The Second First Annual Montreal Taco Tour®™
After the success of the First First Annual Montreal Taco Tour®™, I got a bunch of invitations to eat. One of them was offered by Federico Sanchez from Restaurant Cartel. After some back and forth by email we settled on a date and before you know it, the date arrived. For anyone keeping track it was March 27th. Although, while I’m calling it and this The Second First Annual Montreal Taco Tour®™ it was really more like The Second First Annual Montreal Taco Staycation®™, since we didn’t really go anywhere and ate all the tacos at one restaurant, Cartel.
Now you might be asking yourself how did the burger guy suddenly become an expert on tacos? Well I’m glad you asked. After completing my Master’s in ground beef at the University of Fort Macleod School of Domesticated Bovine Animals, I decided to get a PhD. in all things tortilla so I flew down to Mexico City and enrolled at the Institute of Unleavened Cornmeal Flatbread Research, University of La Merced. The program itself isn’t too difficult, just tedious, with the means of identifying all the varieties of maize by smell and taste being the most tedious. I’m contemplating getting yet another degree in Ramen/Noodles/Pasta but haven’t quite made up my mind yet.
Anyhows, When Cartel initially opened a couple of years ago, they were on Crescent street and as I have only been on Crescent street once in the past seven decades (or so it seems) I wasn’t all that keen on trying them. Me and Crescent street are like water and oil, Martha and George or Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. We don’t mix well if at all. But Cartel moved uptown, to 101 Fairmount West in August 2012 and I was no longer allergic to their location. But they still didn’t really blip on my radar. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m a middle aged guy with a paunch who doesn’t have a cell phone. Or in plainer language, I’m not that mainstream. And there’s something that led me to think that Cartel is mainstream. Or blunter still, their target audience is young enough to be my sons or daughters, are able to tell the difference between Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. The night we were there the other diners were a mix of what looked like young urban professionals, precocious millennials, their colleagues and friends. I would venture a guess that the birthday party at the end of the room was celebrating the fact that the woman turned 24.
But once I entered, it occurred to me, that perhaps I had been a tad hasty in my judgment. Somehow I had thought that Cartel was aimed at the fine folk who frequent places like Radio Lounge, the Commission des liqueurs, etc. Bridge and tunnel traffic looking to validate their existence by waiting in line for some almost Disney-fied urban gritty city disco experience that ends up with someone tossing their cookies all over their best friend. It isn’t. More like the shallow end of the pool for people learning to swim. A nice comfortable place where you can learn how to eat a meal that doesn’t come from a cardboard box. Fork on the left side of the plate, knife and spoon on the right, glass above them, napkin in your lap.
Granted you can eat tacos with a knife and fork, but… However there are other items on the menu, which I assume are as good, if not better than the tacos that would not work so well being eaten with your fingers. For instance, Thai glass noodles with chicken & shrimp or Sonora-style grilled bavette with mango chutney.
But enough of a preamble, what about the tacos? They have nine different types, if you include the taquito and the dobladitas. They range in price from $6 for two (the fried plantain & avocado tacos) to $21 for two (the lobster tacos) with most of them being $7 or $8, which works out to $3.50 or $4 per taco. Not bad at all. Especially in comparison to similar places. I’ve been to Icehouse (many times) Gruman 78 (a couple of times, unfortunately) and tried to eat at Mais (thankfully it never happened). All of which specialize in high end tacos. Cartel not only belongs in the discussion when it comes to restaurants that serve what I call “non-standard, expensive tacos” but quite possibly wins the argument due to their combination of service, price and taste. I haven’t had the tacos at Limon, Griffintown Café or Deville Dinerbar but my ear is close enough to the ground that if Limon, Griffintown Café or Deville Dinerbar had such awesome and inspiring tacos I’m fairly certain I would have heard about them. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When we arrived we were greeted at the door by Antonio Loddo, one of the owners. We explained how we had been invited by Federico, after a brief wait, Federico came out of the kitchen, introduced himself and thanked us for coming. He then suggested we take a table, but upon seeing that there was space at the bar, we requested seats there and were off to the races.
Janny (maybe Jenny, I, unfortunately didn’t ask her how to spell her name, nor did I ask for her last name) was working the bar that night and promptly asked us what we wanted to drink. I ordered a Saint Ambroise and my dining companion ordered a Sapporo. Then within a matter of moments what they call a “guacamole artesano and tortillas” appeared in front of us. Basically a generous portion of a delicious guacamole that had been obviously made to order, topped with cilantro, tomatoes, queso fresco and sour cream surrounded by chips made from Mex-I tortillas. Diving in, after about four or five, it suddenly occurred to me (sometimes, ok, most times, I’m slow on the uptake) that we were not doing The Second First Annual Montreal Guacamole Tour®™ and that if we filled up on avocado dip (although it really translates as avocado sauce) there was not going to be as much room for the tacos. So no matter how much it pained me, we did not finish the guacamole. In retrospect, we should have taken a “damn the torpedoes” approach and finished every last bit, and then licked the plate clean.
Then things started in earnest. Janny (or Jenny) brought out two Baja fried fish tacos. A white fish coated in corn flour and potato starch, fried and placed on a white flour tortilla along with a slice of avocado, shredded lettuce cilantro and sour cream. Gone in less than 60 seconds, they were scrumptious and delicious.
Just as quickly Janny (or Jenny) presented us with two chicken dobladitas that came with mole poblano. Not to be confused with the Chilean bread of the same name in Mexican cuisine a dobladitas is a folded tortilla with the filling inside. In this case chicken. A mole is a sauce and according to wikipedia, mole poblano is the best known of all mole varieties and has been ranked as number one of “typical” Mexican dishes and also called the “national dish” of Mexico. It contains about 20 ingredients, including chili peppers and chocolate but in a proper preparation none of the ingredients overwhelms.
These were the only tacos for which we used a fork and knife as the mole poblano was just a little bit messy. As delicious as the fish tacos, but a different sort of delicious, more like a delectable delicious instead of a scrumptious delicious, the only reason it took us a full 322.5 seconds to eat them is due to the fact that my dexterity with a fork and knife is not on par with my dexterity when using my fingers.
They were followed by grilled Berkshire pork tacos with a lychee chili salsa. A large piece of pork loin from Peasants’ Craft farm. These tied for second with the shrimp tacos in the rankings by my dinner companion (who thought that the fish tacos were the best). Peasant’s Craft farm is in Martintown, Ontario and Federico was particularly chuffed that Kevin Gillis and Jenny-Lee Roy not only raise their Berkshire pigs using what they call “natural practices.” But back it up by not using pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics. They also rotate their livestock through paddocks (although I don’t know how many) and if I understand the term “local abattoir” they are butchered on site.
The pork itself was delicious. An exquisite deliciousness. When combined with the lychee chili salsa it made for a very gratifying combination of flavors and textures in my mouth. We started to use some of the hot sauces that had been furnished, two variations by El Yucateco, which while nice didn’t really do anything. So Federico (via Janny, or Jenny) came out with a homemade habanero and lemon salsa that definitely had more kick than the bottles. Tasty without being too spicy, showy but not ostentatious, it provided just about the optimum amount of bite for the remaining tacos.
I’m not certain I would have translated “camerones del diablo” as infernally hot shrimps, But deviled shrimps, spicy shrimps and hellacious shrimps don’t work either so I can’t really complain. And if the only thing I can find to complain about is the English translation of one menu item, then you can figure the food is pretty gosh darn good. The shrimp tacos themselves are served with a more basic kind of salsa (tomatoes, onions, cilantro and jalapenos) along with a wedge of avocado. The shrimp were perfectly cooked and married well with the salsa. As I mentioned, they tied as the second best tacos of the evening according to my dining companion. As you can expect they were delicious, but more of an enticing and delightful delicious.
At this point Federico (via Janny, or Jenny) told us that we were on our own, ie he was no longer going to send more tacos our way. If we wanted more tacos, we were going to have to order them ourselves. As it happened, his timing was pretty much spot on. My dining companion said she was full. But of the remaining tacos (the plantain, the beef, and the duck) I was intrigued by the duck, pineapple and mild chile poblano sauce tacos. I don’t know if it was because of the combination of savory and sweet or I’m just a sucker for duck or if I just wanted to be a pig – actually, now come to think of it, it probably was a combination of all three. After all, for the First First Annual Montreal Taco Tour®™ I ate six tacos, and I did not want to appear rude in front of our gracious and kind host.
Also there is always the allure of free food. I’m a sucker for free food.
The duck tacos were delicious. A kind of heavenly and extremely gratifying delicious, if you get my drift, chile poblano sauce melded just as it should with the pineapple and gave a very nice and contrasting tenor to the duck. As my companion was already full, I just managed to eat both of them. Twist my rubber arm… But as a consequence, I too became sufficiently stuffed that had someone poked me with something sharp, there was a distinct possibility that I would have exploded.
At which point we decided to call it a night. Despite being comped the food, we tipped Janny, or Jenny as if we had paid full price, thanked Federico (and managed to get a picture or two with him) and then proceeded to roll ourselves into bed.
After our visit (and partially responsible for my delay in completing this) I did some research. Back in the 1940’s the place was called Wilensky’s Cigar Store, the original location and vocation of what is now Wilensky’s Light Lunch and on the corner of Clark and Fairmount. In 1952, when Wilensky’s moved, it became the Susser Brother’s Delicatessen (of which I can’t find much on the internet) Somewhere around the beginning of the 80s it became Le Coin 101 a restaurant that probably endeared itself to the neighborhood, given the politics that were happening at the time. Which in turn is probably why it was empty in 85 and 86. It then became a restaurant called Berlin which became Fauche le vent in the mid 90s before becoming another German restaurant, this time called Checkpoint Charlie before returning to the one word name beginning with a B, Bond. There might be some other less lengthy tenants as I did not check absolutely every copy of the phone book going back to 1932.
One thing that we did not do after our meal but that you might want to consider is picking up a dozen bagels from Fairmount bagels down the street for breakfast the next morning. Unless of course you are allergic or sensitive to gluten. Frederico wrote to tell me that all the tacos (except the mole) are, or can be made gluten free, and a majority of the other items on their menu are also gluten free.
Like their pork, all of their ingredients are sourced specially. Some, like the Mexican Coke aren’t local – they have Mexican coke because it is made with cane sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup. Although the jury is out on whether there is any noticeable difference in taste, if you’re going to drink carbonated sugar water beverages, cane sugar is probably better for you the HFCS.
I’m not entirely certain, but think that one of their chefs, Shawn Dascal (or perhaps he used to be one of their chefs) used to cook for Epic Meal Time and some guy named David in Phoenix thinks EMT made a major mistake when they parted ways with Shawn. The reason I’m not certain is that while there are pictures of him on their Facebook page, but they aren’t current and they do state that the Culinary Team is comprised of Norbert Bamboche, Johanzen Aldana and Fede Sanche. [edit 9:16 am: I heard from Federico, and Mr. Dascal parted ways with Cartel in December]
Then as long as I am reciting the results of my research, they are in the top 15% of the 2,870 restaurants listed on TripAdvisor. 85th percentile in anything is pretty gosh darn good, you can get into an Ivy League university if you’re 85th percentile. While I have only tried about half of the 43 restaurants that serve tacos here in Montreal, I’d venture a guess that Cartel is at least 90th percentile if not better when limiting yourself to taco joints.
Finally I would be remiss in my responsibilities if I failed to let you know that they have Taco Tuesdays where all tacos are two dollars. Which not only makes them delicious, but the bargain of the century! At which point, I’ve been writing long enough, if you’re still reading, thanks tons, I’m going to go and get myself a taco, you should as well.