Montreal is in a Mexican food heydey.
St-Henri is swimming in carnitas. Downtown loves after-work agave. And while hot sauce is still catering to wimps/Quebeckers (in my opinion), at least Tacos Victor has whole conches of the stuff on its counter to add as desired.
Then there’s Escondite, Habañera, Emiliano’s, Tiradito, Cartel and Mais – upscale Mexican/Latin American places serving fancier tacos in the downtown, Mile End and Plateau areas.
But Prince Arthur Street has had it rough.
With all that construction (now over, thank goodness), businesses had been closing left, right and centre. Mind you, that’s not a bad thing when they’re cheap BYOBs and touristy “French” places. But now, with landlords desperate for rent-paying tenants, it’s a great opportunity for up-and-coming restaurants to move in.
Cue Taqueria Arturo.
Take some artisanal Mezcal, some classic and creative taco fillings and some killer guacamole, and you’ve got yourself a winner.
Chef Matt McKean is not a Mexican first-timer. He has a place in San Pedro de Garza Garcia, Mexico where the fridge is actually a door to a backroom cocktail speakeasy. His Mezcal makers are some young dudes whose production is so small that they write the bottle number (e.g. 64/80) on their distilled wild, non-GMO agave Mezcal. Of the three bottles I tried at the restaurant, one came from wild agave, one came from mid-elevation and one came from high elevation. The high elevation was smooth and the low was more biting, but sweet and delicious.
McKean also has his own Mezcal importing businesses and expects a big shipment via the SAQ in a couple weeks. It’s called Xintury Inc.
By that time he’ll be opening a 1000-person night club in Mexico and he’ll also be heavily involved in a multi-restaurant launch in the Middle East. But his wife lives here and they have a child, so he’ll be around a lot.
“I hate the word authentic,” he says, describing his menu. To back up his point, there’s Korean spicy-sweet gochujang in his beef shortrib tacos. The falafel tacos come with Greek yogurt tzatziki and arbol pepper tahini. And the 5-spice roasted duck is shredded duck meat from Chinese town with pickled daikon, carrot and hoisin.
There’s no cow’s tongue, but there’s plenty to keep a carnivore occupied, thanks to the smoked meats he gets from Diablos BBQ nearby.
With it, he does do classic achiote pulled chicken tacos, but it comes nicely gussied up with pickled onions and sprouts. All the better, I say, especially when those tortillas are 100% gluten free and he makes his own arbol hot sauce, cooled with olive oil and tomato and another with not-too-salty tomatillos.
Then there’s the ahi tuna tostada: a fried tortilla topped with sashimi-grade tuna, avocado, chipotle aioli and crispy fried leeks. It’s awesome with some of the perfectly salted and lime-d guacamole and a squirt of the mild tomatillo hot sauce.
And because McKean’s Montreal via California (and Thailand and Costa Rica) as much as he’s via Mexico, there are Baja fish tacos with battered cod (fried in naturally gluten free potato flour, like everything fried here!).
But plenty of people will just come for the guacamole and tortillas (the guac was some of the best I’ve had in the city: “There’s no onion in it. There shouldn’t be onion in guacamole!” says McKean) and probably also for the crispy boneless chicken bites (fried in potato flour, again) and a hot skillet of queso fundido (melted Oaxaca cheese with smoked chorizo, salsa and a bunch of flour tortillas draped decoratively over the side for scooping).
Let’s talk cocktails.
It’s a short and simple list, starting with a classic margarita and moving on to a very soft Sotol Allongé with coconut water and jasmine tea syrup. Go with the margaritas to balance the heat of the tacos, but the rest of the menu’s worth exploring for another 5 à 7.
Did I mention this was a party? When you see McKean plop two bottles of Mezcal and some glasses down on a table and then pull up chairs for his friends, you know it’s going to be a good night. He was the life of the party and an honest and fun guy. He showed me the kitchen, his near empty cold room (“I only stock what I need. Look at how little there is?” he says proudly. He can make orders every day, so when he runs out of something, he runs out. “This way there’s no waste.”)
The highlight of the night was probably the piñata, though. What’s a Mexican restaurant launch without a Trump piñata? Not much of a party.
For the price ($2.50 – $4.50 a taco), this is a place to return to; it’s also a place for a $10 lunch burrito and an after-work margarita.
Hurray for the rejuvenation of Prince Arthur!
64 Prince Arthur Street East
Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri, Dinner Thurs-Sun, Brunch Sat-Sun