214 Augusta might be home to Toronto's best cheap eats
After 13 years, it seems 214 Augusta Avenue has finally hit its stride.
The food court with a house-like exterior and crowded entrance has re-emerged once more as the hotspot for Latin American foods in Kensington Market, and I'm hoping this time it stays like that for good.
What began as a single-vendor building over a decade ago, now plays host to six businesses — some old, some OG — mostly specializing in Mexican cuisine.
It hasn't always been strictly Latin favourites here. Alongside the tacos and quesadillas, 214 Augusta has been home to other international fare like Korean at Kim's a la Cart and Kensington's first Persian restaurant, Ashpazkhoune.
Those businesses, along with a handful of other Latin joints, didn't last long. Sitting in a small section dubbed as the Latin American quarter on Augusta Avenue, the international concept proved too broad for the food court's cramped little spaces.
According to Enoc Ramirez, who co-runs El Gordo Fine Foods with his cousin Alfonso Segovia (whose brother Leonardo owns Segovia Meat Market next door), 214 Augusta has found its strength in keeping the food options here regional, or at least continental.
"We experimented with a lot of different cultures," he says. "But everyone loves Mexican."
For the past few months the food court — which is actually more of a food corridor — has been busier than ever. Equipped with a non-compete rule, vendors here are flourishing by serving what they cook best in a symbiotic space.
Head here on a weekend, says Enoc, and you'll find the place packed to the walls with customers travelling from all around the city to try 214 Augusta's cheap Latin eats.
There was a time when El Gordo was the only vendor selling out of 214 Augusta — until the empanada house got lonely and decided to open its doors to other businesses 11 years ago.
The single offering at Gordo's is the Chilean empanada ($5 each), handmade and stuffed with 11 options ranging from classics like beef and cheese to more experimental takes like beef with olives and boiled egg. Find this stall up the small flight of steps.
Making it through the five year hump, the purveyors of churros make a killing here with storefront real estate right by the window.
To this day you'll see Pancho behind the counter, where he and longtime staff Victor serve up freshly fried churros: the crispy, sweet sticks of dough stuffed with your choice of fillings like dulce de leche or chocolate are three for $5.
These churros have made their way into the hands of Prime Minister Trudeau and the president of Germany. They can also be skillfully twisted into magical shapes like loops or cones topped with ice cream.
Pork is a staple in Mayan diet, hence why much of the menu at the food court's other frontal stall consists of grilled pork, which is pulled.
Here Lucy Novelo and her family specialize in Mayan home-cooked meals (one of few to do so in the city) like Pac Chuc, pork marinated in orange sauce.
They also serve classic Mexican breakfasts like Chilaquiles Verdes, crispy tortilla chips doused in green tomatillo sauce.
Hailing from León, 22-year old Augustine Morales brings a taste of his hometown to Kensington with a menu of burritos and tacos, most notably the chilaca taco ($5), a green pepper served on flour tortilla.
Stuffed with cheese and your choice of meat, the chilaca isn't too spicy for anyone looking to try something new. Couple it with a bottle of your favourite Jarritos flavour and you have an ultimate takeaway snack.
Perhaps the hippest option in this food court, this stall has more bowled foods than its counterparts. Traditional Mexican street foods like esquites (corn salad) and bowls of beans, rice and protein are available here, as are tortas and tostadas.
The standout here, however, might be the ceviche: the last thing you'd expect to be delicious in a crammed food court. For $10 you get a bowl of delicious seafood and chips that surpasses other restaurant offerings.
The final stall closest to the back, this corner business is doing something no one else is doing at 214 Augusta, or in the city, for that matter.
Fusing two Latin American staples together, chef Rene Rordriguez takes a leap by using the shell of the Mexican quesadilla (handmade from Ontario corn) and fills it with the common stuffings of an El Salvadoran pupusa.
It's super simple and not as complicated or risky as it sounds, coming served on a tray with salsa and a side of curtido, the Central American pickled relish side.
It's not a food court without some seating options, so 214 Augusta has generously provided patrons with three tables in the back for an ultra casual nook to eat if you don't want to take it outside. There's also a sink available here, since you'll inevitably be eating with your hands.
The real move, however, is to take your meal to the back patio, if weather permits. Eating off of green plastic cloth-covered tables, surrounded by street art, 214 Augusta's patio is definitely one of those urban gems you'll keep going back to once you've discovered it.
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