Tacos al pastor. Photos by Clayton Sandhu
The hazy glow of the late afternoon sun illuminates a palm tree on a cactus-lined street. The architecture is Spanish colonial, and the pastel coloured buildings around decay tastefully under the hot Oxacan sun. The air is fragrant with the smell of smokey roast pork, warm corn tortillas and the sticky sweet smell of a ripe mango. In your hand is a cold beer, the name of which you have already forgotten, and as the sun slowly begins to set, day becomes night, coyly mimicking the sauntering pace of life in Mexico.
You are not in Mexico, because you, like me, are here in the constant freeze-thaw cycle of the frozen soup we call Montreal. I want the warm sun on my skin, I want the adventure, I want to be in Mexico, but I, like you, am not — so I will settle for the next best thing.
Tacos Frida in St-Henri doesn’t look like much. It isn’t shiny and polished like many of the neighbourhood’s most beloved restaurants, and it isn’t part of the deeply blue-collar area casse-croûte relics either. Tacos Frida is an anomaly, and that may not be such a bad thing when the status quo for authentic Mexican food in Montreal is mediocre. The sign out front doesn’t quite say it all, but it gets at two important things to know about the place: tacos and guacamole.
Walking into the restaurant, my eyes are drawn to a fading red leather banquette overlooked by a massive mural of a red-and-blue-clad Luchadore. There is a lime green wall with a mural of Frida Kahlo, which then draws my attention around the room to the plethora of Kahlo-inspired works of art and pictures of the artist. Kitsch but comfortable.
We sit down at a metal table, one of a few in the mismatched dining room, and are handed the menu. There is a cocktail list, and an ad for Micheladas for $10, but my eyes are locked on a standing fridge stocked with Jarritos sodas. We order two, one guava and the other tamarind.
Tacos and guacamole is the claim on the door, so we order a large guacamole (roughly a standard cup’s worth) and a selection of some greatest hits taco styles. We also order a pozole, a classic Mexican comfort soup made up of braised pork, hominy and seasoned with Guajillo chiles and lime.
The guacamole arrives at the table surrounded by a wreath of crispy tortilla chips. It’s vibrantly green and slightly chunky, a good indication that the avocado is prepared to order to minimize any oxidation. It’s mixed with red onion, roughly chopped cilantro, de-seeded jalapeno, chunks of tomato, and brightened with a generous squeeze of lime juice. Guacamole purists may point out that true guacamole is only avocado and lime juice, but I prefer a garnished one. The fruit is creamy and rich and balanced by the spicy bite of red onion and the zippy acidity of the lime. It’s very good guacamole — I’m not sure it’s on the door worthy, but it certainly hits the spot.
Next, a large bowl of pozole is placed on an empty table adjacent to ours, two plastic bowls are set before us and a plate of garnishes in between. I’m handed a ladle to serve the steaming, flavourful soup into our bowls. Bits of soft hominy mingle amongst ropey chunks of tender braised pork shoulder, in an aromatic and mildly spicy broth flavoured by dried Guajillo chiles. Its warm embrace makes me almost glad that it’s cold outside. I would gladly abandon my chicken soup for a bowl of this pozole the next time I’m under the weather.
A long — almost comically long — rectangular plate divides the table between my dining partner and I. Perhaps it’s distasteful to say, but the tacos form a near-literal wall between us, but as I do not believe in the wall, nor in its ability to divide, my companion and I begin work to dismantle it. First, we devour the nopales — flat cactus paddles cut thinly and sauteed until tender, then dressed with pico de gallo (fresh tomato and onion salsa) and garnished with cilantro, all atop a warm corn tortilla. They are good, but the acidity of the lime and the pico de gallo are slightly overpowering to the subtle flavour of the nopales. Nevertheless, a fine taco.
To their right (or left depending on what side of the wall you’re on) are two cochinita tacos. Cochinita pibil is the term for suckling pig, marinated in citrus, and slow-roasted until tender enough to shred. This is a traditionally Yucatan dish, but due to its popularity, it is common in most parts of Mexico. Frida’s cochinita is exquisite; the meat is tender and juicy, deep orange in colour, likely from the use of the vibrantly coloured annatto seed traditionally used in the dish’s marinade. As a garnish, a simple — but electric purple — bit of pickled onion. This is the kind of taco I crave: full of flavour, delicious and masterful preparation, and ultimately unadorned, as the taco is a humble and simple food.
The last section of the wall stands, waiting to be devoured. Tacos al pastor, the shawarma-like vertical spit of slow-roasting pork, gradually and continuously seasoned with the warm dripping juice of sweet pineapple. Perhaps my favourite of the tacos on the plate, the smokey lightly charred bits of roast pork are mouthwatering, balanced by a simple squeeze of lime and some slivers of onion and cilantro. A perfect mouthful. This is tacos as they are meant to be eaten.
With the wall torn down and our bellies busting, we savour the last sips of our sodas in silence, looking out the window to the dreary frozen landscape of Notre Dame Street. It’s not Oaxaca, but full with good food and with a sweet soda at our lips, the sunlight through the window does seem a little warmer. ■
4350 Notre-Dame W.