Name: Alimentaria Mexicana
Location: 1596 Johnson St., Granville Island, Vancouver
Cuisine: Mexican cantina
Prices: Shared plates, $6.95 to $27.95
Additional information: Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations and walk-in seating available. Patio. No delivery. Mercado and Fabrica opening later this fall.
I have friends visiting from out of town next week. When they asked me to recommend a cool place for dinner, I suggested Alimentaria Mexicana on Granville Island.
This, dear readers, is a first.
Granville Island might be a charming city landmark. And it’s a nice place to shop for artisan cheese, sausages and fresh seafood, sample local sake or see a live show.
But the former industrial wasteland has never been cool, unless you were an art student at Emily Carr in the 1980s.
It’s rarely busy after dark (outside of festivals).
And after 20 years of living in Vancouver, I have not once suggested to anyone that they go there for dinner. The restaurants have always been too touristy.
Lo and behold, Granville Island might finally be realizing its potential.
On a recent Friday night, the streets were alive and hopping. Many were there for the Vancouver Fringe Festival, which has now fully transitioned to Granville Island, as it should, to create more impact.
The food and drink venues were all busy that night. There was a full house at The Liberty Distillery, a 45-minute waitlist at The Sandbar Seafood Restaurant and a lively scene on the Granville Island Brewing patio.
But Alimentaria Mexicana, which has taken over the former Edible Canada space kitty-corner to the Public Market, was the throbbing nerve centre.
The restaurant’s large, 75-seat patio was packed. Lights were strung over thatched umbrellas. The lush, greenery-topped fences were splashed in bright oranges and yellows. A Latin brass band was pumping from the speakers. And the diners were ecstatic.
“Have you been here before?” a groovy, slightly tipsy older woman with pink hair asked, as we waited outside for a table at around 9 p.m.
“Oh, it’s so good. I’ve been here three times since it opened. Get the chorizo tostada!” she implored, teetering back inside.
Alimentaria Mexicana, which opened in mid-July, is owned by Ernesto Gomez, executive chef Martin Vargas and operations manager Darragh McFeely. These are the same folks behind the wonderful Chancho Tortilleria, which introduced Vancouver to authentic, nixtamalized, heirloom corn tortillas.
Before this, they ran the excellent Fayuca restaurant in Yaletown with Mexican celebrity chef Jair Tellez – until the rent became untenable.
After two years of searching for a new location, they landed this prime space on Granville Island and scaled the concept back to something more relaxed and affordable, with a focus on comfort food and immersive experiences.
When the vision is fully realized, perhaps as soon as next month, this lively hub will include cooking classes, a demonstration tortilla factory and a marketplace that sells specialty food products, textiles, pottery and more.
For now, it can only be judged on the quality of the food and beverages being served in the dining room. And it is all mouth-mesmerizing.
Artisanal tortillas, the backbone of the menu, are processed locally and prepared daily, using a dozen different varieties of non-GMO heirloom corn directly sourced from Indigenous communities in Oaxaca.
Nixtamalization is an ancient method of turning dry maize into nutritious dough by soaking and cooking the kernels in an alkaline solution before they’re ground, kneaded and fed through a press. The pickling lime process loosens the outer shells, making it more digestible and activating the vitamin B3.
But it also transforms the corn into golden (sometimes blue or red) flatbreads that are nutty, toasty, tender yet chewy and infinitely tastier than any of the rubbery Wonderbread versions found on supermarket shelves.
You can try them fried into crispy, bubbly tostadas, piled high with roasted butternut squash and chunky guacamole. Or rolled into flautas filled with braised duck and drizzled with a creamy, slow-charred, brightly acidic recado negro, which has a garlicky heat that doesn’t begin buzzing until it’s partway down your throat.
It’s probably best, however, to start with a virgin stack warmed on the stove, dipped in a medley of house-made salsas that will take your taste buds on an explosive joyride.
For timid palates, there is a mild, loosely juicy salsa roja, made from charred tomatoes. For a warm afterglow, try the thick and chunky sikil paak, churned with pumpkin seeds, toasted peppercorns and fennel seeds.
Silky salsa verde begins amping up the Scoville scale with zesty jalapenos that are blended and balanced by earthy tomatillos. And for the extremely adventurous, there is a scorching habanero that will set your whole mouth on fire.
Birria tacos have become all the rage of late. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re underwhelming. Here, the top round beef, slowly stewed in rich stock, is served without the trendy cheese skirt or side bowl of consommé.
The chin-drippy meat is crisped to order on the flattop and served in flour tortillas that have been bathed in the base stock. This is the way Chef Vargas used to eat them every morning for breakfast at the markets in Baja California, where he is from.
For a new twist, do try the mushroom birria, which is served as a soup. This really showcases the complexity of the broth, deeply flavoured with guajillo chiles, dried and smoked pasillla peppers, toasted coriander and floral avocado leaf.
Vegetarians are catered to very well here. The most interesting plant-based dish is the halloumi and grilled cactus, a holdover from Fayuca, which now tastes even better than I remember. It’s served over a gorgeous salsa verde that thickens to a glossy, beurre-blanc texture from an enzyme in the cactus that is added on the finish.
I almost missed the chorizo tostado that our friend outside recommended. But I’m glad I didn’t. It’s not just chorizo. It’s green chorizo – vibrant emerald in colour from green beans and charred cabbage, thickly streaked with molten fat and made by the Oyama Sausage Co. in the public market.
Skip the mussels with red chorizo, which is dry and oddly musty, and go straight for this glorious green version if it’s available.
Wash it down with a glass of natural wine (the list is all from B.C.) or terrific cocktail (curated by star bartending consultant Sabrine Dhaliwal).
And savour the pleasure of enjoying Granville Island without feeling like a tourist.
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