This season I was invited to be 1 of the 3 judges for Vancouver Foodster’s annual taco challenge. A competition between local chefs and restaurants, to test their skills and see where they are against one another for the best taco in the city.
I like participating in these challenges because I get to discover plenty of great dining options for myself, and ones to recommend to others that I might not otherwise be exposed to.
Take for example Cantina Norte, I wouldn’t otherwise drive all the way to North Vancouver for Mexican cuisine. But now having done the journey and had the food, I will be returning for more in the future.
The restaurant is visible by way of the Papel picado: colourful paper cut out banners lining the roof of the building. Inside, the place was bumping at 7pm on a Saturday. It was a full house, the bar was stacked, and based on the unison roar of the room the locals were here to celebrate.
Naturally, we had to try their cocktails considering how it seemed like the dual bartenders were shaking and mixing all night. All the drinks on their drink list sounded so interesting. Many featured less common ingredients, which made it difficult to decide. So we took our waitress’ recommendations on the cocktails.
Her go-to is the Ancient Ruin and she wasn’t wrong. Serrano infused Los Siete Doba-Yej Mezcal, Agave, White Chocolate, Lemon, and Tonka Bean. Her description of the chocolate syrup balancing out the smokiness of the drink was accurate, and her promise of mild heat delivered. This was a well crafted cocktail and a deliciously easy sipper. Full bodied for something that drinks like water.
I also had to try one of their Classic Margaritas with Olmeca Altos Plata, Cointreau, Lime, and Agave. Naturally this is their best selling cocktail. Each is made with ingredients flown in from Mexico: real fruit juice, naturally sweetened with agave. They had a few flavour offerings, but as soon as I heard “Pink guava”, my mind was made up. You don’t see guava on many menus. But sadly I missed out on adding a prickly pear purée for a tasty twist at $1. Reason to come back and try more, I guess. Similarly they also have a prickly pear margarita, and you too don’t see that often either.
Each table is given a complimentary basket of chips and salsa de la casa to start. House-made crispy corn tortilla chips served warm with their Salsa de la Casa. Any refills come at a cost with proceeds going to support Feed the Hungry – San Miguel de Allende, through which Cantina Norte has adopted a school lunch program and committed to ensuring every student receives a warm lunch every day.
Crispy chips and fresh salsa to get the appetite going. So good that we even packed the crumbs to go.
But as to not get any more sidetracked, this is what we were here for. Cantina Norte’s Taco challenge contender. The Taco El Mejor with seared prawn and pork belly on a warm corn tortilla. Topped with fresh pico de gallo, butterfly Bahia beans, and a spicy topper of habanero aioli. What isn’t listed on the limited edition menu is the fact that the tortilla is prepared with chorizo oil, adding another layer of flavour to an already pretty tasty taco. Although the same oil does make the tortilla greasy to the touch, but once again the flavour additive is well worth it. This is such a luxe taco, there is so much going on, and it all comes together. I will leave it at that, as to not reveal too much about the way I judged this one. Stay tuned for the #TacoChallengeYVR round up post for additional taste details.
Reading it on the menu, I had to give this one a try. The Scallop Aguachile isn’t a dish I would expect from a casual Mexican chain. So that was reason enough to try it, and I am glad that I did. This impressed me. Fresh local scallops, thinly sliced and cured with green chile, cucumber, and spicy chile brine. These were delicate, supple pieces of scallop that you enjoyed chewing through just as much as you enjoyed tasting. There was plenty of seasonings, with the cucumber for added freshness. And for additional heat, the little beads, we aptly named “spice bombs” gave you a pop of latent heat. This was a beautiful example of simple and clean seafood that speaks for itself.
I never turn down a chimichanga, so had to grab their Chicken & Mango Chimichanga. Chicken breast skillet-fried with mango salsa, wrapped in a crispy flour tortilla with jack cheese. Topped with Orange Tomatillo Sauce, and grilled Salsa Piña on the side. This isn’t your typical Tex-mex rendition, but something different all together. I liked the chewier tortilla wrap and the slight sweetness the chunks of mango provided. It had on over arching citrus flavour with plenty of sauce coating things to ensure nothing was dry.
Craving for mushrooms we went for the Chicken & Mushroom Quesadilla. But in hindsight should have went with the vegan version with wild mushrooms and vegan cheese, as this one was more chicken than mushroom. Shredded chicken, mushrooms and melted cheese fondue folded in a grilled flour tortilla. Finished off with Ancho Chile Sauce and sour cream. Not only were they generous with the portion, but generous with their chicken and sauces too. The sauce was especially helpful in adding some moisture to the slightly ashy texture of the shredded chicken. The side of rice and beans made sure you didn’t walk away from the plate hungry.
As tasty as it was, the serving does get a little one tonal, so here’s a tip: request their house made jalapeño hot sauce to inject some flavour and add heat to any bite. It builds on the dish.
We only discovered it because our server was kind and intuitive enough to bring us a side order of it. She went over and beyond in her check ins and recommendations. She was also very knowledgeable, not only in what to order, but even how to eat it, and what to expect from each dish. She was so stellar that we had to take the time to pay her the compliment.
In conclusion this is such a great spot for elevated, yet casual Mexican cuisine. With plenty on the menu to keep you coming back to try it all. Definitely worth traveling too.
3246 Connaught Crescent #108, North Vancouver, BC V7R 0A7