Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

An influx of Mexican restaurants introducing Winnipeggers to la cosa real, and it has nothing to do with orange ground beef

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No Canadian visiting Italy would expect to find pizza pops reheating in the microwaves of Roman kitchens. Likewise, no Manitoban on a tour of China would expect residents of Beijing, Hong Kong or Shanghai to actually consume deep-fried breaded chicken balls drenched in a neon sweet-and-sour sauce.

Yet thanks to the geography and cultural history of this corner of North America, many Winnipeggers continue to maintain bizarre ideas about what constitutes Mexican food, particularly when it comes to the staple street snack, the taco.

In every region of Mexico, the tacos sold by roadside street vendors involve a double layer of small, freshly made corn tortillas, moistened with a bit of lard and topped with a dollop of a savoury stew, a few slices of grilled meat or maybe a morsel of deep-fried fish.

These tacos are often but not always adorned with a little bit of fresh onion, some chopped cilantro and in some regions, a few drops of hot sauce. Common toppings include pork, goat, chicken, offal or sausage. Cheese is all but unknown.

And while some tortillas are occasionally rolled and fried, nowhere in Mexico will you find the curiously orange, seasoned ground beef that used to pass for taco filling north of the U.S. border.

"Most Mexicans I know just laugh when they think about the crisp, U-shaped tacos heaped with ground beef, lettuce and American cheese -- the ones that come with beans and rice and pass for a Mexican dinner in the United States," Chicago chef, restaurateur and culinary missionary Rick Bayless wrote 25 years ago in his seminal cookbook Authentic Mexican.

"They're a long way from the authentic double thickness of corn tortillas, a little greasy from the griddle, wrapped around a biteful of meat, sprinkled with sharp sauce and a little fragrant onion and fresh coriander."

Bayless, likely the only American chef to possess a doctorate in anthropology, has made it his life's mission to educate Americans about real Mexican cuisine, whose complex sauces and seasonings bear little resemblance to the cheese-smothered, stodgy Tex-Mex food that used to pass as Mexican in the U.S.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he and other Mexican-food proselytizers were aided by the migration of actual Mexicans into every corner of the U.S., where many opened the taquerias that wound up introducing Mexican street food to broader audiences.

Unfortunately for Canadians who love to eat, few Mexicans crossed the 49th parallel during the same period. Up until recently, the largest sources of Latin American immigration to Manitoba were Chile and El Salvador, whose expats have given us delectable empanadas and pupusas, respectively -- but little in the way of actual tacos.

Happily, Winnipeg's days as a taco wasteland are finally ending, but not because of a sudden influx of Mexicans. Rather, decades of winter-vacation travel to Mexico -- along with TV shows on the Food Network -- seemed to have primed the Manitoban palate for tacos.


Over the past four years, at least a dozen restaurants have opened in Winnipeg that either try to serve authentic Mexican food or actually do so. Some are burrito joints inspired by the Mexican-American taco bars. Some sell tacos along with Tex-Mex and Salvadoran dishes.

But a few actually make taco fillings from scratch in an attempt to approximate authentic Mexican street food.

"It's been a challenge for us. We have people come in who are familiar with Mexican tacos and some who don't understand. A lot of people come in hoping for Tex-Mex," said Daniel Simon, one of five partners in Modern Taco Company, an Academy Road restaurant that opened in December.

Modern Taco Company menu does not include burritos but does feature a few toppings that would be familiar to actual Mexicans, including pork carnitas, chicken tinga and carne asada. While the River Heights spot plans add a ground-beef topping to satisfy Winnipeg restaurant-goers who grew up with Tex-Mex food, it will never revert to serving massive plates of beans and rice smothered in cheese, Simon said.

"I expect in the next six months to a year, people will begin to get this," he opined.

It's likely they already have, to some degree. Taco del Mar, a fast-food chain that serves tacos and burritos, opened its first Winnipeg franchise in Linden Ridge last year and followed it up with a William Avenue location near the Health Sciences Centre.

J.C.'s Tacos & More, which serves tacos, burritos and pupusas, expanded from its original Elmwood location to additional digs in St. James and Island Lakes. The independently owned Burrito Splendido, which squishes out fresh tortillas using a dough-flattening press, opened last year in St. Charles, within sight of the Perimeter.

All fill tacos and burritos with variations of the Mexican-inspired stews popularized in the U.S. by chains such as Chipotle's and Qdoba -- carnitas, tinga and beef barbacoa.

"The more competition the better," said Ray Ferchuk, a manager at Osborne Village's Burrito del Rio, which became the first Winnipeg restaurant to take a stab at serving Mexican-American food, rather than Tex-Mex, when it opened on River Avenue in 2010.

Ferchuk figures most Winnipeggers have never had a real taco, unblemished by cheese. "People have come in here and said, 'Thank God you're here, because we haven't had anything Mexican since Chi Chi's,'" he said, referring to the 1980s Tex-Mex franchise, which remains infamous in restaurant circles for serving up decidedly non-Mexican foodstuffs such as fajitas, which is actually a staple of Texan cuisine, and deep-fried ice cream, a confection that likely originated in deep-fryers of the U.S. state-fair circuit.

Winnipeggers who travel to Mexico, of course, have had the chance to taste the real thing. So have visitors to southern U.S. cities such as Los Angeles or Austin, where an army of taco trucks compete with taquerias based out of stripmalls.

By celebrating trucks and taquerias, Food Network programs such as Eat Street and Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives have helped create a demand up north. El Torrito, Winnipeg's first taco truck, began circulating between Portage Avenue and Henderson Highway in 2011. It will face competition this summer from Habanero Sombrero, which plans to sell tacos, burritos and banana splits topped with habaneros in Winnipeg, Selkirk and Grand Beach.

"People have finally woken up to this," said Mark Langtry, Habanero Sombrero's St. Clements-based operator. "I mean, who doesn't like a taco? Most people have never even tried a real one."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2013 C1


Updated on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 11:22 AM CST: replaces photo, changes headline, adds fact box

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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