Revisiting Toronto's original taco craze, when jalapenos were a delicacy.
Writing from Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1938, Winston Norman enlightened Globe and Mail readers with descriptions of a cuisine that Torontonians could only experience via travel. Take his description of tacos and enchiladas:
The first is a sort of mysterious salad rolled up in a tortilla. The second is a kind of meat or chicken hash, also rolled up in a tortilla, and covered with mole sauce. Mole sauce (pronounced mo-lay, with accent on the first syllable) is a mean-looking black sauce made of I don’t know what, but it burns and it’s good.
Norman probably enjoyed a shot or two of tequila with his meals, a spirit he described as “a sort of cross between gin and schnapps, 300 proof, with a flavour which suggests that a mule’s hoof has been soaked in it.”
Flash forward to the 1960s, as Mexican cuisine made inroads into the Toronto culinary scene. A 1961 ad for the Park Plaza hotel claimed it was the only place in Canada to offer stuffed jalapenos, as long as they were ordered way in advance. “Jalapenos are tiny red Mexican peppers with quite a bite to them,” the ad claimed. “One wag compared it to chewing on a blast furnace!”
Later in the decade, the Four Seasons Motor Hotel on Jarvis Street offered a Mexican-themed week at its outdoor café, complete with strolling guitarist, replicas of Aztec art, and dishes with fancy names like Pescado Relle no Con Camaron to tickle the taste buds of the after-work set.
Toronto’s first Mexican-themed restaurant chain was Pancho Taco, which promoted “the romance of Mexican food.” While it carried staple items like burritos and tacos, the chain tried to satisfy timid customers via dishes like the “Pancho Burger.” The special taco sauce, reputedly blended from 22 ingredients, was, according to the Star, “poured over practically everything the restaurants sold.”
Expansion plans were ambitious. Seven locations, stretching from Burlington to Wexford, opened in early 1969. Ads promised future outlets across the province, including resort areas like Grand Bend. Gimmicks included a fleet of five painted Volkswagens.
But rapid growth quickly outpaced Pancho Taco’s finances. When manager Herbert Sharp filed the paperwork to declare the chain bankrupt in November 1969, he assumed he owned the company after its four shareholders sold him their shares three months earlier. Upon filing, Sharp discovered that his acquisition was never recorded as having been approved by the board of directors. As he was also a creditor, Sharp was allowed to proceed with petitioning for bankruptcy.
Despite Pancho Taco’s brief existence, Mexican food gained popularity in Toronto during the 1970s. Venues like the Royal York offered theme weeks advertised with the stereotypical image of a mustachioed mariachi band. Among the restaurants that debuted was Viva Zapata, which was a North Toronto fixture for years.
The critics weren’t kind when it opened in 1977, faulting it for diluting the cuisine for Toronto taste buds. The Star’s Judylaine Fine found the food competent and filled with quality ingredients, but lacking in spiciness. “They don’t realize that good Mexican food is delicious partly because it leave you breathless,“ Fine observed. Over in the Globe and Mail, Joanne Kates found the menu timid. “Viva Zapata is a good restaurant for people who don’t think they’d like Mexican food,” she concluded. “The flavours are so watered down, Montezuma’s revenge will never enter your mind.”
Anyone preferring to kick up their Mexican food could prepare it at home. By the end of the 1970s, speciality stores in Kensington Market, including those still in business like the House of Spice and Perola’s, stocked the ingredients to make recipes drawn from newspaper food-section features. Readers may have discovered how to make mole sauce as satisfyingly spicy as that Winston Norman enjoyed 40 years earlier.
Additional material from the November 17, 1938, September 21, 1961, and March 3, 1977 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the July 16, 1968, February 4, 1969, November 22, 1969, September 10, 1977, and April 12, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.