Ottawa has been besieged by tacos of late. Some purveyors, called taquerías by local food writers, offer authentic Mexican tacos made with corn tortillas. Others specialize in more Californian-takes made with both corn and flour tortillas. Between the popup that is Los Tacos de Maura (it’s a Latin dance club otherwise), Corazon de Mais (which is heavily frequented by restaurant chefs and cooks), and food trucks (like pioneering Jackie Jolliffe’s Stone Soup Food Works), taco options abound. And, such isn’t a bad thing. Until now, Ottawa only knew Tex-Mex tacos and what passes for a taco at fast food chain Taco Bell.
Los Tacos de Mauro
Los Tacos de Mauro (349 Dalhouse Street) serves tacos like they are served in Mexico, complete with moles (pronounced “mo-lays”) they either make or import. Rice is not instant. Black beans are slow cooked. Tortillas are made from corn. Tacos can be filled with pork (even chicharones), chicken, lamb, or beef ($8-9.50/3). Rumour has it there is also a secret Spanish menu that includes corn tamales here.
Corazon de Mais
Corazon de Mais (55 Byward Market Square) decided to concentrate on keeping its menu small, serving three kinds of tacos: beef, pork, and chicken ($3 each or $7.50/3). Chicken is a chopped chicken breast. Pork and beef are slow braised and pulled. While this taqueria does offer flour tortillas, co-owner Erick Igari will encourage you to go with their blue corn or white corn options. The latter is made of 95% corn, he bemoans, explaining he has a supplier scouring Chicago for perishable 100% corn tortillas. At the end of a weekday, you may see staff from Los Tacos de Mauro, eating at Corazon de Mais and chatting with its chef Mariana Torio. The tortilla soup is a must-try here, smacking of smoked chipotle peppers, epazote, and house-made chicken stock.
Stone Soup Truck
Jackie of Stone Soup Food Works is a friend of foodiePrints. We admire her passion for serving food that is both good for you and something you can feel good eating. All of her suppliers are local, chosen from among the 1300 farms in Ottawa. She is the member of Ottawa’s food industry who introduced us to amazing Paul Slomp of Grazing Days. Slomp decided to raise grass fed cows because he missed farm-life. It is his beef you will find in Jackie’s dishes from the green truck presently on rotation at Ottawa’s summer festivals. Jackie just finished a 24-day stretch, serving tacos to thousands of Bluesfest-goers who wanted something besides fast food fare. Her tacos ($4 each or $11/3) are dual corn or flour tortillas two-handers, filled with the good stuff: braised and pulled local beef, chopped chicken, or organic beans.
TacoLot (999 Wellington Street W.) is the now four month-old brain child of long time cook and musician John Reilly-Roe. He opened the creative eatery at the end of April.
Carefully placed hints about the cinder block shack turned taqueria perpetuated themselves across social networks, going “viral.” On Twitter and Facebook, TacoLot was heralded as the beginning of a new era in dining.
It is unlike most other eateries. Comparatively, Tacolot has no dining room. Patrons dine al fresco in a former used car lot. It has no front of house. It offers neither plate-ware nor flatware. For a time, it had neither gas range nor oven, only vintage ceramic crock pots.
Still, tacos sold out quickly during TacoLot’s opening week. An intended day’s mise-en-place disappeared by early afternoon; meat, fish, and vegetarian tacos selling out before dinner service could even begin. Fish and shrimp tacos routinely sell out today.
TacoLot’s tacos differ from those offered by other taquerias in town. Explained Reilly-Roe, who lived in California for many years, “We need to eat good fresh food!”
This is why TacoLot’s taco platters ($12-15/platter) consist of two tacos, salad, rice and beans, and fresh fruit. Essentially, Reilly-Roe wants to share some of his sun-drenched food experiences with Ottawa.
Strangely, however, you will find no avocados on TacoLot’s tacos, be they sliced or mashed into guac.
Now eight employees strong, TacoLot can be found everywhere, participating in community events. At Hintonburg’s ArtsPark, an artist-oriented urban fair, TacoLot served salmon or cod burritos ($7/each). They were filled with either rice or quinoa, pico de gallo, lettuce, and nori.
At this year’s annual Curry Cook-Off to raise funds for the Fringe Festival, TacoLot’s entry took second place.
To keep things cutting edge, Reilly-Roe came up with a unique idea: dedicate part of TacoLot’s Sunday afternoons (from 1pm to 3pm) to raising funds for local charities like the Ottawa Food Bank. He invited recognized chefs from Ottawa’s finer dining establishments and challenged them to create and serve their takes on the humble taco.
“Raising money for charity is always a good thing,” he said.
Besides, “Ottawa is unique in that much of the industry knows one another.” There are few genuine rivalries.
Reilly-Roe intended his “Playground” to offer chefs a learning experience. At the same time, it provides him with ideas for his menu and it has ignited some friendly competition.
“Each chef wants to know what everyone else is making,” he mused. “They are pulling out the stops!”
Matt Carmichael, former executive chef of E18hteen, Social, and Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen, was first to participate, serving a breaded tilapia fish taco ($8 each).
He raised $500 for the Ottawa Food Bank, selling over 60 tacos in under three hours.
This past weekend, Chef Jamie Stunt of Oz Cafe (361 Elgin Street) was on hand, serving tacos made with smoked goat, pickled peach, yogurt, and chili-mint sauce ($8 each).
Upcoming participating chef Patricia Larken of Black Cat Bistro (428 Preston Street) made a surprise visit, helping Carmichael out during the inaugural Chef’s Playground. Just as Carmichael’s taco sported an aioli featuring achiote paste (made with ground annatto seeds) and bitter (seville) orange, she is working on a cochinita pibil taco. Eying TacoLot’s barbecue grill and smoker, Larken explained cochinita pibil is pork that is marinated in achiote and seville orange and pit roasted until tender.
Reilly-Roe encourages everyone to come out to TacoLot to enjoy some “beautiful food.” On Sundays, the tacos are “outlandish…something fresh that doesn’t happen anywhere else in Ottawa.”
He has chefs signed on to participate until November 4th. More wanted to participate than there were Sundays available.
Follow TacoLot’s Facebook page to see which chef is coming up this week.
For the time being, TacoLot is still cash-only and has no liquor license. But, one could easily pick up a platter and head over to the Elmdale Tavern (1084 Wellington Street W.), which is several steps down the street. Owner Nathalie Myles’ tavern license stipulates the Elmdale can’t serve food beyond the in-house pickled cheese and bags of chips behind the bar. In exchange, she has many local craft brews on tap, more than most other bars in Ottawa.
Beer and tacos anyone?
999 Wellington Street W.
Los Tacos de Mauro
349 Dalhousie Street
Tags: Chef's Playground, Corazon de Maiz, featured, fish taco, Hintonburg, Los Tacos de Mauro, Matt Carmichael, Stone Soup Food Works, taco, Tacolot, TacoTuesday