Chemist-Inspired Street Food at Wilbur Mexicana
In a city overflowing with Mexican restaurants, Wilbur Mexicana seeks to do something a little different. Located on King Street West, the fast-casual restaurant takes a look at the science behind the tacos, replacing sombreros and sugar skulls with a sleek subway tile and chemist notes scrawled on the walls instead.
Wilbur Mexicana interior by Nicole F.
It’s named after Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist, chemist and the mind behind the Scoville scale, which was created to measure the heat of chili peppers. The restaurant features the hot peppers that bring Mexican street food to life, and more specifically, the elixirs of hot sauce which are the end result. From the pickled jalapenos that line the back wall to the self-serve hot sauce bar that frames the open kitchen, Wilbur manages to shed a new light on the city’s Mexican food scene.
Designed by Toronto agency’s Reflect Architecture and Jacknife Design, the 60-seat restaurant is coloured in shades of black and white, looking like a contemporary laboratory. Inverted beakers hang down over high and low wood tables: the former paired with metal stools; the latter with scuffed yellow, industrial chairs.
The menus hang at the front door like clipboards for on-duty doctors, ready for customers to peruse and order at the front desk. Mosaic and wood flooring leads you to the back wall—a floor-to-ceiling display of crates of peppers and a rolling ladder allowing access to perfectly aligned jars of pickled red onion and jalapenos. If Victor Frankenstein collected artisanal peppers instead of brains, this would be the Martha Stewart version of his lab.
Left: Chips starter with guacamole and queso fundido dip
Right: Tacos by SammyJay
Food & Drink
Their "Canadian downtown take" on Mexican street food includes a short menu of burritos, quesadillas, fajitas, tacos, salads, and starters. For $6.50, a platter of crispy chips, chunky, fresh, made in-house guacamole (I needed to add a couple squirts of lime juice for more tang), and a creamy queso fundido dip is a reasonable starter. But if you have to choose just one appetizer, the Mexican street corn stole the show for the night. Served in a miniature cast-iron pan, charred corn on the cob is covered in chipotle crema, a very thick layer of crumbly cotija cheese, and a final douse of guajillo chili powder for kick ($3.50). Drizzle with lime juice and, well... I’d go back to Wilbur for the corn alone.
At $3.75 each, Wilbur offers a few unique flavour combinations in their tacos. The highlight for me was the vegetarian option, surprisingly, which was made from a monstrous slice of avocado, grilled and topped with pineapple salsa, drizzled with chipotle crèma and a couple pinches of cotija cheese, nestled in a flour tortilla. The carne asada with pico de gallo, a pile of crispy onions, and queso fundido was pretty good too, but nothing quite put it over the top.
The Corn by Dan L.
The taco that most caught my eye was also a little disappointing—the bulgogi with cabbage, pear, sesame seeds, and sriracha crema. Although the meat was spectacular and full of flavour, the pear was almost non-existent—just a couple measly strips—and any other flavours were masked by the overflowing portion of cabbage. If they committed to the pear and sesame, I think this taco could be the best on the menu.
Their stand-out feature, the hot sauce station, has over 60 bottled sauces ranging in heat. They also have eight self-serve condiments, like their pico de gallo or pineapple salsa you can add to anything, or their ghost pepper sauce made with the famous bhut jolokia peppers. In case the illustration of Wilbur’s ‘x-eyed’ face isn’t enough, beware—ghost peppers are no joke.
The Hot Sause Station by Forrest K.
What’s missing from this minimalist Mexican joint? Horchata would be nice, my favourite drink I’ve come to expect at Mexican restaurants, but really I’d settle for anything more than a couple beers and basic Pepsi products for drink options. The old fashioned DIY soda fountain is a nice touch to make you feel a bit like a chemist, but it’s not enough. Without an extended drink list, it won’t turn into much more than a fast food place—a stopover on the way to your next destination.
At an alarmingly quick pace, servers will deliver your food (I had barely sat down and the food had arrived) and clean tables, whisking around you like hurried lab assistants. You order your food at the front desk and take a number to receive your food at the table. With limited seating and a constant stream of new customers, the spot-on service is a relief.
Left: Soda Fountain
Right: Shelf by Zeeshan H.
I like what Wilbur’s got going on. It’s a fresh new take on a cuisine that has been done, and overdone. The minimalist décor and charming clash between the chemistry and the culinary sets it apart in a good way, but it’s the quick service and sublime grilled corn that will have me visiting again. More drink options and later hours would elevate it to the next level of Toronto King West eateries to keep an eye on.