Thursday, 2 August 2012

Las Tortillas

I have a special affinity for “hole in the wall” restaurants.  These are usually family-run, offer little-to-no atmosphere, and have very limited seating.  Some also feature multiple health code violations, but I prefer the ones that have food so good that it makes you overlook the restaurant’s many other deficiencies.  Spicy Hut falls into this category.  So did another Bridgeland best-kept secret, the Cafe de Tokyo, a now-defunct sushi and ramen joint that was run by a family from Hokkaido.  There are many others, but one I been frequenting (note to self: buy a thesaurus) is Las Tortillas, located in N.E. Calgary.

It’s funny when someone describes hole in the wall restaurants (AKA “dives”) from different regions.  With just a few details about the place, you can probably guess where in the world it is located.  In English cities, a typical dive (usually a pub) will be sandwiched between convenience stores or residences in a row of brownstones a la Coronation Street.  In Japan, I found most of these kinds of restaurants down alleyways, their modest neon signs reflecting dimly off overflowing dumpsters and passed-out salarymen.  In the southern United States, dives are often reclaimed farmhouses, barns, churches, or can be found in the back of gas stations.

In Canada, we seem to prefer strip malls.  I guess all the sexy locations were already taken.

Las Tortillas, like many small ethnic eateries in Calgary, also has a modest grocery section where you can purchase imported foods from Mexico.  This is great if you want to take home some authentic ingredients to make your own tacos, but it’s even better if you can actually read Spanish.  Sure, the serving directions for some things, like lime-flavoured corn snacks, are pretty self-explanatory.  Anyone who has ever popped open a bag of Frito-Lays is going to be just fine.  (By the way, “lime-flavoured” apparently has a broader definition in Mexico than it does in Canada.  In the case of these ring-shaped corn snacks, the term seemed to mean “realistic sock-sweat flavour”.)  But other items on Las Tortillas’ shelves can be more complicated than they at first appear.

For example, I thought it would be great to buy some imported mole sauce to add some variety to the Gregson’s taco night.  If you haven’t tried mole sauce, it’s an unlikely blend of ancho peppers and chocolate.  That’s right, chocolate on a taco!  It sounds revolting, but tastes crazy good…if you know how to prepare it.  Unfortunately, my Spanish starts with the word taco and ends with combo number three, so I didn’t realize that the jar of mole I purchased wasn’t exactly sauce.  After packing it against the side of hard taco shell like the reddish-brown mortar used to glue adobe bricks together, I realized something wasn’t quite right.  It tasted similar to what I remember having at restaurants like Salt & Pepper, but the texture was much closer to sand-infused toothpaste than any sauce should be.  Maybe it just needed to be heated up.  I popped a spoonful into the microwave and zapped it for about 30 seconds.  It was now considerably warmer, but it still refused to liquefy in any way.  In fact, it might have been a bit stiffer.  I think I could have shaped the lump with my fingers, nuked it for another 15 minutes, and made a nice little ash-tray or napkin holder.

So, figuring I wasn't about to be bestowed with the gift of tongues needed to read the preparation instructions on the jar, I asked the all-knowing wizard, Google, what was wrong with my mole.  Turns out it was jar of mole paste, not sauce, and I needed to thin it with chicken broth.

Anyway, this wasn't Las Tortillas' fault.  Their menu is much simpler, mole-free, and pretty much foolproof.  The only items available are: a beef taco, a chicken taco, a pork taco, a shrimp taco, a chorizo taco, a beef tongue taco, and a tamale.  (I think it's hilarious that they recently added the tamale to give their menu so much more variety.)

The tortillas are handmade and they use a variety of red and green salsas that are also created from scratch right in the store.  And their final touch is serving each taco with a slice of fresh lime.  Tara, a celiac friend of mine, introduced me to Las Tortillas because everything there is also gluten free. That doesn't really matter to me; in fact, I would order extra gluten with gluten on the side if I could.  But this will be a bonus for many patrons.

The tacos are very tasty, but be sure to order at least two because just one isn't very filling.  Plus, if you want to try both their red and verde salsas, you'll need to order a beef taco and one other variety.  Also, be prepared to get your tacos to go.  Seating is scarcer than a stable Kardashian marriage, with just six haphazardly placed chairs around a small table, uncovered and bare except for a pile of loose napkins in the middle.

Hm, loose napkins?  Hey, I bet me and my lump of mole paste could do something about that.


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