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El Ray Mezcal Bar and Latin American Kitchen is located in Kensington Market and is open seven nights a week.

Review: A Rey of sunshine

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on June 23, 2016

By now my unwavering allegiance to chef Grant van Gameren borders on the stalker-y. He couldn't have paid for better PR than the raves I've showered upon his restaurants. From the smashing success of Bar Isabel to his tremendous Bar Raval, van Gameren continues to excite the palates of local foodies with standing room only crowds.

One would think that with such momentous triumphs he's earned the right to stop, sit back and relax before moving on to the next big deal. Nuh-uh. Always on the hunt to sniff out a new food challenge, van Gameren has already opened his third locale, El Rey Mezcal Bar, with more ventures on the way, including the soon-to-open Pretty Ugly in partnership with Owen Walker.

Joining other Mexican restaurants in the fast flourishing culinary hub of Kensington Market, El Rey Mezcal Bar is an adorable little bar built with what seems like wooden crates and bottles and spit. Walls festooned with fun, tropical prints inject a certain island charm, yet the décor is still purposely pretty simple. The budget for this boîte didn't even come close to that of Bar Raval's mahogany sculpted grotto. And it suits the bohemian neighbourhood to an (ironic retro) tee.

The El Rey Mezcal Bar menu is an impressive tome of mezcal varieties at practically every price point ($10-$45 for a flight) with many from Oaxaca and others still in transit. If you want to get educated on the nuanced differences between tequila and mezcal, this is the place to start, hipster-boy. For me, however, the food is what stands out, a showcase of Latin American street and comfort foods of such unmistakably meticulous execution for such a casual bar and eatery. There’s a Mexican sandwich (MP) or a seafood cocktail with octopus, Nordic shrimp, clam, oyster, olive, avocado and serrano chili ($21) in a huge glass you'd expect to be served a milkshake in. And pass on the cacahuate mix ($6), a peanut mix with dried and whole crickets. I've eaten some pretty weird foods in my day (hello, beef heart tartare) but I still draw the line at insects, effete first world dilettante that I am. So while these crunchy creatures might be a delicacy packed with protein prized around the globe, it's still a Fear Factor challenge to me with no real payoff.

Thankfully other authentic street foods include the potato sope ($11). And it is as divine to me as the insect idea is off-putting. Its sturdy masa shell is expertly crafted with a similar consistency to a perfect pie crust that holds a thin layer of refried beans and a hearty pile of beautifully spiced ground chorizo, raw tomatillo and avocado salsa, all topped with a fried quail egg and jalapeño. The engineering is masterful as it holds it all together like a champ. And surprisingly, the flavours work for any meal from brunch to a late night snack. A new fave of mine. So is the ceviche verde ($19). The stunning hillock of halibut with cukes and chilis tumble down into a thick pool of gutsy punch-you-in-the-face citrus met with tender slices of scallop on the surface. The raised-edge plate securely holds in all the juice, which also makes it easier to drink up, cuz you will, manners be damned. This may be the place to learn all about mezcals, but it's also the spot for a perfect ceviche served with two whole crispy corn tortillas that are thick enough for scooping up without getting soggy. Clearly, this kitchen knows what it's doing.

Same can be said for a daily special of grilled shishito ($6) peppers. Cloaked in oil and chili spices, these are the new edamame, only lighter and less filling. This dish belongs on the regular menu. So a bit shocked I am at the shift in execution of the tlayudita ($12) and bomba ($8). The former is an iconic Oaxacan street snack featuring the same corn tortilla, except this time, it’s topped with beef tasajo with asiento, beans, cabbage and quesillo. In other words, a steak taco, because you fold the tortilla over. The problem is thinly sliced grilled beef that's a tad too tough, coupled with bland toppings and one big mess once bitten into. A bib and some wet naps please. Not sure how this works on the streets of Oaxaca, but for prim and proper provincial Toronto, it needs some tweaking. As does the bomba ($8). This normally refreshing salad of jicama, cucumber, radish, red onion, heirloom carrot, caldo de oso and queso cotija is mistakenly served in a glass that makes it hard to eat without getting cheese all over the table. And the vegetable medley is sitting in a large puddle of dressing that spills over every time you dig in with a spoon. Problem easily solved served in a bowl.

The one dessert, a plantano macho ($8), features roasted plantains, raw pecans and goat’s milk whipped cream. An odd one really, considering the plantains are so mealy it is a textbook case of textures colliding. But after a while it does tend to become more agreeable. But I can't really blame van Gameren cuz this kitchen is headed by chefs Julio Guajardo and Kate Chomyshyn who van Gameren discovered in Montreal. Famous for their paletas, a frozen Mexican treat similar to a popsicle, the duo was whisked away and brought to Toronto. And by and large a pretty good call. A few weeks in and El Rey Mezcal Bar is already SRO. Teeny tiny flaws aside, it is a fabulous concept delivering fantastic food at great prices with friendly, unpretentious patient service.

Reviews are meant to describe a dining out experience at a given period in time and are the personal opinion of the writer.
All meals are paid for, including all taxes and gratuities. All reservations are made under assumed names. Menu items, prices and individuals mentioned in this review may not be up to date. Dine.TO encourages its users to share their feedback.

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