Toronto’s famous politeness was put to the test on Friday night, as thousands of people lined up for tacos and tostadas at Uno, a street-food-meets-street-art event put on by guerilla chef crew La Carnita at the Evergreen Brick Works. But the notoriously ephemeral pop-up taco shop won’t be playing hard to get for much longer: according to chef and founding partner Andrew Richmond, a full-time restaurant is scheduled to open in June.
“We were trying to test a concept, and we did the first one and it was successful,” Richmond told us. “Then we did the second one, and it was successful. And then it all kind of went and went and went. This is all preparation for opening [the] restaurant.”
La Carnita started over a year ago, in part as a response to Toronto’s inability to deal with food trucks. In order to get around the rules that have food-truck aspirants knotted in red tape, La Carnita sells art—not food—and gives away tacos as a bonus. (Well, not really, but that’s what they claim.) Richmond said Friday’s event was a sort of intermediate step in La Carnita’s evolution, a process that started with food trucks and will eventually end with the restaurant, which is rumoured to be planned for a storefront in the College Street and Palmerston Avenue area. [Update, April 16, 2012, 10:15 AM: And confirmed, for 501 College Street.]
Richmond says that while he thought Uno would be a success, he didn’t anticipate the thousands of people who came through the doors at the Brick Works, almost all of whom were willing to wait upward of an hour for a taste of his tacos.
“We were not expecting this. We were drastically underprepared. Well, we were prepared, but this is crazy,” said Richmond. “We were expecting 1,500, maybe 1,600 people if we were lucky…. We made somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 tacos tonight.”
Thankfully, the food was worth the wait. The ceviche tostada was particularly impressive. It was everything ceviche should be—both refreshingly citrus-tangy and pleasingly meaty—on a crunchy, deep-fried tortilla.
Richmond sees the success of La Carnita as part of Toronto’s boom. He says Torontonians’ willingness to line up for hours for pop-up tacos is evidence that the city is undergoing a sort of culinary moment.
“I think there’s so much fresh, new stuff happening now,” he said. “So many people want to be part of it.”
In addition to the huge crowd, Richmond says Uno differed from a regular La Carnita event because the tacos played second fiddle to the art, rather than the other way around.
“We’ve always had respect for street food and street art, but usually it’s the food and then the art,” he said. “Tonight, it’s the art and then the food below.”
Richmond tapped curator Clay Rochemont to head up the art show portion of Uno. A former graffiti writer and a transplant from San Francisco, Rochemont was able to pull together a diverse group of artists from across the continent and unite them in the show’s theme of Mexican-inspired art, which was interpreted to mean everything from Day of the Dead sugar skulls to paintings of actor Danny Trejo.
“I’m from San Francisco, so [featured artists] Mike Giant and Sam Flores are my old friends…. As far as locally, I [curated] Bryan Espritu’s show last year,” he said. “You just ask your friends. I told them what it was, and they wanted to be part of it…. I just told them ‘think Day of the Dead. Give me Mexican-inspired art,’ and this is what we got.”
For Espiritu, who’s also a streetwear designer, Rochemont’s Day of the Dead suggestion inspired him to make a very personal piece of art dedicated to a friend and fellow designer who’d experienced a great deal of personal loss.
“There’s this girl named Briana Slape. She’s from Stockton, California, and I’ve never actually met her, but she’s been a big supporter of my brand, Legend’s League, and I’ve followed her on the Internet,” he said. “She lost her mother when she was really young, and she lost her brother…. I hit her up and said ‘I want to do something dedicated to you.’ This piece I showed tonight is very, very much dedicated to her.”
Espiritu also said that, while most of the art at Uno was for sale, his painting was coming home with him.
“I told Clay straight up, ‘I don’t want to sell this one. I want to keep it.’”