First Look: Maizal Quesadilla Cafe, a new Liberty Village tribute to the legacy of corn
By Anna Silman
Sopes (three for $8) feature thick tortillas topped with black beans, lettuce, tomatoes
and sour cream (Images: Anna Silman)
Gabriela Ituarte and Ivan Wadgymar, the co-owners of Liberty Village’s brand new quesadilla café, both have close ties to the sprawling urban metropolis of Mexico City. Yet their new restaurant, Maizal Quesadilla Cafe, finds its roots less in modern Mexico than in the ancient civilizations of the Aztecs and Mayans, harkening back to the great Mesoamerican empires that were founded upon the legacy of corn.
“We don’t represent ourselves as fully Mexican,” explains Wadgymar. “Rather, we see our project as one that transcends nationalism and goes back to a time when these borders didn’t exist, and corn was the basis for all of life in Central and South America, and even as far as North America.”
Ituarte and Wadgyman see Maizal as not merely a place to eat, but also as an educational centre for people to learn about the rich cultural and historical roots of the staple crop. In addition to serving up freshly-made tortillas, the two plan to host workshops about the history and harvesting of corn.
“Quesadillas aren’t a new food. Some company didn’t invent them,” Wadgymar says. “People have been making corn tortillas for thousands of years, and they once fed a whole civilization.”
Even though Ituarte and Wadgymar aren’t related, Maizal gives off the air of a family business, and they are committed to maintaining a personal, intimate vibe. The interior is a homey, inviting space decked out with touches of indigenous flare, including woven wall-hangings and ceramic pots, as well as a vast chalkboard that illustrates one of Mexico’s founding corn-centric mythologies of the first man and woman.
“We wanted it to be authentic, but in terms of design, we didn’t want to be a tacky, stereotypical Mexican place,” says Ituarte, who is in charge of the kitchen. “So you won’t see any piñatas or sombreros on the walls.”
The centerpiece of the restaurant is a Nixtamex corn grinder, with which Ituarte grinds corn for tortillas every morning. Unlike the flour-based tortillas served in many Mexican joints, these tortillas are gluten-free and made without preservatives. It’s a process that has changed little over the centuries — even down to the volcanic stone used in the grinder.
“It’s indigenous knowledge,” Ituarte says. “Except they would have ground the corn by hand — now we have a motor, thankfully.”
The menu itself is simple, with corn tortillas serving as a base for the majority of the dishes. The quesadillas themselves come in both grilled (two for $8) and fried varieties ($5-$7), with a choice of fillings that ranges from beef to spinach, and are served with beans and sour cream. There are also a host of other tortilla-based dishes, including the round, bean-topped sopes (three for $8, pictured above), and nopal ($6), made with halloumi cheese from Monforte Dairy and cactus. And you won’t find any pop or canned drinks here; instead, wash your meal down with freshly-made juices ($2.50) in tamarind, hibiscus and horchata flavours — just like one would find in a traditional Mexican marketplace.
Along with importing these Mexican flavours, the team at Maizal have a close relationship with a number of Ontario-based agricultural producers. The aim is to serve up traditional Mexican food while simultaneously using ingredients that are local, seasonal and organic (the restaurant works closely with Sausage Partners, Kawartha Ecological Growers and other local purveyors). At the front of the restaurant, a garden grows produce.
The name Maizal — which means “plot of corn” — refers not to the vast monocultures of rural Ontario, but to the small domestic plots that families in Central America used to feed themselves.
While hotspots like Grand Electric and La Carnita have revamped the taco to uber-chic status, at Maizal, traditional, not trendy, is the name of the game. And Maizal succeeds in making the exotic feel like home.
Maizal Quesadilla Cafe, 133 Jefferson Ave., 647-351-0133