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Toronto’s best Mexican? Undoubtedly. But that sells this 11-seat kitchen short

Toronto’s best Mexican? Undoubtedly. But that sells this 11-seat kitchen short

If ever you find yourself at the counter of a Michoacán-style taqueria that specializes in carnitas, you’d best be on point with your porcine anatomy. Carnitas, of course, are considered among Mexico’s greatest culinary marvels; at their best they’re one of the single most delicious things that’s ever happened to pork.

The tacos are assembled from pig bits that are slow-fried in their lard in giant, wok-like copper pots; the meat is soft and sweet, pale and browned, fall-apart tender and moist, with brain-jolting hits of deep-porky crunch. Though they’re often served with flour tortillas, the best carnitas come in fresh corn tortillas that are made on the spot.

And at least in their spiritual home of Michoacán state, carnitas-obsessives place their orders precisely; you specify exactly which part of the pig you want. If you order the papada, the shop’s taquero will pull the choice bits of neck from his open copper pot and chop them up. The cachete is the cheek, which is always a great choice, oreja is ear (it’s cartilaginous, but in a good way), cueritos is the crunchy, big-flavoured skin, and the best bits, which are referred to variously as the chiquita, the achicalada or the cochinada, are the random, crispy, deep-brown pieces the taquero has to pry from the sides and bottom of the pot.

Here around Toronto I’d never had that sort of carnitas experience until lunch a few weeks ago in a strip mall in Weston. (If you do enjoy a tongue taco, however, the ones at Itacate, on St. Clair West, can be pretty great.) But a cook who is Mexican, and to whom I’m eternally indebted, sent me a note about an 11-seat spot he’d eaten at called Comal y Canela. He wrote, “I have no connection with them, only the fact that their food has brought me home both times in less than a month.” Reading that note now, I’d argue he understated the restaurant’s exceptionalness.

Comal y Canela’s carnitas are just one item on the menu, but the way they’re made, and the delirious, I-can’t-believe-I’m-not-in-Mexico experience of eating them speak volumes about the nature of the place. Owner Yasmen De Leon, who is a first-time restaurateur, makes four or five pots of carnitas daily. The giant, copper carnitas vessel she brought here from Mexico almost never comes off the restaurant’s stove, she said. Each batch takes around half of a pig; she uses as many of the odd cuts as her butcher will supply.

As those cuts bubble and brown over the course of three or four hours, she squeezes in juice from fresh oranges, as well as evaporated milk and Mexican Coke to sweeten and mellow the meat. The pot is seasoned with a mix that includes bay, clove and allspice; the rest Ms. De Leon won’t divulge.

As for the tortillas, Comal y Canela is one of just four places I know that makes them from scratch in a process that takes hours of work, by treating (with slaked lime), soaking and then grinding whole dried kernels of maize.

When you put all that together, you get what tastes like chopped suckling pig that’s been finished in a deep fryer and then wrapped in updrafts of toasty corn. Ms. De Leon sends out fresh limes and coriander and several dishes of salsa, among them a straight-up jalapeno one and a smoky, fruity, stunningly tasty salsa macha that’s made from (among many other ingredients) cashews, almonds, sesame and chiles de árbol.

You can buy her carnitas by the single order, by the half-kilo or kilogram. (A kilo, with the fixings, goes for $45, which is absurd.) Most of her customers, she said, know exactly what parts of the pig they want. And provided you ask for some browned bits mixed in—the cueritos especially—Comal y Canela’s carnitas are one of the finest eating experiences in Toronto right now.

That’s even before you consider the kitchen’s pozole rojo and its breathtaking tacos gobernador. That’s before we’ve begun to discuss its fiery, soul-stirring birria, or the hand-made (as they should be) tamales, or the tortillas enmoladas dish that a chef friend and Mexico specialist said is the tastiest version she’s ever tried.

Comal y Canela isn’t only the city’s best Mexican kitchen by many multiples. By some measures it’s one of the city’s best restaurants of any sort.

Ms. De Leon, who turns 41 this month, was born in Puebla, she said. Her family relocated to Toronto when she was nine.

Ms. De Leon became a construction contractor here. But her Mexican-Guatemalan mother, Josephina Martinez, once owned restaurants around Mexico. “She’s our toughest critic,” Ms. De Leon said. “We really sweat it out when she comes.”

Ms. De Leon had been hoping to open a small restaurant, but mostly as a hobby. With her mother, she secured the lease on a space she could afford, on a block that included a shop named Nardy’s Textiles Fabrics From Around the World, and another called Jesus is the Answer Beauty & Barber.

Then earlier this year, she met a chef named Yemin Hernandez, from Tlaxcala state, just east of Mexico City.

They opened Comal y Canela four months ago.

In addition to Mr. Hernandez, whom she calls her executive chef, Logan, her 16-year-old son, also cooks at the restaurant. “We’re all amateur chefs in our family,” she said.

She continued, “To be quite honest with you I thought I was going to go bankrupt, but I was going to do it happily.”

Yet instead of going under, the shop got busy, quickly. It filled with Mexicans and Latin Americans from around the GTA and beyond. The first carnitas pot that Ms. De Leon started with became too small for her needs. She graduated to a larger pot, and then a larger one still. The fourth pot, which fits around half a pig, has since grown too small. “I have to go back home so I can get the one for the entire pig,” she said.

On weekends, especially, there is almost always a lineup. Even with just 11 seats, they serve about 200 people each day, she said. Ms. De Leon often works the floor, greeting her customers with “Hola, mi amor. ¿Cómo estás?” She had no idea how much she’d love being a restaurateur, she said.

If you’re able to get away from work, it’s best to visit at lunch during the week with a group of friends and to order as much as seems reasonable. In addition to Jarritos and Mexican Coke to drink, Ms. De Leon makes fresh lemonade with hibiscus flowers, as well as fresh watermelon juice and an excellent horchata. On the weekends she also serves the (as with everything here, house-made) fermented pineapple, spice and cane sugar drink called tepache; if you brave the wait for a table, you owe it to yourself.

Among the meat-based tacos, the carnitas are the absolute standout, although the choriqueso (it’s a mix of house chorizo and melted cheese) is also excellent and the pulled pork cochinita pibil, which is braised with tangy orange juice, is delicious. (The dobladas on the kids’ menu, by the way, are absolutely worth ordering, even for adults: they’re essentially a taco-quesadilla hybrid enriched with griddle-crusted cheese.)

And apart from the carnitas, the can’t-miss taco order here is the gobernador, which combines sweet, barely-seared, uncommonly clean-tasting shrimp with bell peppers and coriander, tomatoes, crema and onion and—this is the part that makes the whole thing—a crunchy, lacy, caramelized layer of that griddled, frico-like cheese.

You should order the pozole too, which is tomato-based and porky with a slow kick of spice. It comes floating with the slaked lime-soaked maize kernels called hominy. You add Mexican oregano that Ms. De Leon sets out in an enamelware dish, and chopped white onions, lime juice, radish slices, and if you’re iron-sinused, a few spoonfuls ground chile de árbol. I’ve had pozole I liked better, with chunky bits of pig’s head and a clear, steaming broth, but never in these parts. (That one was at L.A.’s Mercado Central.) And in fairness to Ms. De Leon’s soup, if memory serves, that L.A. pozole did near-miraculous double duty as an extra-strength hangover cure.

A greatest hits lunch or dinner here should also include the kitchen’s enmoladas: those are fresh corn tortillas stuffed with bland pulled chicken. The chicken is bland because it’s the least important part of the dish. The mole is the key to great enmoladas, and Ms. De Leon’s recipe most definitely qualifies for that term.

Where your standard, served-in-Canada mole tastes of bittersweet chocolate and a few chopped, tannic-textured nuts, the mole at Comal y Canela is rich and deep-flavoured, bright and exquisite. It tastes like good chocolate and apricots (though Ms. De Leon said it doesn’t contain apricots), cashews and raisins, cinnamon and prunes and, if you know what’s in it, the sweetness of plantains. For texture, the kitchen uses Mexican animal crackers. I thought Ms. De Leon was joking when she said this, but look it up. Animal cracker -enriched mole is a real (and common) thing.

Yet the most surprising thing about that mole above and beyond how beautiful it is is that Ms. De Leon seemed almost ashamed to serve it. “It’s off!” she said when she heard us raving. “It’s missing a couple of layers,” she added. “It’s not good enough.” We argued for a while, if only to try and establish just how delicious it was, but after a while we just gave up and went back to our food.

Being a first-time restaurateur, Ms. De Leon maintains extraordinarily high standards—they’re high enough that while I have no concerns about the quality of the cooking or the service at her restaurant, I do worry at least a bit about how she’ll keep up once the city inevitably catches on.

Already, she said, it can be hard. When I asked Ms. De Leon what sort of hours she works she said she leaves for the Ontario Food Terminal many mornings at 4 am and often works well past dark. (The restaurant is open for breakfast from 5:30 am weekdays, and 8 am on weekends. Though I haven’t yet been, a word to the wise: there’s chilaquiles with ribeye and eggs, as well as the bread/tamale/cheese mashups called guajolotas.)

Ms. De Leon’s executive chef, Mr. Hernandez, is technically still just a visitor to Canada, she said.

And should she decide to grow the business, the home-cooked quality to the food here—the love and attention that sets Comal y Canela so far apart from its contemporaries—can be impossible to scale.

All that said, she doesn’t sound like the sort of restaurateur who dreams of an empire.  “Everything now is so rushed,” she said. “You go to a big chain restaurant and nobody knows who you are, you don’t know who’s serving you. They just give you your food and go.”

She added, “I like that when people come to my restaurant they feel like they’re coming to my home.”

Comal y Canela

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1692b Jane Street, Toronto, 647-689-4694

comalycanela.com

Cuisine: Mexican

AtmosphereA cheery, 11-seat Mexican kitchen in a sliver of a room that’s set with high-varnish tables and enamelware mugs. They do a brisk takeout trade. Be prepared to wait for a table. And NB, it’s a tiny, cheap and independent restaurant. If you want a place where things never run out, check out Taco Bell.

SoundReasonable

Prices: Tacos average around $5 each; carnitas are $45 per kilo with all the fixings. Other dishes, considering what they are, are cheap.

What to drink: Fresh hibiscus lemonade if they have it, or the horchata. There’s often fermented pineapple tepache on the weekends.

What to eatDo not miss the carnitas, the enmoladas or the tacos gobernador. The pozole and birria are excellent, as are the fruit-filled dessert tamales. But the menu’s huge. Go deep.

What the symbols mean:

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Vegetarian options available

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Dining and restrooms are wheelchair accessible

Critic's Pick

Critic’s Pick. Our recommendation for a restaurant that doesn’t offer full service.

1 star

One star (out of four). A good restaurant. Recommended.

Two stars (out of four). A very good restaurant.

Three stars (out of four). An excellent restaurant.

Four stars (out of four). An extraordinary restaurant.

Chris Nuttall-Smith is The Taster’s editor-in-chief and founder. He’s worked as food editor, chief critic and dining columnist at Toronto Life, restaurant critic for enRoute (he wrote the magazine’s celebrated Canada’s Best New Restaurant list in 2009), and more recently, national food reporter and Toronto restaurants columnist for The Globe and Mail. Nuttall-Smith’s writing on food, drink and other subjects has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, New York magazine, Toro and Lucky Peach. He’s also a resident judge on Top Chef Canada.