The evening that I reviewed El Catrin – a wonderful Mexican tapas restaurant located in the heart of the Distillery District in Toronto – it was dreary, cold, and snowy outside, the kind of weather that makes you regret having to leave the house. But the warm and whimsy atmosphere of El Catrin made all efforts well worth the trek.
To begin, the décor and atmosphere along with the sheer size of El Catrin will leave you jaw dropped. It is unexpectedly huge and the Mexican Day of the Dead wall motif backlit in blue and paired with the colossal lighting fixtures almost makes it feel like you’re walking into a circus.
For those uninitiated in the world of ‘tapas’, it is the idea of sharing an array of little plates between you and your company. Each plate may be small but assuredly there is plenty to share. For our review, we opted for the 7 Course Tasting Menu ($43/person) with the addition of El Catrin’s signature guacamole ($11.50) pulverized to perfection at the tableside, with a mortar and pestle. When it comes to a decent guac, nothing beats fresh. To quench our thirst, we tried a Mojito Brasilia made with Pitu Cachaca ($10/glass) and a Watermelon Margarita made with fresh watermelon, Tromba Blanco, and Patron Citronage ($12.50/glass). Immediately, the cold and dreary night outside faded from our minds.
The first of our tasting menu started with selections perfect for dipping tortilla chips, which, to me, always feels like a party. I knew the fresh-crushed guacamole was going to be a hit, but the most surprising aspect was that it was presented with a small side serving of roasted crickets soaking in chili oil. Neither Vance nor I is into entomophagy (the human consumption of insects) but I indulged and ate one whole – the chili oil and a citrus tang overpowered any distinct taste of cricket – there was definitely an exoskeleton crunch but it wasn’t unpleasant.
The Sikil Dip is a uniquely robust blend of roasted pumpkin seeds, charred tomatoes, and pasilla chili oil. It is unlike anything you’ve likely ever had before and it is addictively good. I was particularly excited for the Atun Ceviche – ahi tuna cured in lime juice with watermelon, a Yucateco mignonette, and chives. Curing the fish in citrus gives the pieces a firm texture bursting with fresh flavor, paired with the sweet juicy watermelon, the combination is out of this world. We also loved the Ensalada de Kiko – a quinoa salad with tomato, cucumber, avocado, queso fresco, cilantro, and a smoked corn aioli. The flavor combination was not quite as lively as the other tasting plates but the dish was incredibly good. It was the corn aioli that made it come alive.
The next dish to dazzle our taste buds was the Elote Placero – whole charred corn with butter, tajin, queso cotija, and chipotle aioli. The fresh sweet corn paired with the spicy dressing topped with the creamy cheese was just delightful.
Continuing our journey of amazing flavors, we were treated to a platter of tacos – the Pastor was comprised of marinated shaved pork, pineapple, diced red onion, and cilantro paired with Baja made with crispy beer batter fried cod, chipotle lime cole slaw and chipotle sauce. Both options were served on a fresh flour tortilla. The burst of pineapple paired very well with the shaved pork in the Pastor but the Baja won me over. I had been searching for a fish taco for a very long time that wasn’t disappointingly greasy or heavy on the batter. The Baja was perfectly done.
Ironically, the tacos weren’t the main course and out came the Costilla Corta. This was a rich and luxurious 24-hour braised short rib served with Oaxacan mole negro, plantain puree, and chayote squash. Only one portion was brought to our table and we wondered if there should have been two, then we were reminded that though the plates were small, there was plenty to share. So we dug in and found ourselves enraptured. The short rib was meltingly good; the plantain puree had a great sweetness that paired excellently with the short rib. The mole was the star for me, deeply nuanced and robust flavors that took the dish up and beyond.
Feeling full and wondering if we would require wheelbarrows to cart us out of there, we discussed the cost of such a dining experience. The tasting menu is definitely rich for those on a budget (and there’s even a nine-course tasting menu for $57/person for a larger crowd) paired with our drinks and the additional guacamole, it adds up to being a pricey meal. What we received out of it, however, was one of the best dining experiences either of us has had in a very long time. To be fair, most couples would not order this much food. We only did so for tasting purposes. If ordering à la carte, most meals would average $35 per person, which is reasonable especially given the quality. I see El Catrin as a destination restaurant, as even its location in the Distillery is a destination area. This is not an everyday restaurant, this is a place for celebration, adventures, and parties where you allow yourself to splurge and be rewarded by a marvelous time and an unforgettable dining experience.
To aid with digestion, we were presented with after dinner espressos. And yes, even their espresso is made incredibly well. Compliments of management, we were also offered shots of tequila paired with sangranita chasers – a savory tomato based one and a sweet fruity and spicy one – that could be sipped or shot back before or after the tequila. These were a lot of fun to experience even though my history with tequila has often led to poor decisions.
If El Catrin hadn’t already gone above and beyond to make our experience there a memorable one, they decided to go full out with the dessert platter. We were told we would be trying their homemade churros. The platter we were presented with included the churros, a trio of homemade sauces, and their Pastel de Elote – sweet corn cake with guava sorbet decorated with raspberries, blueberries, and caramel popcorn. This dessert platter was a feast in and of itself! First off, the churros were these large, thick donut batons coated in cinnamon sugar. Inside it was almost custard creamy. The sauces were cajeta (caramel), chocolate and strawberry and all very delicious. The corn cake was dense but still felt light, especially paired with the refreshing guava sorbet.
We feasted royally at El Catrin and left feeling stuffed and happy. From the outside, El Catrin is not that entirely noticeable which makes it a great Toronto hidden gem. Come in the summer and enjoy their great patio space (as seen in the right-hand photo below) for cocktails and a few small tapas.
Or come during the biting cold and blowing wind and find yourselves transported to a dazzling Mexican wonderland (as seen in the interior of the restaurant in the left-hand photo) and find yourselves surprised at every turn. Either way, you’re going to love the food and you’ll love the experience.
P.S. I implore you to take a walk on the wild side and try the crickets.
Review Article and Photos by Samantha Wu