Call it the bespoke, craft movement, or whatever you want,…
Mi Tienda Latina
105 Ontario Street
On Ontario Street between Joseph and Charles and opposite the bus terminal in downtown Kitchener, the small, seemingly down-at-heel strip plaza, bedraggled here and there in that solidly urban fashion, offers middle eastern and Salvadoran food, a few dishes of which are, in turn, a perfect urban meal. (Next door, you can get your billiards table repaired too.)
Hasty Market, mostly a middle east grocery store with a small area for shawarma, pizza and a hot table with a few dubious looking steam-table hotel pans, is a busy venue given its location near the transportation centre of the city. Select your grub from a large menu board; it’s a walk-up counter with a couple of bar stools near the window. The service is less than engaged if not surly at times, but I don’t care given the venue.
Pizza slices are typical industro-chain-style quality. The one-pound of shawarma is hefty and decent and much like the plethora of others you can get in the Region. Some of the steam table contents were enigmatic and looked to be sitting in the exact same configuration in the pan over the course of a week. I had some sort of unidentifiable bean or lentil dish once that was filling and hearty.
Next door, however, is a bit of deliciousness and fun, and a truly engaging experience. I’ve spent the past few days watching World Cup soccer — in Spanish — and snacking on and eating Salvadoran food. It’s fun to talk with the regulars about the universal and beautiful game and share homemade salsa and hot sauce bottles — and attempt to communicate with each other in languages that both sides are rather weak in.
Mi Tienda Latina has been around for decades. It’s the same model as many similar businesses: food shop in back — if you need dry chiles, this is a good place to find them — and small dining area off to one side. Muy, muy sabroso (I think that’s the right phrase).
Next to small window and ledge into the kitchen is the lighted, glowing menu board advertising a handful of lunch items — there is always pupusas — from soups to fried chicken. An the adjacent wall is a collection of posters — a Jarritos-Paloma ad, martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, Baby Jesus, a map of El Salvador, wires hanging helter-skelter and a television toward which you can crane your neck awkwardly.
You sit opposite grocery shelves laden with hearts of palm and guava paste around a communal cafeteria table and basic chairs. You’re in the thick of things at this Salvadoran community gathering place; you’re loving every minute of the experience.
Folks quip and argue in Spanish about the game on the TV, the kitchen brings you enormous bowls of the most delicious chicken soup with a soft, rich broth and chunks of vegetables. Below is both noodles and rice. Make sure you get a section of lime to squeeze in. It’s delicious.
A porky pupusa is scrumptious and slightly crisp inside and a touch browned in spots outside. Some might call it oily, but it’s not. The tamales are good too.
The fried chicken on Wednesday is rustic home-style good. A staff member is cagey and playful — and does a bit ofa coy schtick for the gringo too — about what makes up the crisp coating. A regular, I think his name was Joe, tried to cajole it out of her in Spanish. He didn’t do much better than I did in Spanglish.
Oxtail soup — likely not “ox” tail but what they call sopa de cola de buey — shows on Thursday in (what must be) an equally large one-litre serving. The meat, with lots of cartilage, is rich and soft from a long broth-bath (nip away the fat if you must — but there goes flavour too) with perfectly crisp green beans, onions and a third of a cob of corn to crunch away at. Cilantro and a squeeze of lime set it all off with utter satisfaction. Two heavy, thick tortillas stand by for soup-sopping. Dob’t forget: suck a while on the bones.
The accent in both of these soups is gourd-like chayote: slightly sweet, the flesh absorbs the ingredients around it, but it too adds a layer of flavour and texture.
World Cup or not, this is a fun place to be. This is good food to eat.