I have a friend who loves nothing better than nachos and beer on Friday night. Before we met, I didn't understand the concept of TGIF (Thank God It's Friday). But this guy is so committed to casual unwinding at the end of the week he has actually declined to join me at fine-dining restaurants because they didn't conform to his suds-and-salsa ritual.
Thus, on a recent Friday evening, I was given the choice: a cheesy sports bar or a Mexican hole-in-the-wall found on Google.
I'm glad we went for The Mexican Antojitos y Cantina, which has since become a cherished cheap-eats hangout (I've been three times in two weeks). This lively hideaway, tucked between nightclubs in the Granville Street entertainment district, may have been new to us, but it is obviously well known within the Mexican ex-pat community.
The 30-seat restaurant, humbly adorned with wooden tables and mismatched chairs, was overflowing by 7 p.m. And not a single gringo in sight (save us). Good sign.
So when the manager swooped over and offered to call when a table came available, we eagerly gave him a cell number. Thirty minutes later (exactly as promised), the phone rang. We downed our craft cocktails at The Refinery – a splendid bar, only one block away – and hightailed it back just as the lights were being dimmed for a Mexican rendition of Happy Birthday, culminating with the guest of honour burying his face in a cream pie. Fun!
Without even glancing at the menu, we ordered nachos. Much like Italian aglio olio or Japanese ramen, this is one of those dishes that may seem stupidly simple, yet is too often spoiled by the shoddy slathering and microwave zapping of inferior ingredients. Not here.
This exemplary version of classic Tex-Mex cuisine started with lightly crisped chips fried in-house, served warm and generously interleaved with melted cheese, sliced Serrano chiles and finely diced pico de gallo. Drizzled with sour cream and showered in shredded cilantro, the mountainous platter was bedecked with a golden-fried, crepe-like roll of chicharron de queso (tangy, semi-soft asadero cheese). Served alongside bowls of creamy refried beans and spicy guacamole, the nachos went down swell with a few Coronas. And even better, at least in my mind, with a margarita classica shaken over ice and perfectly balanced with tequila, Cointreau and freshly squeezed lime juice.
Friday night highlights aside, The Mexican is a top-notch, comfort-food restaurant serving a mix of Central Mexican specialties all made from scratch.
You may recall the long, narrow space, which opened as Café Barcelona three years ago and lasted about 18 months. The Spanish tapas concept didn't click with downtown Vancouverites, says Roger Creixams, the original owner. But when Ana Vander, a Mexican chef who worked at the nearby Salsa & Agave, sidled up to the bar (as she often did on weekends) and told him about her plan to open an authentic cantina, he saw an opportunity for renewal. With Ms. Vander's colleague, Guadalajara-born Claudia Romo, the three partners launched The Mexican in April, 2011.
I wish I had heard of it sooner, if only to spare myself many a mediocre sports bar. Beyond nachos, The Mexican also makes great tacos traditionally served on a double bed of small corn tortillas with cilantro, onions and smoky morita-chile salsa. Carnitas (silky pork strands slowly braised in Ms. Vander's secret Michoacan recipe) is probably the best filling.
But if you're feeling adventurous, may I suggest sopes? Imagine open-faced tacos built on slightly thicker, lightly grilled tortillas layered with beans, onions, cheese, sour cream and unusual toppings. Think chicharron en salsa roja (deep-fried pork rinds simmered in red salsa until the crunchy skins puff up and soften) or buttery mushrooms sautéed with garlic and parsley.
Quesadilla is another interesting choice. In homage to the traditional market vendors of Morelos (the small, south-central state where Ms. Vander spent most of her life before coming to Canada), these doughy corn sponges look more like an empanada than the folded pockets typically found at Taco Bell. Try papas con chorizo stuffed with crumbly homemade sausage and silky mashed potatoes. Chile relleno, a lightly crusted poblano pepper filled with ground beef and swimming in a cream-based corn sauce, is another best bet.
Mr. TGIF was so impressed that we returned for brunch the next weekend. By chance, we arrived before the big America Mexico vs. Chivas Guadalajara soccer game started. Unless you were a baby in a highchair, and there were several in the restaurant, it was standing-room-only later that afternoon.
"That's why we love this place," a Mexican-born WestJet flight attendant exclaimed as he dug into barrigon, a sloppy mess of grilled pork, beef and chorizo melted with cheese and green jalapeno salsa.
"The food is kind of authentic. The chef cooks from her heart and you can taste it. But the room is so small and crowded and loud. It feels just like Mexico."
And the nachos?