Monday, February 21, 2011

La Vida Es Buena

Life is good. That is the translation of this latest installment of CoopSpeak Eats. Kensington Market is one of my happy places. Walking around there, even on a winter's day is like going into sensory overload. I always make sure to carry some extra shopping totes with me when I head through the streets. What can I say, I'm just a weakling when you put me on to these streets. Meat, cheese, fish, spices, baked goods and then your nose takes over. Akram's for Lahm Pies, Strawberry Baklava and Turkish Delights made with Rosewater. Meats at Pete Sanagan's, slabs of pie from Wanda's Pie in the Sky or empanadas from Jumbo Empanadas. These are my kind of streets. I feel very at home here on Augusta, Kensington and Baldwin Streets. As as kid, who grew up in the heart of the city, shopping on these corners was just a part of life. Now being in the 'burbs, while it might seem like an effort to haul ass down there, it is simply worth every single sight, sound, smell, taste and flavour.

Smell is such a powerful trigger. As I walk past Pancho's Bakery my snozz gets a scent full of cooking Churros. It is just too much for me and I'm ready to succumb to those evil fried tubes of pastry goodness but the throngs of people squeezing into the doors puts me off. I manage to just get inside the entrance of Pancho's and I'm beginning to feel the onset of claustrophobia. The heaviness of the wafting scents of frying oil only adds to the sensation of not being able to get my breath. I look up and I notice the stairs leading up to a small upper level that looks far less populated. Squeezing through the crowd I work my way up the stairs only to discover that there are other small food booths/destinations inside of Pancho's Bakery. This setting of a small business inside of another small business is very much of what you can expect to find in an authentic central America street food setting. You'll find small, one man food booths, each person selling their specialty foods, often a special family recipe. Something tells me I'm going to be grateful for the perseverance of pushing through the hoards of the Churro chuffing mob.

Meet Francisco "Paco" Alejandri. His booth is called Agave Y Agucate (which means Agave & Avocado). As it turns out our paths have crossed over at the Drake at 86'D Mondays. We had sat beside each other during a guacamole smack down, devouring Chicharrones together along with a little mountains of avocado goodness. Francisco has opened up his own petite table in Pancho's. It is difficult not to notice his space up there because he has muraled the wall behind him and it's an explosion of a gorgeous tangerine colour. His cooking station is spotless, with small mortal & pistol bowls, a couple of special tabletop burners, cutting boards, a small deep fryer and piles of fresh uncut ripened tomatoes, avocados, jalapenos, fresh greens & herbs. His chalkboard menu is tiny. There are about 6 items on it. Francisco makes one of my most fave Mexican indulgences, Tinga Tostadas, which is a version of a Mexican pulled pork on a tostada piled with array of fresh toppings. My daughter and I order a Tinga Tostada, a Verde Tostada.

I'm mystified by the presence of a big glass beverage dispenser. I ask Francisco about it and he tells me it is Hibiscus water. My eyes open wide. I have never had Hibiscus water but I was drawn to it by the brilliant ruby colour. Being a gardener I can appreciate the exotic beauty of the Hibiscus flowers. They are pretty and delicate, somewhat similar to Hollyhocks. We order a glass and I stand there watching as Francisco begins making our order and I slowly, somewhat cautiously take a sip. The drink was not chilled which means the flavors will flow through my palate even quicker. It was sweet but not cloying or perfumy. Can you call a beverage delicate? It didn't have any astringency like you'd find in lemonade or any tannin after taste like ice tea. I couldn't put my finger on the flavour except to say I'm calling Francisco to ask him if I could buy a couple of litres of it. Hibiscus water could be the base of a really beautiful exotic summertime cocktail and isn't that just like me to be thinking about what booze I could mix this up with! Imagine a gorgeous tall glass of this flower nectar, mixed with something sparkling, poured over crushed ice and garnished with some fresh flower petals. I am yearning for warm summer months just so I can invite people over for these drinks.

It was a pleasure watching Francisco lovingly prepare these tostadas. It is a labour of love. None of the veggies or toppings, other than the pork and the onions, which seem to be marinated in something that has softened them, has been pre-chopped. So I watch as Francisco cuts open a fresh avocado and carefully slices out three pieces for topping. The first layer of the tostada has fried black beans, he ladles a generous helping of the pork mixture and then he just continues to pile, topping after topping. He chops fresh jalapenos, he chops up fresh tomatoes. I am watching food architecture. That cream that is last splash on the very top, isn't your standard sour cream, there is something very different about it. This tostada has colour, texture, crunch, smoothness, heat, sweet and is filled with true TLC. I have never been a huge fan of pulped, refried beans but Francisco treats these black beans in a way that is kind to the texture and it strengthens the colour palate of the canvas that the tostada has become for the toppings.

The Verde Tostada is perfect for the vegetarians in the crowd. Francisco pulps the fresh avocado mixture, tops that with a slab of Queso Fresco and what I think is a roasted tomatillo salsa of some sort. We plunk ourselves on one of six rare chairs available in the whole place and eat our food watching the world of Kensington Market pass by the windows. We savor. We delight. This is fresh. This is good.

For all this freshly made goodness and a couple of glasses of Hibiscus Water the price tag is $12.50. La Vida es Buena and if you'd like to find out just how good life can taste you'll find Francisco "Paco" Alejandri cooking up his soulful Mexican food on the upper level inside of Pancho's Bakery located at 214 Augusta Avenue.


  1. The "hibiscus water" is what we call sorrel in the West Indies. Here's more about the plant:; and how to prepare the drink:

    You should be able to find the flowers dried in West Indian or Latin American grocery stores.

  2. Thanks for that info Bev! Greatly appreciated.