Inventive, modern Mexican cuisine, with a side of salsa

When Abhi Bawa, manager at Argyle Street’s Antojo Tacos + Tequila, arrives at work, he is occasionally greeted by a box of dried grasshoppers, delivered from Oaxaca, Mexico. Vacuum packed into six or eight one-pound bags, the tiny insects known as chapulines have already been charred, most probably in a local Mexican kitchen, rather than a factory. Seasoned with lime and chile powder, they are the key ingredient in one of Antojo’s three signature guacamoles, but there’s no guaranteed supply. When it rains in Oaxaca, the grasshoppers disappear.

When we visit Antojo on a busy Friday night, Bawa treats my companion and me to a small bowl of the grasshoppers to nibble. Salty and crisp, the cooked insects taste mildly nutty, like spicy sunflower seeds. They remind my friend of the sun-dried fish he ate in Bangladesh. Flavour associations aside, the bugs are a perfect accompaniment to my classic Antojo Margarita. Sweet, bitter and smoky at the same time, the drink is made with mezcal, not tequila, and the glass is garnished with sugar, salt, and Mexican cinnamon. Now that my taste buds have been primed, I crave something sweet.

Enter the Mexican Street Elote: corn on the cob topped with sour cream, lime, green onions, and dry cotija cheese, the latter ingredient sourced from a supplier in Ontario. Of all the menu items, says head chef, Luiz López, who grew up in the city of Mazatlán on Mexico’s Pacific Coast,  this was a surprise in terms of its popularity: “For me, it’s something so common…we would get them in the streets. I would never expect to go to a restaurant and get grilled corn!”

The chapulines and the cotija cheese aren’t the only ingredients for which the culinary team at Antojo has scoured the Americas. Finding authentic Mexican ingredients has been key in creating an experience about as far removed from Tex-Mex as you can get.

Tortillas for the tacos come from a Mexican supplier based in Detroit, and three out of the four hot sauces, presented in simple plastic squeeze bottles on every table, are made in-house. The hottest, Chile de Arbol has a wicked kick, but the mildest, Valentina, is lovely and smooth. As we dine, my friend and I turn to the sauces from time to time, squeezing a bit here and there, enjoying the flavour adventure.

“A taco is nothing without a tortilla,” says co-owner Geir Simensen, when I chat to him later in the week, “but we can’t actually make them. We’re going through 1000 a day. You can’t make that without a machine.”

Although they don’t make tortillas in-house, there is one unlikely machine in the Antojo kitchen, and that is the spit, which roasts layers of spiced pork for the Al Pastor taco, a traditional Mexican dish with Lebanese roots. Simensen gets pretty excited when he talks about the Al Pastor, taking out his iPhone to help explain how they do it south of the border. He shows me a video from an outdoor Mexican taqueria featuring a young chef playing to the camera, slicing strips of meat into taco shells at record speed. Traditionally, there is a fresh pineapple at the top of the spit. In the Antojo kitchen, Simensen promises, there is a pineapple too.

When it comes to taco fillings at Antojo, there are plenty of interesting choices, including pork carnitas, braised beef tongue, Adobe-chipotle chicken, and a weekly feature too. For vegetarians, there is crispy battered cauliflower on a beautiful blue tortilla, or mushroom with epazote, another herb imported from the homeland. Anything that hasn’t been through the fryer is gluten-free.

One of the most popular choices – the Baja Fish taco, is made with soft chunks of fresh haddock encased in a beer batter made black by recado negro. The paste, made from chiles, onions, and spices charred in charcoal is only available in the Yucatan peninsula, and its method of preparation is so smoky that, according to Simensen, it’s illegal to make inside city limits.

How does an ingredient like recado negro make it to Halifax? The same way as the grasshoppers, explains Simensen – and with help from Antojo waitress Maria Martelli. “Maria’s sister and her family are all in Merida,” he explains, “so her sister goes to the market and buys the recado negro and then sends it up to us in a cardboard box. It’s dark black and it comes in one pound blocks, all perfectly stacked.”  When the box is opened, he says, it unleashes a delicious warm, earthy, charcoal smell.

Another dish worth getting excited about is the Cochinita Pibli: pork marinated in sour orange and recado roho (achiote paste), wrapped in banana leaf, and slow roasted overnight (traditionally, it is cooked in an earthen pit). This is a dish Seimensen discovered while on holiday in Campeche, on the Yucatán Peninsula. When perfecting the dish, the kitchen team again consulted Martelli, to keep the recipe authentic. “Here, we wrap it in banana leaves, but we don’t put it in the ground,” laughs Simensen. “We just can’t figure out how to get away with that one.”

As a fan of Peruvian food, I can’t wait to try the ceviche. On our Friday night adventure, we order the sampler of three. Next time, I’ll dive straight into a full serving of the Vuelve a la Vida (“return to life”), a combination of octopus, shrimp, scallop, lime, habanero, tomato, cilantro, and avocado with a delicious, soft texture and an amazing spicy flavour. Great for a hangover, I am told.

Speaking of hangovers, it’s time to order my next drink. I make the mistake of choosing the most ostentatious party-drink on the menu, The Bulldog: a classic Margarita, with a bottle of Corona inverted into the nearly fishbowl-size glass. The clever engineering means I’m sipping two drinks at once. It’s a drink within a drink, a Big Drink, and a poor choice, considering the selection of beautiful cocktails (Peaches and Dreams, From Dusk ‘til Dawn) I have overlooked.

Sipping my Big Drink, I notice that many of the other diners here have ordered Big Drinks too, and a visit to the restroom reveals a group of women my age who have also had quite a few. One is wearing only her underpants, as she laments a small food stain on a pair of white trousers. “No one will notice,” console her friends, “just put your pants back on, stay, and enjoy your birthday.”

Back to the menu, there is the mole. Mole, in simplest terms, means “thick sauce” but its preparation, derived from Aztec culture, is far from simple. Mimicking traditional Oaxacan style, the mole recipe at Antojo has 32 ingredients including chocolate, and two signature chiles: the chilcostle, and the chilhuacle negro – a rare chile found only in the mountains of Oaxaca.

The beef short rib mole is the defining experience of the night, a huge hunk of soft meat covered in a glossy, warmly spiced sauce, served with lovely fresh carrots, and a generous side portion of refried beans and rice. Sending all the evening’s other dishes marching to the back of my mind, it is a new flavour experience and a delicious, hearty meal – nothing like the Tex-Mex flavours of my past.

Eight months in, Antojo is developing its unique downtown personality, with a definite pull for the local Latin community. Salsa happens here on Saturday nights, at a regular event called Latin Fiesta, from 10:30 pm until 2:00 am.

Recently, there was a huge open-air street party just outside the restaurant with Salsa, Bachata, and Kizomba dancers, free lessons, performances, and two hours of Latin music and dancing.  The event was perfectly suited to the new architecture of pedestrian-only weekends on Argyle Street, and the perfect companion to adventurous Mexican food.