Photos by Madd Hattere //
Clair was a young Latin American girl born in midtown Toronto, living on St. Clair Avenue West. Reflecting upon the path of Saint Clare of Assisi, considering her namesake, it was understood that Clair would undertake the strict Catholic habits of the Franciscan tradition. From birth, it was clear that Clair was to be a servant of God and the Saints.
Saint Clare of Assisi founded the Order of Poor Ladies, a radically strict bunch of nuns who were dangerously pious in their attitudes towards worship and food. These nuns embraced a lifestyle of starvation and poverty, doing their damndest to contradict every bodily drive beyond a modest urination when absolutely necessary. In current times, they would be labeled anorexic.
Clair could not adapt to the teachings of Saint Clare while living and eating in a modern society. Every time she walked down the street she was tempted by food: Canonized Burritos, Communal Nachos, Tomatoes from the Tree of Life.
The call of God continued to bellow, but so did the hunger. One day, in a flash of strong flavour, Clair tasted divine inspiration. The teachings of the Saints were undercooked and it was up to her to finish the leftovers. She realized that she could eat, and also be holy. Clair then set upon a deeply spiritual and deeply delicious pilgrimage. Her trials have been recorded here.
REBOZOS (126 Rogers Road)
Traditionally, the rebozo is a garment created in Mexico when women mixed their cotton shawl with the style of Spanish cloaks. In this context, the rebozo was worn by Clair as she fled the ghost of the vindictive Clare of Assisi. The garment effectively concealed the girl from the disapproving grimace stamped on the Saint's pale visage.
In Toronto, Rebozos is a small, friendly restaurant that specializes in tacos. St. Clair entered to bask in a feeling of warmth and tenderness that the Poor Clare sect cannot abide. Clair sat at a table covered in a red and white checkered cloth, pale yellow walls the backdrop for images of plump watermelon slices and a vibrant red apple, which joined a plethora of Mexican imagery: a tapestry, flag, and illustrated map. A large television at the back of the restaurant was stuck on Telemundo, broadcasting a dating show that revolves around the zodiac. A harpy of a host singled out unworthy candidates based on their performance in an embarrassing mating ritual... this is not what Saint Clare had in mind when she became patron saint of television.
The menu boldly expressed its sentiment regarding the Carnitas: "Oh yeah this is so good!!!" Despite the accolades, Clair had affixed her eye to the enchiladas: Enchiladas Verde and Enchiladas de Mole have tortillas covered by sprinkled mozzarella and zigzag trails of sour cream, and are bordered by puddles of refried beans and piles of orange mexican rice. In the Verde, green onions become mired in the tomatillo, jalepeno, onion, garlic and cilantro sauce that bounds pleasantly along the tongue. The dark Mole sauce permeated the pores of the tortilla with its brusque masculinity; a savoury sweet with deep hints of cacao, the sauce combines plantains, onion, garlic, chili powder, garlic and at least six types of dried pepper, about sixteen ingredients total.
She scarfed her food down with delight, left, and hopped on the bus southbound to St Clair Avenue West. She knew her quest:
To taste a world in the Chorizo,
And a Heaven in a Tortilla,
Hold Infinity in a well-stuffed Burrito
And eternity in a Gordita.
HOY CENA PANCHO (958 St Clair Avenue West)
Clair nearly strolled by the unassuming appearance of the Hoy Cena Pancho restaurant, but was drawn to the painted face of a man with that Chipotle-and-Corona glow, presumably Pancho himself. She stopped and surveyed the storefront display that advertises fare to please both Mexican and Gringo: coffee, tamales, bagels, and several lunch specials competing for recognition. Appropriately, the words "BiBliõ BiBliõ BiBliõ" were written above the door. Clair's Spanish was admittedly not up to snuff to read all this stuff, but she interpreted the inscription above the door as "Books Books Books" and the restaurant's name as "Today Pancho has Dinner." "Maybe so," she thought to herself, "but so does St. Clair."
As she entered, the beef tongue tacos waved to her from an old man's plate. She looked around for a waiter. Instead she saw Mexican flags, woven tablecloths in pink, blue, and green, embroidered with images of sun gods, tiny ten-gallon hats that could hardly hold a quart hanging from the lanterns, strings of chili peppers strung on the wall, an empty baby seat, salt but no pepper, and statues of angels everywhere (this pleased Our Clair). Clair heard the spirited din of friendly conversation coming from the back. She followed. There she found the wait staff, all two of them, perhaps mother and son, stout and happy, looking expectant. Clair looked around for a menu, found none. Was the restaurant's only menu on display in their window? She had forgotten her options and was too shy to ask. "I'll have the special of the day," she said and had a seat, prepared for anything.
Within minutes, the special came. "Steak Milanesa," the friendly server said. "Enjoy it, Sister!" The thinned-out, though substantial steak was breaded and fried, served with salad and rice. She chewed it slowly, deliberately, absorbing its delicious iron and grease. Soon, the server came back with a huge bowl of salsa verde and an even larger bowl of limes. Clair's lithe fingers took the lime and squeezed it indiscriminately over everything. The salsa was poured onto the rice; tangy, citric, and obviously made fresh. Then, to top it off, a pile of hot corn tortillas were brought to Clair in a woven blanket. She ate faster, and faster still. The spices accumulated, the flavours mixed. She finished in a fury, she paid, she left with the taste of hot beef still on her lips. As she walked into the open air, she realized she forgot to tip. A sin. She didn't care.
EL PALENQUE CASA DEL MARIACHI (816 St Clair Avenue West)
The next place Clair planned to pledge her patronage was El Palenque Casa Del Mariachi, otherwise known as "that damn good Mexican place near Atlas Avenue." She had been there in the past, the friendly family staff had treated her with respect, even though they were suspect of her ability to handle the hot sauce. Clair held her spice in stride, so she was looking forward to going back for guacamole served in a volcanic rock and half-price tacos on Tuesdays.
Clair entered the front door of the establishment, which exuded an uncanny aura of foreclosure. The tiles were being stripped off the floor, the paintings were removed from the wall, the Karaoke Machine was being dismantled.
That damn good Mexican place was damn near closed forever.
EL RINCON (653 St Clair Avenue West)
Clair was enticed by the soft orange glow coming from a ceramic sun, tempered by the sky-blue walls inside El Rincon Mexicano Restaurant. She noticed that the restaurant was packed as tight as a can of chilis, but she did not notice the unsatisfied customers escaping from the front door. They were muttering, discontented. She went inside.
"You're going to have to wait." She agreed even though she was deathly hungry. There is something about Saint Clair's stomach; no matter how much she stuffs inside it, the void remains. And she craved a Chimichanga.
After a half hour she was seated in the back of the patio. The word patio usually conjures images of summery enjoyment and carefree drunkenness, especially to the Canadian sensibility. El Rincon's patio did not carry such associations. It looked like a junkyard without the junk. Potted plants had no say in what state they were kept. A tree was painted Mexican colours against its will. Clair sat down and immediately found it too cold for her delicate disposition. Admittedly, this was not the fault of the restaurant.
Clair asked to be moved and after 20 minutes she was brought down to a corner in the basement, next to the bathroom (fitting that El Rincon means "The Corner"). Another 30 minutes passed before her order was taken: the Chorizo Burrito Dorado, known in popular imagination as the Chimichanga with sausage.
In an hour or so her food came. It was pretty good: the crispy tortilla, swirls of sour cream striped on the salad, a fluted bowl flooded with refried beans and topped with a chip sail. But was it worth the wait? No, not really.
LA TORTILLERIA (1040 St Clair Avenue West)
Holy and unholy men alike have agreed that to be a Saint you're going to have to go through hardship and some dark nights. Life for Clair was not all salsa and corn. She was regularly accosted by the Three Demons of Burrito Overconsumption: Indigestion, Gas, and No Money. Yet she still hungered for enlightenment in the form of a spicy, cheesy, tomato-based sort of meal which included refried beans. The ultimate test now befell onto our wannabe saint: to make some bitchin' nachos.
She needed supplies, which were kindly offered at a fair price care of your bright yellow neighbours La Tortilleria. These kind folks provide nacho chips and corn tortillas made from scratch; they offer a variety of fresh salsas and guacamole, which are always laid out in a spread of free samples for any customer to try; and they also sell many Mexican imports and hard-to-find food items. Additionally, La Tortilleria has a simple menu of Mexican favourites, although their forte lies in imports. Clair bought herself some chips, salsa, and guac. She took them home to make a nacho platter for a group of guests which included hagiographers, theologians, and an amateur Pope.
Were the nachos any good? Does it matter? No, they were shit actually. She put the oven on broil for too long and set the tray on fire, but the priests agreed that the chips, the salsa and the guac were still pretty good.
Everyone was still hungry, and Clair (not yet sainted) was pretty embarrassed. So they decided to head east. Far, far east...
EL FOGON (543 St Clair Avenue West):
The ghost of Assisi shakes the table in a last-ditch tantrum, but Jorge notices and places a napkin imbued with his Peruvian goodwill to halt St. Clare's feeble effort to restore her dogmatic regime. At this point of the narrative, Clair has realized that her Assisi counterpart only possesses a weak otherworldly magic, nothing compared to the power of the Latin palate. Jorge leaves and returns with a woven basket carrying bread and a strong dip made from hot peppers, coriander and garlic. Clair orders a whopping meal to finally satiate her pilgrimage, for the nacho debacle has ignited the appetite of her priestly guests.
Clair orders a chicha morado, a drink made from purple corn that had a sweet taste quickly overwhelmed in a bitter mid-tongue kick -- although previously homemade and sold by the pitcher, El Fogon now purchases bottles from Chicha Limeña in Peru. A few priests order Inca Kolas, a lightly carbonated soda that tastes of bubblegum and banana popsicles, also hailing from Peru.
Palta rellena de camarones for the appetizer: a horizontal half avocado topped with a dome of creamy potato salad, peas, carrots and tiny orbs of shrimp. A crown of parsley enshrines the avocado basking on its wide bed of lettuce. Jorge recommends a squirt of lemon to bolster the flavour.
Arroz chaufa: fingers of pork coalesced with sprouts, peas, eggs and coils of green onion within this fried rice dish. After asking Clair and the priests if they knew the difference between Chinese and Peruvian fried rice, Jorge answered: "Ours has a Latin touch, you'll see when you try it." When lemon had seeped into the mix, the uniquely Peruvian taste came into play.
Seco de carne con frijoles: the soft, deep-pink innards of the beef are soaked in succulent coriander sauce, saturated fibres willing to separate with nothing but a suggestion of the fork. A wall of potato and slats of sliced carrot created a barrier that separated the refried pinto beans from the field of rice. Green coriander sauce surged through the barrier, irrigating the rice and flowing over the viscous beans, began to float like a thin layer of foam on the surface of the sea.
And for dessert, crema vocteaoa: a raised cylinder of homemade caramel custard surrounded by three light puffs of whipped cream, garnished with two wedges of orange and a sprig of greens. Caramel sauce streamed down the sides of the dish, lapping up dots of powdered sugar scattered over the orange backdrop. A light, frothy confection.
After finishing the food, Clair studied the faces of the council responsible for her canonization. They were all smiling. They were ecstatic about dinner. Her stomach rumbled in holy bliss. She would become a saint after all. But first, she threw her arms up into the air, "Cervezas!"