On a 600-metre stretch of St. Clair Avenue West between Dufferin and Oakwood, there are more than 30 food establishments and at least 6 of them are Latin American restaurants. (Continue east to Bathurst and you’ll encounter many more.) Just west of Oakwood, Tita La Guanaca is a small family restaurant specializing in Pupusas and traditional Salvadoran cuisine.
I had been to Tita La Guanaca years ago when it was in a slightly larger location a couple doors away but it was a mostly unmemorable experience. That’s not to say it was a bad experience, just that it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me one way or another. Or perhaps I was just too picky? Here’s my opening paragraph from my 2011 review of Mi Pueblo Restaurante:
I’m always more critical of Latin American restaurants than any other type of cuisine. It’s not because I grew up in a family where food was celebrated and the standards were always exceptionally high; it’s not because one of my uncles is a respected red-seal executive chef; it’s not because my mother is a revered chef who’s earned many awards for her Latin American cuisine and I grew up eating that food every day; no, it’s not for any of those reasons. It’s only because I want to see them succeed. I feel a personal connection with “my people” and I have a sincere desire to help them improve. Sure, growing up around so much incredible food has heightened my awareness, refined my palate and unavoidably elevated my standards. But I’m also well aware that imposing those lofty standards on anyone else would be setting my expectations way too high. That said, while I do relax my standards and set out to not be hypercritical, it’s still nevertheless very difficult to accept less than perfection when you’re so passionate about something.
I mostly eat Chinese food when I go out and I rarely go to Salvadoran restaurants. Nobody enjoys eating at a restaurant knowing that they can cook the same thing much better at home, and nine times out of ten, that’s the case with Latin American restaurants for me personally. In spite of this, one evening in mid-May I was in no mood to cook for just myself while Michelle was attending a work function but neither was I feeling like going all the way to Chinatown, so I decided to give Tita La Guanaca a shot.
There were many more people at the restaurant than I expected on a Thursday evening, but even though they were busy I was still greeted very promptly and seated in no time at all. So far so good…
I was seated in the middle of the restaurant sandwiched between upbeat music playing at the front with the TV equally as loud at the back. It was unnecessarily noisy and it made it hard to relax, much less concentrate on the menu. Adding to the chaos, the restaurant was very disorganized with an excess of trinkets and random articles scattered everywhere. Not very presentable.
The tables and chairs were in good shape though and even though the place was so disorganized and a little rundown, it was surprisingly clean. Clean is good!
As I sat there looking through the menu I couldn’t help but notice that the floor tiles were cracked (and taped) in various places. But I also sat there thinking that they could leave the floor tiles as they were and instead just organize and tidy up the place, and that would have a much bigger impact on creating a more satisfactory environment.
I like restaurants that integrate their culture to create an authentic atmosphere. It makes for a more memorable dining experience when you genuinely feel welcome and almost as though you’re part of their family while you’re there. At Tita La Guanaca however, it felt as though I had just showed up unannounced at someone’s perpetually messy house the day after a late-night party, before they had a chance to tidy up. I felt uncomfortable sitting there.
Being fair, their exceptionally prompt service at the start made for a great first impression; it wasn’t until I was seated and had a chance to fully take in my surroundings that my opinion of Tita La Guanaca started to deteriorate. But every now and then I come across a restaurant where the ambience sucks but the food is another story. So I was hoping that this would be the case at Tita La Guanaca and tried to keep an open mind. It was quite busy after all, and on a Thursday night too — that should be a good sign, no?
The Horchata ($2.50) was prepared with milk, not too sweet, not watered-down, very refreshing and well-made overall, but it came in a large plastic cup. I realize that this is not fine dining but still, does it need to be plastic?
The fact that they took my drink order as soon as I sat down and that it came way before I had a chance to fully look through the menu was a big plus in their favour. I was seated without having to wait, my drink came super fast, the menu came fast, they were even prompt in taking my food order. But after that, the tamale I ordered as an appetizer took an eternity to leave the kitchen.
The Chicken Tamale ($2.75) was nothing to write home about, but a respectable tamale nonetheless. It was considerably better than the last tamale I had eaten at a Salvadoran restaurant (at El Pulgarcito back in 2013) but that’s setting the bar way too low.
The tamale had only a sparse amount of chicken, just one olive, not very much tomato sauce and consequently, looked a little pale. I did however, appreciate the silky-smooth, velvety texture of the masa and the fact that the tamale had garbanzo beans, which not everybody puts in their tamales. It wasn’t at all greasy either. It was better than some of my aunts’ tamales but definitely not better than my mom’s. Of course, that’s setting the bar way too high though…
Tita had come to my table a couple times noticing that I was taking photos with my DSLR camera and quipped,
“…oh, you’re trying to steal the recipe for my delicious tamales, that’s why you’re taking pictures, huh!?” We joked around back and forth and I recall teasing that I already had my mom’s recipe so I didn’t need hers. Then after I had eaten half the tamale she dug further,
“so, is it better than your mom’s?” but before I had a chance to respond, she acknowledged that everyone always likes their mom’s tamales best. Phew, I didn’t want to offend her so I also held back telling her that even I can make them better myself. Sometimes it’s better to play along and laugh than to be honest. There’s no way she could have known what she was trying to compare to so I couldn’t hold it against her. Leaving it at that was the polite thing to do, no matter how much I had to bite my tongue. Plus, it’s not fair to impose the extraordinarily high standards that I grew up with on Tita La Guanaca anyways.
The tamales at Tita La Guanaca aren’t terrible, they’re just nothing to brag about. Even employing more realistic benchmarks though, I think most people would still expect a better tamale from a restaurant. Like the tamales at Mi Pueblo for example, which are substantially better.
Next up were the pupusas. I ordered one Chicharrón ($3), one Cheese with Loroco ($3.75) and two Revueltas ($3 each). At first glance the pupusas were visibly dry and overcooked. They weren’t the nicest looking pupusas and reminded me of our first, not-so-great attempt at making pupusas back in 2012. (We’ve come a long way since then!) To make matters worse, one of the revuelta pupusas was burnt on one side so they flipped the burnt side down to hide it. Seriously!?
I also didn’t like that the beans were only partially mashed and not ground up all the way. They’re supposed to be pureed then refried in the lard that comes off the chicharrón until they form a thick, dry paste-like consistency, also known as frijoles colochos. Partially mashed beans are just not the same, not even close.
The chicharrón filling looked a little too pale for my liking but had a very traditional and authentic flavour despite its anemic appearance.
The cheese pupusa with loroco was easily the worst of the lot. I’ll give them credit for putting in a generous amount of loroco but the cheese filling was dreadfully unpleasant — chewy like taffy and stiff like day-old chewing gum. Gross.
When pupusas have only a meagre amount of stuffing in them and a noticeably thick rim of masa around the edge, like these, it’s obvious that they were made with very little skill. It’s a common rookie flaw when you’re just starting out and haven’t yet learned to handle the masa properly. So for a restaurant that claims to specialize in pupusas, I was expecting them to be a great deal better. These were unquestionably very below-par pupusas.
When eating pupusas, the condiments — tomato sauce, curtido (pickled coleslaw) and hot sauce — are arguably just as important as the pupusas themselves.
They scored a lot of points with me when I saw that their hot sauce wasn’t the ubiquitous Tapatio hot sauce but was in fact homemade. Wow, the spiciness creeps up on you! It was a very flavourful hot sauce that paired well with the pupusas.
The curtido smelled like it was made with fermented pineapple but I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was. (No, not apple cider vinegar.) It was a funky smell but thankfully it tasted a lot better than it smelled. Unfortunately, it was void of oregano, under-seasoned and hadn’t been pickled anywhere close to long enough. Like sauerkraut, curtido is supposed to be pickled for a long time—I have curtido in my fridge that I made back in February. I sat there contemplating how much better the pupusas would have been with the curtido I had sitting at home. And serving it in a plastic kiddie bowl didn’t help either.
The tomato sauce, also in a plastic container, was mediocre at best. But the thing that stuck out to me the most was that they didn’t bother to wipe the container before bringing it to my table. Nasty!
As I already mentioned, the service at Tita La Guanaca was prompt from the beginning. When I first arrived, it was the cook who had greeted me but she was obviously more comfortable in the kitchen than front-of-house. A mere ten seconds after taking my order, she completely forgot it and had to return to have me repeat everything while she slowly wrote it down. I think Tita wasn’t there yet or perhaps she had stepped out for a while but fortunately it wasn’t long before she arrived and took over.
Tita is full of life, jovial, very personable and has a bubbly personality that’s certain to put a smile on your face. It was good to see her waiting on tables and tending to her customers — it would be a shame to hide her away in the kitchen. She was busy running from table to table making sure everyone was having a gay old time.
Unfortunately however, good service requires much more than just putting a smile on your face and making people laugh. Even by the end of my meal she still hadn’t picked up the finished tamale plate from my table nor asked me if I wanted another drink. It’s not because she never came around to my table though, and not because she was too busy either. She was just so focused on being the life of the party that she completely forgot about the basics of restaurant service.
Because of Tita’s warm, hospitable and cheerful personality, she has the potential to create truly great memorable experiences. Now she just needs to return to basics and pay more attention to the details that actually matter.
Much to my surprise, along with my final bill came this bottle-opener keychain featuring a photo of Tita in El Salvador back when she was a kid. It was a very kind, personal touch to end my meal.
The bathrooms in the basement were very clean and much nicer than I was expecting. An oasis compared to the bathrooms in the Chinese restaurants that I’m used to, and only slightly below average compared to other restaurants in the area. Kudos.
Next to the shock of just how below par the pupusas were, the silky-smooth texture of the tamale was the most memorable part of my meal. But given the abundance of exceptional dining options in the area, and not to mention the fact that I can effortlessly make this food infinitely better at home, I won’t be back to Tita La Guanaca anytime soon.
Tita La Guanaca Pupuseria
1028 St. Clair Avenue West
+1 (416) 656-3519
Over the years, I’ve experienced that not all restaurants can be great at everything. For example, some Chinese restaurants make phenomenal dim sum while everything else on their menu is a disappointment. Or some restaurants make one thing really well that you can’t find anywhere else, like the deep-fried spicy Har Gow at Tremendous for example. When I left Tita La Guanaca, I left wondering what their one thing might be. You expect from a Pupuseria that their speciality should be pupusas, but at Tita La Guanaca that’s an incorrect assumption. They must be great at something, I just wonder what it is…