When I ask Nadia Toledo, owner of Antojos y Sabores, to list the greatest misconceptions Vancouverites have about Mexican food, she pauses. She wants to be polite. Eventually, she says, “That we put beans and rice on everything. There’s a lot of people coming in who don’t even look at the menu and say, ‘I’ll just have one burrito.’” Much to their disappointment and her bemusement, there isn’t a burrito in sight.
Toledo and I sit on a bench at the 6th and Fir Park, a block from Antojos y Sabores. I explain how I stumbled across her business. Recently, on a walk around my neighbourhood, I saw a crowd lining up outside an entrance to the Lazy Gourmet building, patiently waiting their turn to go inside. When I investigated, I discovered Antojos y Sabores, which specializes in tamales and pozole, as well as two other small Mexican food establishments run out of the Commissary Gourmet: Carnitas el Rolys and Las Auténticas Tacos y Tortas Ahogadas. Since tamales are one of my favourite Mexican dishes, I was especially enthused to find Toledo’s business.
Toledo explains that while some people arrive expecting stereotypical Mexican fare, most are either Mexicans longing for a taste of home or, like me, customers seeking traditional, regionally specific dishes less commonly found in Vancouver. They come after hearing about her specialties from friends or social media, and then happily discover a whole cluster of Mexican food, from cornbread to refried beans.
Toledo’s company emerged during the pandemic when she was laid off from her job at a downtown hotel. “We were in the middle of a conference, and people were checking out of the hotel days prior to the end of the conference. Two days later, the hotel told me, ‘That’s it for you. We’re going to call you back.’ We thought it was just going to be a couple months. I still haven’t heard back from them,” she says.
Instead, Toledo, who hails from Cuernavaca in Morelos State, south of Mexico City, opened Antojos y Sabores in November 2020 with the help of her parents and sister. She said it was tough going at first, with relentless 16-hour days and a constant undercurrent of doubt. But word quickly spread, and Toledo moved from half a station at the commissary to a full station in just three months.
Back in Cuernavaca, as is common there, Toledo’s maternal grandmother used to run a food business out of her house. Toledo has fond memories of hanging out with her grandmother, mother, aunts, and cousins in her grandmother’s backyard, making and serving tamales and pozole over convivial conversation. “It was an opportunity for all of us to get together, to eat food, and of course, to help out my grandma,” Toledo says.
While Toledo and her cousins convinced passersby to give their grandma’s food a try, regulars from the area wandered over for their weekly order. Toledo particularly loved seeing her grandmother’s hands turn pink as she worked masa (dough) she had dyed for her special prune-filled tamales.
Here in Vancouver, Toledo makes tamales by first spreading corn masa onto a corn husk and then topping the centre with fillings such as shredded slow-cooked pork with green salsa or jalapeño with mozzarella cheese as a vegetarian option. Then she folds the corn husk in half to enclose the filling before forming a tight rectangular package that she steams for about an hour.
Toledo’s grandmother tells her the secret to a good tamale is “tener buena mano,” literally “to have a good hand.” This means the cook should ensure the masa is light and fluffy, not grainy. And while Toledo, for the most part, faithfully follows her grandma’s instructions, certain changes were necessary. For example, she buys masa harina (corn flour) for her dough, unlike her grandma who makes it from scratch using dried corn from her local tortilleria. And in response to some customer feedback, Toleda dialed down the fire of her salsas to suit a milder Vancouver palate.
With the fall weather, Toledo will be bringing back pozole, a spicy soup with shredded pork meat and hominy, topped with sliced lettuce, radish, and chopped onion. A sprinkling of chili flakes and oregano and a squeeze of lime bring balance to the dish. Toledo, who is vegetarian, also serves a plant-based version that features vegetable broth, sliced mushrooms, and tofu.
While her grandma doesn’t put tofu in her pozole, Toledo feels the change is inevitable when cooking outside Mexico. “Living in a foreign country, you want to include some of the flavours you find here, and sometimes you don’t find the same ingredients. To me, authentic is making it as close as possible,” she says.
Toledo sees herself as part of a growing wave of establishments in the city offering regional Mexican cuisine. “The Mexican population is growing here. We fill the need to have traditional, authentic food,” Toledo says. Diners craving tamales can also find them at the recently opened Baja’s Food, which serves a Baja Californian take on Mexican fare, including a delicious battered fish taco topped with avocado crema. Baja’s also sells tamales in banana leaves with fillings such as beef ranchero, chicken in mole sauce, and quinoa, black beans, and poblano peppers, as well as other traditional Mexican specialities such as hearty red pozole and chilaquiles (fried corn tortillas simmered in red sauce and topped with cheese, red onion, cilantro, and sour cream).
La Lotería on Granville Street downtown brings the street food of Monterrey, a city in northeastern Mexico, to Vancouver. The restaurant sells a range of tamales, with fillings such as refried beans and pork adobo; crispy tostadas topped with pork belly, guacamole, and cabbage; and various tortas stuffed with chicken tinga, pork belly, pork adobo, or even tamales. The vibrant dishes take the menu far beyond Americanized burritos and quesadillas.
Toledo is proud of the traditional food she and other Mexican chefs in the city are crafting. “We represent our country, our culture, our people, and our food, so we really want to showcase that,” she says.
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