If you think a crunchy yellow tortilla shell with ground beef and shredded orange cheese is a taco, then you've never had one. Don't take my word for it, visit Victoria's newest Mexican restaurant, OralÃ©, and ask owner Scott Martin. Better yet, try a few of the several varieties he offers.
If you really want to try local cuisine in Mexico, you have to leave the culturally sanitized all-inclusive resorts and find a place where the locals eat. Martin was fortunate enough to spend time with a family in Mexico who owned a restaurant. When he came back to Canada, he wanted to share both the food and spirit he saw at family gatherings and eateries.
The beginning was a tamale stand at the Moss Street Market. I kept moving the first couple of times I saw it because of the perennial queues and a shortage of time. When I finally was able to stop, I was not disappointed.
Tamales are descendants of an ancient comfort food consumed by Incan, Mayan and Aztec peoples. OralÃ©'s feature delicate chicken with piquant salsa verde or mole (a sauce with as many recipes as there are cooks in Mexico, using dried chilies, herbs, nuts, seeds, chocolate and garlic among other ingredients) nestled in seasoned dough and steamed in corn husks. Better still, though less than $5, they are the most expensive thing on the menu.
On my first visit with a friend, I was all set for tamales until a single word on the blackboard menu changed my mind. Like menudo, pozole is a hearty Mexican soup, which you can customize with various condiments. I devoured a bowl of rich, amber pork broth brimming with tender meat and hominy, to which I added bits of fried tortillas, lime wedges, chili powder, shredded lettuce, diced onion and fragrant Mexican oregano.
A plate of shared quesadillas with tender beans and crumbly white cheese in corn tortillas also disappeared quickly. We made a dent in the taco selection, choosing beef barbacoa and nopal, made with stripped cactus paddles flavoured with chili and tomato; we were warned that the latter were very spicy. We didn't think so -- until we slathered on a little of the bright green habanero sauce.
Subsequent visits with friends are a blur of tamales, loads of crunchy tostadas slathered with black beans, cheese and shredded lettuce, and other taco varieties. If you like your tacos on the milder side, chicken marinated in spicy tomato-based salsa roja, cochinita pibil (a Yucatan specialty of slow-cooked marinated pork) or al pastor -- grilled pork and pineapple -- will fit the bill.
For something with a little more heat, try smoky, slightly astringent tinga, made with green tomatoes, onions, pulled beef, pork and chorizo sausage simmered in chipotle sauce or barbacoa. We washed everything down with a rainbow of colourful soft drinks in flavours such as guava, pineapple and hibiscus, or beer, though I have to admit there wasn't a visit where the word margarita didn't come up. An expanded drink list is in the works and will be a welcome addition.
Food here is fresh, authentic and frankly too cheap, so prices will inevitably go up, but even if they did rise by 50 per cent, it would still be cheaper than most places downtown.
Martin is charming, and his efforts to share working-class Mexican food with Victorians is sincere, but he needs to make one change in particular if he is to avoid the fate of previous operators in this below-street-level location. The room appears unfinished, and people have told me they looked in but didn't think it was open or ready for business yet. It's great that you can stop by and grab some frozen tamales or tortillas (not to mention a tortilla press if you want to make your own) chili sauces, dried herbs or mole paste, but the jumble of boxes and products needs to be tidied up.
The eatery/grocery store theme is a welcome addition to downtown Victoria, but this isn't a beach in Jalisco. That being said, if you want good, cheap Mexican food in a casual atmosphere, you won't be disappointed here.
WINE OF THE WEEK
If you want to give your favourite wine lover something special over the holidays or you simply want to bring something different to the next dinner party, consider a bottle of Hester Creek's Late Harvest Pinot Blanc. This dessert wine has a rich bouquet and is gentle on the palate, with notes of pear and vanilla, and is a bargain at $14 for a 200 ml bottle. It's delicious and makes a great stocking stuffer -- and you will be supporting the local wine industry as well. How can you lose?