In Europe in the mid-nineties, long before the EU and common currency, changing money was a familiar ritual just before and after every border, in airports and train stations and youth hostel dorms. To this day, after getting off a plane in Kelowna after a five hour flight from Toronto I still have to fight the urge to change money.
As a backpacker in 1994 I remember a point where I managed my cash with an elegantly simple, jeans-based system: Deutschmarks in my front right pocket, French Francs in my front left pocket, Italian Lira in my back left pocket and Austrian Schillings in my back right. As my geographical location shifted, so did the currencies. What does this have to do with exotic foodstuffs in Toronto? Well, the Plaza Latina in deepest North York is the modern, culinary, Latin American version of my jeans circa 1994: a very efficient tour of the political region, enclosed in a conveniently small space.
Plaza Latina is well beyond the Here Be Dragons point for the 416 set: north of the 401, beyond Jane and Finch, over the 400, over the rainbow, east of the sun and west of the moon. It’s located at 9 Milvan Drive:
It’s not a strip mall, but a squat, square, two story structure that strives for no other architectural purpose other than to provide four walls, a roof, electricity, water and drainage to twenty-odd tenants that offer services to the Latin community, ranging from assistance to newcomers, dog-grooming, legal advice, driving lessons, cheap plane tickets to freshly imported dried avocado leaves to cook beans with. Oh, and right at the back, there’s a food court:
With every taste of home available, almost regardless of the homeland. If you are (a) a Spanish speaker, and (b) not from Spain, you will likely find some good, familiar fare at Plaza Latina: Cuban, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Colombian, Chilean, Salvadorean, Mexican, and one other flag I could not recognize for the life of me. The multiple large TV screens showing football (AKA soccer) on every available wall space, and the ambient temperature in the room (slightly uncomfortable, even on a day when it was only 22C outside) also raise the authenticity quotient. And if you don’t read Spanish, well, that’s unfortunate:
Because Spanish is the official language of Plaza Latina. I was more or less fine because before a trip to Mexico City a few years back, I studied food words obsessively for the express purpose of translating menus, particularly at the magnificent and still highly respected restaurant El Pujol where my husband and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary (and where it’s a bit of a point of honour that not one word of English is spoken). I’ve also built up some vocabulary by learning to cook Mexican food as accurately as I can, simple enough in Toronto where things like banana leaves and fresh epazote are easy to get your hands on. But all the people working the booths speak English and are happy to explain what’s what, as long as they’re not too busy.
Gringos occasionally blunder in to the Plaza Latina by accident or design, but there were no others there early on a June Saturday evening: we arrived around 6:00pm and it took a few minutes to find a table and our bearings. By the time we had figured out an ordering strategy and had most of our food, a number of the booths had begun to close up, so if you’re making the trek out to Weston and Finch, don’t leave it too late in the day. Eventually we settled on empanadas, a Chilean sandwich, a Colombian fish plate, a platter of Mexican Tacos Al Pastor, a quesadilla, some Salvadorean pupusas, and some exotic drinks including a mango smoothie.
It’s billed as a food court, but it functions as something between a food court and a restaurant, because nothing is scooped from bins and everything is made a la minute. You place your order with a booth, and they either give you a number on a tall stand, or just tell you to either come back in 5-10 minutes, or they’ll bring it out to you. After you’re finished, a loose assortment of different people come to get the empty dishes because they all belong to different booths.
Soon after we ordered, our chickens came home to roost, starting with the most immediate items, the empanadas:
Pictured, the seafood empanada. There was also a beef and jalapeno empanada, and a ham and cheese model, but they were all Chilean, and they all looked almost exactly the same. There were some Colombian empanadas available from another booth (smaller, yellower, with a cornmeal crust and deep-fried) but we ended up not having room to make a stylistic comparison. The Chilean empanada is fairly large, with a flour-based, sturdy crust that you can walk with and eat at the same time, without any fear of leakage of the contents. The seafood filling was an interesting mixture of things, small prawns, mussels, chunks of fish, possibly little bay scallops. It’s a great use for the smaller, less showy bits of seafood.
Swiftly thereafter came the “Churrasco” Chilean sandwich: a thin slice of grilled beef, mayo, a thin slice of melted cheese, possibly swiss, and a generous slathering of simple guacamole (i.e. avocados smushed with little else, some garlic, salt, a bit of lime) on house made bread. The bread wasn’t sliced bread, but something like a hamburger bun with a firmer and more golden top.
The bread was fresh, and probably made with PAN or Maseca, or some other fine white corn flour, because it was soft and airy but had a pleasant hint of gritty texture and soaked up all the juices from the sandwich very well. The sandwich came sliced in half, which was just as well because four people needed to share it and just taking a few bites out of one of the halves in order to pass it on to someone else proved challenging: we tore at them like demented Jack Russell Terriers, because the beef, while tasty, was very very tough (not a problem, however, if you were eating this sandwich on your own…and that would be easy enough to do, because it was delicious). If you must subdivide this sandwich, bring a good serrated knife, or possibly a hacksaw.
Tacos Al Pastor were up next, from Chilango Taco:
These were pretty authentic tasting, for a number of reasons. They were not overly complex: Mexican food can be extremely subtle and complicated, but Tacos Al Pastor isn’t named after shepherds for nothing. It’s supposed to be simple, spit roasted chunks of stacked, shawarma-like pork chunks basted with pineapple juice and then sliced onto tortillas, folded up and eaten. Some places in Toronto get a bit fancy with it, they sprinkle it with cotija cheese, serve lots of condiments, but Chilango Taco brings the dish back to first principles. A little freshly chopped coriander, limes, a little chopped white onion, a thin slice of cooked pineapple, then the meat on top of a very fresh, small white corn tortilla. Two sauces come with it:
Thin salsas, one green and one red, just enough flavour to add another dimension, neither particularly incendiary (and that’s another common misunderstanding about Mexican cuisine, that it’s all hot and spicy…sometimes yes, but often no).
Then the fish arrived, from La Costenita Colombiana:
Very simple and good: crisply fried red snapper, plenty of thick white flesh on the bone, slightly salty and perfectly cooked. It came with lots of white rice, a couple of slices of fried plantain, and a huge pile of salad, involving at least two complete avocadoes cut up into big chunks with tomatoes and lettuce and a light, sour dressing.
Last out were the cheese and bean pupusas from Pupuseria Al Buen Sabor d’Plaza Latina:
Pupusas are like thick cornmeal pancakes stuffed with oozing, salty white melted cheese and refried black beans in this particular case. They were the biggest pupusas I’ve ever seen, although I have to admit I’ve only seen them in two other places. They are obviously a bit starchy, and toward that end, the booth sends them out with a cup of thin hot sauce and a heap of carrot and cabbage slaw. We were filling up by this point and didn’t think we could finish them, but miraculously they disappeared. The black beans were just layered enough to keep it interesting….when prepared correctly, they are cooked for hours in a broth laden with chiles, herbs, onions, garlic, all sorts of things before being fried, mashed, sieved and served. Let’s just say I don’t think the beans in these pupusas came from a can, and if they did, I’d like to know which one.
No room? Well, maybe just a little. The mango shake from La Fuente:
was pleasant but heavier on the milk than the mango. The churro from the Chilean place:
had been fried too long ago to be warm, but still tasted fresh and crunchy and was luxuriantly filled with dulce de leche. A small treat to be shared by three, but big enough considering what had gone before.
There is, undeniably, an uncomfortable feeling when one finally rises from the red vinyl chairs of the Plaza Latina food court. There’s no getting away from the fact that you just ate an awful lot of corn in one form or another. But there’s more corn to be explored: we saw a number of great looking soups, such as pozole (with huge chunks of white hominy floating around in it) and pork stews with cross sections of sweetcorn cobs, both of which would be wonderful during the colder months. The community and physical warmth of both the fare and the food court itself is probably even more precious and meaningful to those who come in the winter, not only for a cheap ticket to Bogota or news of progress on the Family Class permanent residency application, but also for a bowl of soup with friends.
Plaza Latina, 9 Milvan Drive (a little west of Weston Road, a little north of Finch)
Roughly $10-14 dollars for a big plate of food. Specials on weekends. Bring your phrasebook.