"Cocina" by Brandon Donnely
Mexican food tends to be the stuff of lunches or takeout or late night food-stops more than a first choice culinary destination for an evening on the town. It’s understandable if you’re a little over-saturated with rice and beans, or tiny tapas tacos, or burritos as big as your head. But thankfully there’s a trend going on in downtown Toronto bringing new and — and, well, actually old — aspects of Latin culture and cuisine (not the least of which is Mexican) to the city’s collective tastebuds (and eyeballs). It’s moving well past the Tequila Flats buckets of mojito mix and Margaritaville chimichangas to far more innovative and decidedly non-traditional Mexican aliment. And it’s not just the food. Increasingly, restaurants are sizably upping their interior decor game, offering diners not just stomach appeal, but a visual feast, inflating a night out to more than just a bursting belt.
Chef David Sidhu. Photo by Estrella Damm CA
Enter Cocina Economica. The newest ship in the prolific fleet of Chef and owner David Sidhu’s Playa Cabana restaurants, (including existing brands Hacienda, Cantina, Barrio Coreano, and Playa Cabana), Cocina Economica opened its doors in May of 2015, taking up residence in Toronto’s burgeoning Queen Street East neighbourhood, straddling Moss Park and Corktown. Tucked into a closet sized used-to-be two-storey rental house that was most recently The Berkeley Cafe, Cocina Economica is kitty-corner from Corktown’s most vibrant concert/event venue (and one time House of God), The Berkeley Church. With its Mother Goose-like size, and off the beaten track coordinates, you kind of need that double-click map-app magnifying glass thing, or a keyhole satellite flyover to pinpoint its exact location. But trust me; the effort is well worth it. Cocina Economica is a Mexican restaurant with a theme. A really good theme. "Cocinas Economicas" (literally ‘economic kitchens’), are family-run, neighbourhood kitchen/restaurants that serve affordable foodstuffs to local residents. Their unaffected and utilitarian purpose is to deliver relatively low-cost meals, with easily attainable ingredients, that don’t skimp on size and substance. It’s supposed to be like Mom’s cooking, but on steroids. In the Playa Cabana version of the Cocina Economica, this is done with the utmost class and an artisinal flair. It’s also insatiably cool.
While Corktown still has an aura of its reputed "je ne sais quoi" dodgyness, Queen East is coming up fast on the radar. Among the many cool things about Cocina Economica is its underground, three-knocks, what’s-the-password, unannounced Prince concert type vibe. And what’s better is the proverbial house party you walk into upon entering the front door. On a Friday night, it feels like Cheers (or whatever current show where everyone in the bar yells your name when you walk in). Upon arrival (through a pair of part closet, part saloon half doors), people seemed to look at me like they knew me. I almost started saying hello to folks as I waited for the host. The main floor was chock-a-block with people sitting cheek to jowl, drinking, eating, and otherwise contributing to a barely controlled brawl of social camaraderie. With a bar at one end, and a street-facing window at the other, it was tiny and bright, with walls lined with old tin siding, tile, and reclaimed wood, all in a riot of colour hither and yon. It seemed at once like New York or Paris in the 50s. But a bit more Mexican. Though thankfully without any Day of the Dead skulls. It was also a nice departure from Playa’s slightly Vegas meets Alabama line dancing bar decor theme common to Hacienda and Cantina.
Cocina Economica Interior. Photo by Post City Magazines
I was seated upstairs on Cocina’s newly acquired second floor. Newly acquired in that it was occupied by renters just three months prior to my visit. The staircase was like an old apartment: steep, tight, wallpapered, and with wood so old it creaked. It opened into a long narrow room that was as quaint and cozy as the main floor, if not more so, and just to my taste—it was less peopled and more subdued than the food fracas going on downstairs. I sat at a high table with bar stool style seats directly across from a gorgeous wooden bar. The walls were lined with a similar melee of colourful tin siding and reclaimed wooden planks, in addition to sensational exposed brick. It was a classy, seamless combination of cool and homey. Hard to achieve. The musical background was a little eye roll inducing with Enrique Iglesias being the first sound to grace my ears, and while thereafter came a train of slightly fromage Latin pop that even Shazam couldn’t recognize (the one it did was "Chayanne", the Puerto Rican Bon Jovi), it was actually a perfect fit for the atmosphere. The volume level was also a big plus, being tastefully unintrusive and ideal for dinner conversation. And while at one point a small child was running laps of the second floor (which was cute, for about 34 seconds), it was indicative of Cocina’s family friendly atmosphere.
Cocina Economica’s menu is concise yet adventurous, covering a swath of options from beef to seafood. Appetizers (Bocaditos), possibly the most innovative aspect of the menu, range from classic guacamole (with baked tostada chips; $9) and ceviche ($9), to sirloin tips, battered and stuffed chile, cactus, and red wine marinated beef ($9-12). The list of mains is replete with slow cooked, bone-in, off-the-spit meat dishes (chicken, beef, lamb, pork, chorizo; $14-24) that conjure an instinctive primal memory (that or Sunday night dinner at home), and a couple of delectable seafood options (shrimp, whole seabream; $18-22), with a little less for the vegetarian (soy chorizo; $14). Sides include fried and baked tostada chips, guacamole, pinto beans, and a rice and beans duo plate ($1.50-4), with a trio of desserts including corn flour cookies, chocolate caramel flan, and a traditional milk-cake ($8-11).
Warm Tortilla Shells. Photo by Toronto – my city
Pre-app of fried tostada chips with four kinds of salsa; appetizer of guacamole with baked tostadas; ceviche (on the house); mains of chicken leg and stewed beef, with rice and bean sides and warm tortilla shells; smokey mezcal with chili and salt orange slices for dessert.
Within minutes of being seated, I had a bowl of fried tostadas (nacho chips) with four different types of salsa, all of which were sensational and incredibly diverse in both heat and texture. I continued with the theme and went straight for an app of guacamole. Traditional, I know, but it’s kind of the butter chicken of Mexican restaurants. Simple, but easy to do badly. Mine was fresh off the vine (or however avocados grow), with sparkling cilantro and hints of citrus. The tostadas that came with the guac were baked instead of fried, offering a crispy, light counterpoint to the guac’s viscosity. A big gold star was an offering of fresh ceviche on the house. It was a crisp, tangy, ocean of flavour.
Lamb Barbacoa. Photo by Toronto – my city
The mains were well timed, arriving as I neared the last bite of my appetizer. Interestingly, I would here note that while they looked delectable, first impressions rated my roasted chicken leg and beef shoulder as relatively innocuous. Both were served ungarnished on relatively simple platters, instilling a sense of plebeian modesty. The chicken was a half pound in weight, including a thigh, wing, and breast. It was perfectly sauced and red in hue as per its barbecue style marinade. While excellent and well balanced in terms of heat, it was amazingly (no offence) evocative of the bygone era of St. Hubert (actually still available in select areas). Personally, I loved St. Hubert. But for a unique Mexican restaurant, it seemed odd. Maybe St. Hubert stole their sauce recipe from some Mexicans. Who knows. Either way, the chicken was fall-off-the-bone good. The beef shoulder was a slightly different, if not still tasty, experience. It was essentially a big-chunk, bone-in, well-gravied version of stewed beef, which means a cheap, fatty cut, that a lot of times has most of the flavour cooked out of it. The taste profile on this one was a little low on character, almost reminding me of school meal hall meat: filling, warm, and cheap. But the context and the $15 it cost was a bit of a trip. Still, mixed with rice, beans, and guacamole in a tortilla shell, it was pretty tasty.
For dessert, as the three offerings were fairly dairy-centric, I chose to partake in Cocina’s soon to be famed mezcal selection, ordering a high end, smokey sipper of a shot (Mezcal Marcanegra, $16) that came encircled by a ring of freshly sliced oranges sprinkled with salt and chili spice! Chili spice! Definitely deserves two exclamation points. The reddish-brown tone made it seem totally unconventional, but it was exquisitely flavourful, and the most innovative take on an orange I’ve experienced. The combination of citrus with mezcal was like the traditional lemon sucking, salt licking bar shot we all know, but with the class (and flavour) level increased by a jillion squared.
Pastel de tres leches. Photo by Diana E
Drinks at Cocina (like all Playa locations) are a delight. And they’re strong. And a little pricey. But they deliver. (Cocktails and sangria; $8-12, pitchers $45-60; two red and white wine selections; $10-15). They also have four non alcoholic options ($3), in addition to specialty coffee ($3). And if Cocina isn’t Toronto's first mezcaleria, it’s among a very small number of establishments offering more than the basic mezcal we all love to hate: tequila. They currently have over 20 different bottles to sample, many of which rival fine single malt scotch whiskies in sip-ability, making them, you know, a bit dangerous. Price point reflects their rarity though, so be prepared to shell out a bit for these superlative treats.
The mojito I had came with enough mint to kill a cold and freshen your breath, along with easily to to three shots of tequila. The follow up, a Dave’s Margarita, was equally succulent. It had a salted rim that would make a horse salivate, along with the same substantial helping of tequila. Coming in half-size, regular bar rail glass, the effect was, well, effective. Cocina also had beers from $6 (a bucket of four for $22), including a surprising draft offering from Whitby’s sensational Brock St. Brewery (dark/seasonal, as well as blonde; $8)—a nice nod to local (or semi-local) talent.
Looking towards the kitchen. Photo by J.T.
The service at Cocina Economica was a treat, plain and simple. I was greeted promptly at the door, taken upstairs to my table, and had an extremely friendly server at my side in minutes. The upstairs section is small, but that didn’t keep Cocina from staffing it well and being sure all tables were properly attended. The fact that I sat directly across from the bar kept me in good view, and might have been an added bonus for visibility. My pre-app arrived almost immediately, drink(s) came within minutes of ordering, and from there, the rest of my nutriment followed with the timing of a Beethoven sonata. Water refills were prompt and regular, and there wasn’t a moment of feeling like I was waving my hand in the air for a life raft. As a quality point of note, as I was getting set to leave, my server asked if I’d like a shot on the house. Lots of class there. While not much of a shooter type, I accepted heartily and asked for something I’d normally not be able to get. She chose yet another Mezcal variety which I had never heard of, and like my previous near-single-malt sipper, this one went down like a fine distilled spirit. I was floored for a second time by what I only ever knew as a type of alcohol you closed both your eyes and nose for while throwing it back after a lick of salt at a frat party. Who knew.
After the meal, I felt good. The largely meat-centric feast left me satiated and not overly full on carbs, and the mojito et. al. did their jobs exquisitely. I’d definitely go back. Solid 8 out of 10. One small point of note is that Cocina Economica isn’t well represented on the Playa Cabana website; it’s hard to find any info about it online. You’re taken directly to a table booking host page, and sadly can’t peruse a menu. There certainly is a phone number though, so though you actually have to talk to another human, information is easily acquired.