Toronto has no shortage of Latin American restaurants, from nearby taqueria to food courts like Plaza Latina and areas like St. Clair West Village with its vibrant Latin American food scene.
But there are very few instances where you see a variety of Latin American dishes from different geographic regions on the same menu: Venezuelan-style arepas, alongside Argentine choripan sandwiches and fiery Mexican ceviches known as aguachile.
“This quickly becomes a very communal space – a Colombian friend is sitting with someone from Ecuador and Venezuela, and they share their favorite food with each other,” said Sergio Calderon, one of the owners of immigranta new Pan Latin American botanas (snacks) and drinks restaurant that recently opened in the beach.
Calderon and his business partner Rafael Bastidas met ten years ago through the hospitality industry in Toronto. “We both worked together on a number of restaurants,” Calderon says. Both worked their way from dishwashing to running Latin-inspired restaurants.
Bastidas was born in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, and moved to Toronto ten years ago. Calderon is from Mexico City and arrived around the same time. “I think one of the reasons we kept in touch was because we had a similar story about coming to this country around the same time,” Bastidas said.
While working together at Fonda Lola, a self-described rustic Mexican cantina on Queen Street West, near Trinity Bellwoods, the pair had a vision for a joint project.
“We wanted to embrace and use our pride as immigrants in this country to showcase traditional regional dishes from Latin America,” Bastidas said. While Toronto has a variety of Latin American restaurants, they both felt like something was missing. “We wanted a restaurant to be more than just the food, we wanted it to be about the pride of where we come from,” says Calderon.
The duo took over the former Hogtown Smoke restaurant space on Queen Street East, on Kenilworth Avenue – a popular corner for new restaurants that have opened in the past two and a half years. “This is a very lively part of the beach. We feel like we’re part of a new culinary movement here,” said Calderon. Inmigrante officially opened its doors in mid-August.
It’s just one of many trendy new restaurants that have opened within a short two-block stretch. Tiflsi, one of the city’s only Georgian restaurants, is just across the street; Limon is a popular Levantine brunch and dinner spot known for its sumptuous meat and fish dishes; and Mira Mira has become a go-to for reinvented diner-style cooking and boozy drinks. This small number of eateries at Kew Gardens is sure to become an Eastern side dining destination.
Bastidas and Calderon took over the space in late spring and gutted it completely. Any resemblance to an American barbecue restaurant is gone; dark wood and beverage signage have been replaced with teak dining room furniture. The bar is a large cement board with a striking epoxy finish. There is a separate side entrance to a heated patio, a narrow alleyway marked by an overhead sign that reads, “Bunch of immigrants at the back.”
The sign may be ironic, but Calderon and Bastidas insist on creating a welcome space for fellow Latin Americans.
From the beginning, Bastidas and Calderon wanted to create a Pan Latin American menu, with regional classics served as botanas-style snacks. Colombia’s national dish of bandeja paisa (roasted pork belly) alongside stewed beans, and alongside Argentine choripan, grilled chorizo—the duo comes from a producer in Kensington Market, charred and smothered in a chimichurri sauce and stuffed into a bun.
“We have a Colombian cook in the kitchen and another Mexican cook. That’s why we try to keep the flavors as bold as possible,” says Calderon. The spiciest dish on the menu is the aguachile, a Mexican favorite of shrimp prepared with lime, cucumber, red onions and chili peppers. this dish, because it opens up your taste buds,” said Bastidas.
Spoon as much of the ceviche sauce as you can and top with a piece of shrimp and cucumber before popping it in your mouth. The dance from sour to spice and slight sweetness of the shrimp is addictive. Once you’ve enjoyed the shrimp, ask the staff to turn the plate into a michelada. An ode to the beloved Mexican drink made from mixing beer with lime, herbs and sauce, here the aguachile sauce is drained into a glass and topped with a Corona.
“Being from where I was, I wanted to make sure we had arepas on the menu too,” Bastidas says. Venezuelan-style cornmeal cakes get a few different interpretations. The options can rotate seasonally; reina pepeda has become a quick crowd favorite, where shredded chicken is cooked and mashed alongside avocado and tucked into the savory corn cakes. It’s a very creamy comforting sandwich. The carne nechada is also great, filled with shredded beef that is slow cooked in an aji chili sauce.
Bastidas and Calderon insist that while the cooking is traditional, “using minimal ingredients to emphasize maximum flavor,” the drink program is where the couple gets creative. Classic Latin American drinks are being reinterpreted here, such as the Cuba Libre, where a simple brew of rum and cola is enhanced with smoke that Bastida adds to the drink with a pump machine, the smoke being captured with a cloche that is revealed at the table . “On the cocktail menu, I try to have the most fun, with no rules,” said Bastidas.
The Oaxaca Negroni is another favorite. Bastidas riffs on the Italian classic by adding mezcal, bringing a noticeable smoky quality and lingering richness to the aperitivo. There are also classic Latin American drinks, such as the Paloma, a fizzy mix of tequila, grapefruit, lime and soda. Working your way through the menu, the paloma pairs well with almost everything at Inmigrante.
While the beach isn’t a tropical paradise, Bastidas’ piña colada can at least transport you metaphysically to Cancun. The “deconstructed” version mixes white and dark rum in a smoothie bowl with pineapple juice and tops it off with a homemade coconut popsicle. As the popsicle melts, the drink thickens, reminiscent of beachside power smoothies. “It’s become one of our more popular drinks,” Bastidas says.
Within a month of opening, Bastidas and Calderon have attracted guests from different parts of Latin America to Inmigrante, a restaurant serving traditional favorites, with an undercurrent of forward-thinking cuisine.
“I think it really makes me happy when I see people from different backgrounds sitting together and trying each other’s dishes that they grew up with. It’s something you don’t normally encounter when you go to a Latin American restaurant,” says Calderon.