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Toronto has no shortage of Latin American restaurants, from your neighborhood taquerias to food courts like Plaza Latina and its vibrant Latin American food scene in areas like St.
But there are a few instances where you’ll see different Latin American dishes from different geographic regions on the same menu: Venezuelan-style arepas sitting next to Argentinian choripan sandwiches and fiery Mexican ceviche called aguachils.
“It is quickly becoming a very communal space – a Colombian friend is sitting with someone from Ecuador and Venezuela, and they are sharing their favorite food with each other,” says Sergio Calderón, a new Pan Latin American, said one of the owners of Inmigrante. botanas (breakfast) and drinks restaurant that recently opened on the beach.
Calderon and his business partner Rafael Bastidas met a decade ago through Toronto’s hospitality scene. “We were both working through several restaurants together,” Calderon said. The two worked their way from dishwashing pits to managing a Latin-inspired restaurant.
Bastidas was born in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, and moved to Toronto a decade ago. Calderón is from Mexico City and arrived around the same time. “I think one of the reasons we were connected is because we had a similar story of coming to this country at the same time,” Bastidas said.
Working together at Fonda Lola, a self-described rustic Mexican cantina on Queen Street West near Trinity Bellwoods, the pair had a vision for a project together.
“We wanted to embrace our pride as immigrants in this country and use it to showcase traditional regional foods from Latin America,” Bastidas said. While there are a variety of Latin American restaurants in Toronto, they both felt something was missing. “We wanted a restaurant to be more than just food, we wanted it to be about the pride we are from,” Calderon said.
The two occupy the former Hogtown Smoke restaurant location on Queen Street East at Kenilworth Avenue – a hot corner for new restaurants that have opened in the past two and a half years. “It’s a very lively part of the beach. We feel like we’re part of a new culinary movement here,” Calderon said. Immigrants officially opened its doors in mid-August.
This is one of those trendy new restaurants that have opened in a small two-block stretch. Tiflsi, one of the city’s only Georgian restaurants, is across the street; Limon is a popular Levantine brunch and dinner spot known for its sumptuous meat and seafood dishes; And Mira Mira has become a favorite of reimagined diner-style cooking and boozy drinks. This little trove of eateries by Kew Gardens is definitely becoming a destination for East-end dining.
Bastidas and Calderon occupied the space in late spring and completely destroyed it. bears no resemblance to an American barbecue restaurant; Dark wood and hints of wine have been replaced by teak dining furniture. The bar is a large cement slab with an attractive epoxy finish. There’s a separate side entrance to a heated patio, a narrow alleyway marked by an overhead sign that reads, “Group of immigrants behind.”
The sign may be tongue-in-cheek, but Calderón and Bastidas insist on creating a welcoming space for fellow Latin Americans.
From the start, Bastidas and Calderón wanted to create a pan Latin American menu, with regional classics served botanical style as breakfast. Colombia’s national dish bandeja paisa (roasted pork belly) rests next to stewed beans, and is grilled chorizo, sourced from a producer at Kensington Market, in chimichurri sauce, along with Argentinian choripan. is lit and stuffed into a bun.
“We have a Colombian cook in the kitchen, and another Mexican cook. So we try to keep the flavors as bold as possible,” Calderón said. The hottest dish on the menu is aguachile, a Mexican favorite of shrimp prepared with lemon, cucumber, red onion and chiles. “We always suggest that you Start with this dish as it opens up your palate,” Bastidas said.
Spoon as much of the ceviche sauce as you can and then add a slice of shrimp and cucumber before pouring it into your mouth. The dance of spice and mild sweetness from shrimp to acid is habit-forming. Once you’ve enjoyed the shrimp, ask the staff to turn the plate into a michelada. For a beloved Mexican drink made by combining beer with lime, spices, and sauce, here the aguachile sauce is poured into a glass and topped with a corona.
“Where I’m from, I wanted to make sure we had arepas on the menu as well,” Bastidas said. The Venezuelan-style cornmeal cake gets a few different interpretations. Options may rotate seasonally; Reina Pepeda has become an instant crowd favorite, where shredded chicken is cooked and mashed with avocado and tucked into delicious corn cakes. This is a very creamy, comforting sandwich. Carne nachada is great too, filled with shredded beef slowly cooked in aji chile sauce.
Bastidas and Calderon emphasize that while the cooking is traditional, “using a minimum of ingredients to unleash maximum flavor”, the drink program is where the pairings get creative. Classic Latin American drinks get new interpretations here, like the Cuba Libre, where a simple mixture of rum and coke is enhanced with smoke that Bastida adds to the drink with a pump machine, capturing the smoke with a cloche. Which is unveiled table side. “The cocktail menu is where I try to break free from any rules and have the most fun,” Bastidas said.
The Oaxacan Negroni is another favorite. Bastidas riffs on the Italian classic by adding mezcal, which brings a noticeable smoky quality and rich richness to the aperitivo. There are also classical Latin American drinks, such as the Paloma, a sumptuous blend of tequila, grapefruit, lime and soda. If you’re making your way through the menu, Paloma pairs well with almost everything in the immigrant.
While the beach is no tropical paradise, Bastidas’s pia colada can transport you to Cancun, at least spiritually. The “deconstructed” version mixes white and dark rum in a smoothie bowl with pineapple juice and finishes with a house-made coconut popsicle. As the popsicle melts, it thickens the drink, reminiscent of mighty beachside smoothies. “It has become one of our more popular drinks,” Bastidas said.
Within a month of opening, Bastidas & Calderón has drawn guests from different parts of Latin America to Inmigrante, a traditional favorite restaurant with an undercurrent of progressive cuisine.
“I think what makes me really happy is that they grew up watching people from different backgrounds sit together and try each other’s dishes. It’s something you usually do.” Latin Americans don’t get that when they go to restaurants,” Calderon said.
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