Tacos 101 brings back-to-basics Mexican food to downtown Toronto
Tacos 101 is located at 101 Dundas St. E
There is a microcosm of great food just steps from Yonge-Dundas Square in downtown Toronto.
The bustling intersection of Dundas and Church streets, dubbed the Church-Yonge corridor or garden district, is a memorable area to eat in.
It's hard to believe that all this exists one city block east of one of the busiest public squares in the city. As you leave the bustling junction of towering billboards, Dundas Street East quickly morphs to a quieter place. It is a hodgepodge street that is slowly undergoing a transition.
Old school watering holes are making way to a handful of entrepreneurs running food establishments. I live in the area; the intersection is my regular circuit of where I like to go for a quick bite or to satisfy a craving.
When Tacos 101 opened two-and-a-half years ago, I quickly fell in love with the owners' no-fuss approach to Mexican street food.
Back then Toronto was taco obsessed, most places opted for overly complicated fusion variations that looked great on Instagram but didn't deliver on taste.
Tacos 101 went against the grain. In their tiny shack chef Julio Campos pulled memories from his Mexican childhood to present a limited menu of five great tacos. The menu hasn't changed since the place opened.
"We are trying to be an authentic Mexican taqueria. We offer what you can find on the streets of Mexico," Campos said.
Campos was born in Morelos, but grew up in Puerto Vallarta, and comes from a family of street food vendors. His aunt had a taco stand and his mother operated one in Puerto Vallarta by a bus station.
"I draw from these inspirations for my little taco stand. Everything on the menu has a personal story."
After working in the hotel industry for a number of years, he moved to Canada in 2000.
"I originally came here to study English, but I fell in love with the country and decided to stay here and continue being a chef."
Following a number of stints as a chef across the province, Campos and his partner Jeff Sato found a small space on Dundas Street East near Ryerson University that would be perfect for their taqueria.
"I love this area because it's downtown but doesn't feel very crazy. Ryerson is close by. We have a very local following."
The crowds formed quickly and not just because tacos are popular, but because Campos was doing something unique.
"It's the Al Pastor. People love the Al Pastor tacos," Campos said as he prepared stacks of marinated pork shoulder on a large vertical spit.
The Al Pastor is the signature taco at Tacos 101. The roots of the classic central Mexican taco goes back a century to Lebanese immigrants that introduced Mexico to the idea of spit grilled roasted meats commonly found in shawarma.
Slabs of pork shoulder are marinated overnight, stacked on a vertical spit and then slowly cooked until the outside forms a crisp crust. Campos has been perfecting his for nearly a decade with a combination of family recipes and online research.
Among some secret ingredients: his marinade is made up of a slew of Mexican peppers, vinegar, onions, garlic and achiote paste. When the meat is ready, Campos slices it off the split like you've seen at shawarma joints, on to corn tortillas.
"We keep it very simple. A few toppings, some pineapple. That's it."
Also popular is the cactus taco.
"The nopal taco is a big hit with vegetarians and vegans," he described.
Campos thinly slices Mexican cacti and boils them until tender. They're served with refried beans, cheese and pico de gallo. The tacos have an addictive pickled bean flavour and taste even better when you layer them with the house hot sauce.
"The hot sauces are very popular here. We have three that we make, and they go from mild to very hot."
You'll spot a few bottles of bright orange hot sauce. Use it sparingly.
Campos creates chunky hot sauces, but they can be nuclear hot. Try the orange sauce with the fish taco, the soft lumps of cod and sweet mango salsa tone down the heat.
Over the last decade, I have watched the corridor evolve at a snail's pace compared to other parts of the city.
There have been many nights where I've enjoyed a late night meal street side feeling the thunderous boom of bass in a distance, wondering when the wave of gentrification would take over the area. It was inevitable, these small shops were occupying crucial real estate space.
Campos has been watching the condo developments go up, along with his neighbouring restaurateurs, but he says it hasn't made finding a new space easier.
Sato has been busy scouring surrounding areas for a new home for Tacos 101. He's close to finding a new home in another area, but wishes to stay in the garden district.
"It's bad news for us. We really like this area and our customers, but it's becoming hard to be a small entrepreneur in this city with rising rent costs. We are desperately looking for a new place in this area," Sato said.
Tacos 101, Ethiopiques, Afghanina and the other restaurants will start to shut their doors in a month, and a 52-storey mixed-use project will start construction later this summer at the south east corner of Dundas and Church.
In the meantime, I recommend you head over for some truly memorable Mexican street food.