With the city’s recent snowfall and more on its way, Vancouver has entered its wintry season. While this weather can be wondrously festive, you might long for a brief culinary escape to a sunnier locale this season.
The city’s burgeoning Mexican dining scene can provide you and your palate with a delicious staycation. In the last five years, the Lower Mainland has benefited from the emergence and growth of restaurants that offer vibrant Mexican cooking that goes well beyond unimaginative enchiladas.
If you’re looking for excellent casual eats (eg think fresh, ingredient-forward tacos) at convivial establishments where the tequila flows, La Mezcaleria (68 East Cordova Street), El Camino’s (3250 Main Street), and Tacofino (15 West Cordova Street) are just some of the standout options available.
In addition, there are two other restaurants that are actively reinventing how Vancouver conceives of Mexican food.
New Westminster might be off the dining radar for some Vancouverites, but, in fact, the city, the initial capital of British Columbia, is developing a thriving dining landscape. One of the stars of it is el Santo (680 Columbia Street), a restaurant that has been inspired by the innovation of chefs in Mexico City (where owner Alejandro Diaz originally hails from). Chef Sam Fabbro draws from these influences while also attentively sourcing local and sustainable ingredients.
The result is truly exciting. The menu is refined, while very accessible, which matches the restaurant’s décor and overall vibe. The sopa de garbanzo, for example, is a lovely play with textures and balanced flavours in its bringing together of chickpeas, poblano pepper, coffee roasted carrots, red chili, roasted beet and lime crema, and Cotija cheese.
Meanwhile, the carnitas de Jabali features confit wild boar shoulder with fresh house-made tortillas. The wild boar has incredible caramelization and intense flavour, offset by the subtly refreshing zing of the accompanying citrus salsa and guacamole.
The showstopper dish is the pescado a la Veracruzana, a whole west coast rockfish, with capers and olives, grilled tomatoes, mild chili broth, and cilantro pesto. The combo of heat, acidity, herbaceous notes, as well as tangy saltiness all work really well in juxtaposition– and without overpowering the fish.
The food is matched by a fantastic bar program run by Vanessa Coupar (formerly of Uva Wine Cocktail Bar).
Over in Yaletown, equally deft cooking is happening in the kitchen of Fayuca (1009 Hamilton Street). The restaurant bills itself as North Pacific Mexican cuisine and delivers with a menu that is bold and creative in its use of ingredients and techniques. The room is sleekly trendy and buzzes nightly with a lively crowd.
The hapuka ceviche with green aguachile, cucumber, roasted peppers, and radishes showcases the fresh seafood with equally zippy flavours, all while keeping the dish balanced.
Oxtail fideo pasta with pine nut picada and aioli has become a crowd favourite for good reason, with the rich earthiness of the tender oxtail making for a truly hearty dish.
Sablefish with green northern pipian, grilled spring onion, potato confit, and labneh shows the lively minds of chefs who can confidently meld local seafood, French technique, and Mexican/global ingredients (the restaurant is co-owned by Jair Tellez and Ernesto Gomez). The result doesn’t feel forced, but is just naturally good eating.
Ultimately, all these restaurants in the Lower Mainland evidence that Mexican cuisine is far from static and predictable. And with the arrival of winter, they offer a welcome culinary respite from the cold.