First Look: La Carnita South Central opens in historic building on John
The Dia de Los Muertos sign now has a permanent downtown home.
Image: Ola Mazzuca
Andrew Richmond and Amin Todai’s La Carnita is now a household name in Toronto for a top-notch taste of tacos and culture. What started as a pop-up vendor hatched out of an ad agency (OneMethod) has now evolved into three locations.
The first outpost in Little Italy led to offerings in the east to accommodate Riverside cravings, but the heart of the city was missing Mexican street food to fuel its core. Thus, Richmond and Todai have brought La Carnita to the entertainment district with their new location at 106 John St. (at Richmond).
Casual bar seating fits nicely with the Mexican street food vibe. (Image: Ola Mazzuca)
Nestled on two floors of a heritage building, the restaurant seats 105. With industrial chic interiors, exposed fixtures, neon lights and colourful chairs, it’s inviting. Dark hard wood tables support metal taco trays of al pastors and brass mugs filled with Hip-Hop themed cocktails. The space gets a vibrant energy from trip-hop remixes by Gramatik to tracks by Travis Scott, Migos and our very own Drake.
Left to Right: Friday’s daily taco special, the West Coast Rockfish, The #PartyMom and Scallop Ceviche. (Image: Ola Mazzuca)
“We definitely do our own take on it,” Richmond says, quoting their unconventional M.O. that has diners set foot on the mosaic “Gringo” doorstep at their College Street location. By applying a “respectful,” chef-driven approach to Mexican food, Richmond also credits frequent trips to San Francisco for inspiration. He immerses himself in the culinary offerings of Silicon Valley’s Latin community, eating food that he couldn’t find in Toronto. “We try to create food the way that we would like it to taste. There might be a North American palate that tweaks things a bit, but we put a lot of care and detail into everything, which is part of the experience.”
At every location, the core menu stays the same, while specials, one-offs and drink selections vary by neighbourhood. The drink list ranges from non-alcoholic classics like agua frescas and Jarritos sodas to an extensive tequila program. Every restaurant pays homage to Biggie Smalls with “Who Shot Ya?” (2 oz. Bulleit bourbon, hibiscus grenadine, ginger syrup, lemon juice). While Riverside leans to craft beer, luckily for those in the city’s core, John Street has a blend of both.
The #PartyMom is a staple at South Central. It’s a blend of mint and cucumber agua fresca spiked with Appleton VX and Cointreau. (Image: Ola Mazzuca)
We begin with the #PartyMom (Appleton’s VX rum, Cointreau, cucumber agua fresca, mint, simple syrup), served ice cold in a brass mug branded with the restaurant’s signature Calavera skull. Mint and cucumber add a bright balance to the punch of Appleton and Cointreau. It’s a Friday, so I opt for the daily taco special — West Coast Rockfish (wild BC Rockfish, corn batter, lettuce, Tamarind Balsamic Sauce, Chipotle Mayo, Tomatillo Salsa). The hearty white filet is blanketed by a golden crisp corn batter, topped with finely shredded lettuce. The condiment trio complements with an umami bite.
The Mexican Street Corn is an authentic treat - crema, queso anejo, arbol & ancho chili powder is nostalgic of a post-bar snack in Guadalajara. (Image: Ola Mazzuca)
An array of appetizers at La Carnita can make a meal, too. The Mexican Street Corn (Mexican crema, queso anejo, arbol & ancho chili powder) is a richly authentic experience. Sweet queso offsets heat from the spice blend. Of course you’ll be worried about getting kernels stuck in your teeth, but the flavours are too good. Opt for extra napkins, or your server will likely ask you if you prefer cutlery.
La Carnita South Central’s signature appetizer, the Scallop Ceviche (Hokkaido scallops, avocado, green tiger’s milk, green apple, pepita, crispy plantain) is a bright way to commence. (Image: Ola Mazzuca)
Perhaps the most refreshing amuse-bouche is the one that you can only find at South Central. Order the Scallop Ceviche of Hokkaido scallops, avocado, green tiger’s milk, green apple, pepita and crispy plantain. The sunflower seeds top it (literally) off, even though they’re not listed as an ingredient on the menu. My server, Kate, advises that most items can be made nut and seed-free upon request. You might want to try it exclusively for the exotic Green Tiger’s Milk (coconut milk blended with herbs).
The cross marks the location of Sweet Jesus, La Carnita’s sister dessert shop. (Image: Ola Mazzuca)
From their days as pop-up vendors, Richmond and Todai have worked dilligently to burn their brand into Toronto’s culinary imagination. (Image: Ola Mazzuca)
La Carnita is a brand inside a restaurant’s body. It ain’t a bad thing. Enjoy some tacos, drink a cocktail with a soundtrack to match, and you’ll feel a bit more badass, yet a lot like a local.
La Carnita South Central, 106 John St., 647-348-1166
Ola Mazzuca is a culture journalist and project manager from Toronto. She established her career writing about heavy metal music, and its extreme sub genres from around the world. Recently, Ola has been focused on sharing her fervent passion for arts and culture within the Caribbean Diaspora by reporting on its global impact. She is the Manager, Co-Host/Producer of BanTOR Radio - a music podcast driven by sonic diversity and storytelling. When not writing, researching or taking photographs, Ola can be found watching foreign films, shopping at record stores and exploring ethnic cuisines. Follow Ola’s journey on Twitter: @ola_mazz.