Sweet Jesus which is where we got our dessert. You can order some of their desserts up in the restaurant but since I’ve been dying to try their soft ice cream concoctions we headed downstairs, happy to find that there wasn’t a line like there had been on Sunday. I suppose the on and off rain probably helped. I don’t want to ramble on too much (mainly because I’m trying to get to bed) but I will say their fully loaded ice creams are definitely worth the cheat.
So that’s another not so healthy Tasty Tuesday under my belt. Tomorrow it’s off to work and back to eating well. Still, I think it’s important to remember it is okay to indulge sometimes. I know my life wouldn’t be the same without great food. Sometimes that food is good for you and sometimes it’s rolled in cookie crumbs.