in a city where a lot of people think that tex-mex à la carlos & pepe’s and 3 amigos is authentic mexican food, finding the real deal isn’t an easy feat. luckily for fans of la comida mexicana, amaranto is not only dripping with authenticity, but the food is good and the service is ridiculously friendly. after only one visit to this restaurant, the chef remembered me. granted that my two visits were barely a week apart and i was toting my camera both times, but it still made me feel warm and fuzzy inside to be remembered.
hidden in a little semi-basement on trendy monkland avenue, amaranto only has four tables. there is room for many more, but i like the less is more concept. the tables are spaced out enough that it is impossible for someone in another party to bump into your chair while getting up from theirs. the small space and open kitchen made me feel like i was eating in someone’s home. there were no fancy high end restaurant appliances here — a stove that you would find in any home and a pair of portable griddles are the main cooking implements. the result? home cooking at its best!
now onto the food! both times i visited, i ordered a lot. my penchant for excess was a cause for concern for the chef; he asked if it might be too much food for me. how adorable is that?! to tell you the truth, it was too much food, but he gladly packed up my leftovers with a smile and a chuckle. so what did i order that made the chef think i would not make it out of his restaurant before i lapsed into a food coma? read on!
on my first visit, i was happy to see complementary tortilla chips and salsas served after our orders were taken. the tortilla chips were fried in house and came by the basketful. however, judging by their lack of warmth, they were probably made in batch before they opened. crispy and with very little oil clinging to them, they were perfect for scooping up their salsas. each time i went, the salsas tasted slightly different. not enough to say that they were inconsistent, but just enough to know that they were homemade. the salsa roja had a subtle smokiness mixed in with the acidity of the tomatoes. the salsa verde was tangy with a little bit of a spicy kick. when you run low, the salsas are replenished without you having to ask and at no cost!
the appetizers are varied and going in a group will let you sample a bit of everything. or if you’re like me, just order everything you want to try and bring the leftovers home! my favourite starter would have to be the quesadilla de nopales. my first experience eating cacti came in the form of tangy strips of prickly pear cactus pads with melted oaxaca cheese on a rustic homemade corn tortilla. from the first bite, i knew i would be hooked for life. it is hard to describe the taste of cactus… tangy is the only word that comes to mind. the quesadilla was good, but the best part was watching the chef make it — he lovingly rolled out the corn tortilla and cooked it on the griddle, he pulled the cheese and melted it while folding in the strips of cactus. i fell so hard for the taste of cactus that on my second visit, i ordered the ensalada de nopales. this salad consisted of cactus and red bell pepper strips mixed with onions, cilantro, and a feta (or feta-like) cheese. it was good, but the tang of the cactus was less pronounced than when mixed with the melted oaxaca cheese of the quesadilla.
another appetizer i tried was the queso fundido con chorizo – melted oaxaca cheese with chorizo sausage. the cheese was beautifully melted and when wrapped in a warm tortilla made for an ooey gooey mess of deliciousness that had me licking my fingers. my only wish was for a spicier chorizo that would have provided a better contrast in flavours. the lack of spice made the sausage taste a little bit like bacon. this is why i will continue to get my queso fundido fix at el sombrero.
the guacamole isn’t on their menu, but available as part of a rotating list of specials. from what i gathered, their specials vary based on what’s in season. the fresh avocado dip came topped with tomatoes and cilantro and served with tortilla chips. the smooth and dense guacamole came in a small dish, but i’m happy to report that the waitress did not lie when she said that it was enough for 2-3 people. i am a huge fan of contrasting flavours, so i did a little experimenting. adding a bit of salsa to a guacamole topped tortilla chip kicked it up a notch. adding a dollop of the avocado spread to the ensalada de nopales intensified the tang of the cactus and resulted in a contrast in textures that made my taste buds quite happy.
another appetizer that was sampled was the sope sencillo. this thick corn tortilla topped with refried black beans, sour cream, cheese, and iceberg lettuce didn’t really do it for me. i appreciate the fact that it wasn’t overly salty or greasy like the last one i had at that place i will never go back to (le petit coin du mexique), but it just wasn’t savoury enough to be a must-have.
on to the mains! you can pick something from their set menu or try their daily special. from experience, the daily special is the way to go. on my first visit, we were offered carnitas – heavily marbled pork braised in lard and served on corn tortillas with chopped onions and cilantro. it might not sound too appealing to the diet-minded, but in my world taste trumps diet. the pork was a mixture of crispy and tender, fatty and lean, moist and dry. with a squeeze of lime, you have a simple pork orgy in your mouth. add a little bit of salsa and you enhance the experience. unlike some restaurants, they do not skimp on the fillings here – just look at the photographic proof. the second time i went the special was chile relleno – a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried, topped with tomato sauce. this was one of the tastiest things i have ever encountered. the poblano pepper had a subtle heat to it, the cheese was gooey, the tomato sauce was slightly acidic. it all made for a delicious mix. another good thing is that the pepper was roasted just right without tasting burnt. the dish came with a side of rice, black beans, and corn tortillas. i actually didn’t order this, but i am grateful that my cousin let me have a taste. the next time it’s available as a special, i am definitely ordering the chile relleno.
on their regular menu, you can find a variety of tacos and some enchiladas verdes. i tried the tacos al pastor – annatto-marinated pork with pineapple, onions, and cilantro. you can tell by looking at it that the chunks of pineapple were marinated and cooked with the pork, unlike other places where they just add it as a topping at the last minute. the meat was nicely flavoured, with a barely perceptible spiciness. the pork was a bit dry, but not to the point of being chewy. oddly enough, the tacos tasted better the next morning after a 90-second trip in the microwave. in my opinion, the real pièce de résistance of their regular menu is the tacos de nopales — strips of cactus with melted oaxaca cheese on corn tortillas. the three tacos are served with a side of soupy black beans and pico de gallo (a fresh salsa made with chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeño peppers). topping the cactus tacos with some pico de gallo results in an explosion of flavours that is truly a party in the mouth.
to wash everything down, a selection of bottled mexican sodas is available. a better option is their homemade horchata, a rice-based milk drink that is simply refreshing. also good is their agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower drink) that is neither too sweet nor too tart. these fresh drinks come by the glass, but i hope that one day they will also be available by the pitcher as i can’t get enough of the stuff.
there are no desserts on their set menu, but one is available as a rotating special. on both of my visits, the dessert of the day was platanos fritos or fried plantains. the plantains were fried in a heavy skillet and served sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with sour cream and what i believe to be condensed milk. the plantain was a little too dense and tart for my liking. a riper plantain would have suited my tastes better, but that doesn’t mean that i didn’t polish off the dessert even though i barely had any room left in my stomach. i am hoping that the next time i go, a different dessert will be on offer.
in my humble opinion, amaranto is definitely a contender for the best mexican restaurant in town. good food made with love and friendly service, what more can you ask for? i can’t wait to go back to try the rest of my menu!
5974, ave monkland
payment methods: cash, debit
call ahead! there are no hours posted on their door and they don’t seem to follow the hours i found on the internet.