El Caballito opened earlier this month at King and Duncan. Offering a range of tequilas (and related cocktails), as well as bar snacks like tacos with scratch-made tortillas, the aim is to bring a little craft quality to a stretch of the city otherwise dominated by sports bars, pre-theatre dining, and the Bay Street throng.
Named after the slender shot-style glass traditionally used for serving tequila, the focus is on a short but well curated list of tequilas and mezcals, all served in those eponymous glasses for sipping (not shooting).
Situated in the lower level of a grand commercial building, the decor works with a storage basement aesthetic -- exposed support beams and pipework run the length of the room, framed by industrial steel shelving and accents, while wooden crates are repurposed as tequila display boxes. There's a private tequila tasting room in the back, and though it only holds a small handful of people at a time, it's worth making plans for a session with the house Tequilier.
It being the Entertainment District, El Caballito makes a point of offering bottle service, playfully renamed "family-style," with bottles available from the $180 Espolon Blanco, up to the $4,500 Clase Azul Ultra AĹejo. Another nod to the King Street surroundings is a cheeky note on the menu suggesting that revellers can save themselves a whole calorie by enjoying a tequila and soda, rather than the more popular vodka version.
Thankfully, such concessions to the neighbourhood don't turn El Caballito into a placed riddled with compromise. The cocktail list is the brainchild of Bar Manager Manny Contreras, who made the short journey from Buonanotte to take control of the drinks. The list is only seven cocktails long, but the bar team seem completely comfortable with making anything you might ask for, including producing custom drinks for the occasion. I tried a mezcal variant on a Final Word, the Chartreuse for which was impressively set ablaze and tossed between metal jugs for a touch of theatre.
The La Condesa ($12) is made with Tromba, lemoncello and grapefruit juice, and is rimmed with a citrus salt, whilst Manny's Margarita ($11.50) uses a pink peppercorn and juniper-infused Tromba. As for the beer, the Minerva ITA ($12.50 for 660ml) is matured in tequila oak barrels, and is worth checking out. All beers can be seasoned and spiced into a Michelada (+$2) or a Chelada (+$3) on demand. There's also a nightly drink deal to take advantage of.
El Caballito firmly identifies as a bar, and with the sister venture, fine dining spot Los Colibris, opening upstairs in the coming months, the team here are careful not to paint this as a restaurant. However, notwithstanding the ever-present DJ, this might be something of an oversight, as Elia Herrea's menu easily puts them in competition with the heavy hitters in Toronto's taqueria game. All recipes are passed down through Elia's family, and the result is altogether more authentic than the hip places in town (think Grand Electric , La Carnita) , but more refined than the authentic places ( Rebozos , El Trompo) .
The Fresh Salsas ($4.25) are a selection of four dipping salsas served in a little tower (ranked in ascending order of spiciness), with plantain, sweet potato, totopos and taro chips. The Tamarind Ceviche ($13.75) is 3 paper-thin jicama tacos with ceviche cod, and mango. It's got a bright and summery tone that seems out of step with the season, but made perfect sense placed next to the Flank Steak taco ($4.75), which comes on one of those aforementioned scratch-made tortillas, and is topped with salsa verde and melted cheese. The acidity of the salsa verde balances the fat of the steak and cheese combo. The tortillas, however, are the star, akin to having a great sandwich served on incredible bread.
In this neighbourhood, it's hard to know if they'll still be packed at last call, but there's plenty of reason to head straight here after work for some great snacks and and cocktails. If you just want a beer, however, you might want to wait until Tuesdays, when Tecate drops from $8 to $5.