For more than 30 years, I had never tried eating a cactus.
Cactuses are tough, prickly plants that live in a dessert, I thought. It had never occurred to me to eat one.
But that all changed recently when I stepped into La Mexicanada, an authentic Mexican restaurant in downtown Bradford West Gwillimbury.
The owners Debra and Edson Nava, who took over the restaurant one year ago next month, showed me the spines could be removed and the rest cut into chunks that could be softened through cooking.
And how did it taste? Not bad — similar to a green pepper.
The couple welcomed me into their renovated, brightly decorated space — hugely different from just a year ago.
“Looks-wise before, it was plain, simple, blue walls. It was basically your little dive,” said Debra. “The food was OK, but it never evolved.”
Edson, who worked his way up from bartender to general manager at La Mexicanada before taking over ownership with his wife, said the more responsibility he got there, the more he tried to change the restaurant to reflect authentic Mexican food, drink and atmosphere.
When the pair became owners, they had full reign — painting each wall a different bright colour, decorating with artwork, candles, catrinas and catrins (Day of the Dead skeletons), banners, and sombreros in a variety of colours representing different Mexican states.
All the decor comes straight from Toluca, Mexico, except for large paintings of a catrin and catrina, which was done by a La Mexicanada staff member.
There are food specials on the menu every week, a bar built personally by Edson that features 52 types of tequila, Mexican mariachi nights once a month, and salsa and merengue dancing lessons on other evenings.
On dance lesson days, the bar area gets cleared and it turns into a dance floor, and some customers even dance around their tables, Edson said.
“It was great. Finally I had the chance to change something that hadn’t been changed in many, many years,” he said.
“I see the change. Now it’s all families. (You might see) a family with two babies and the kids dancing. It makes me so happy because we completely changed the atmosphere of this place.”
And plenty of people are noticing.
La Mexicanada is nominated for three Bradford Board of Trade awards this year, including entrepreneur of the year, people’s choice, and business excellence.
The Holland Landing couple have also appeared on several TV shows featuring La Mexicanada, including a crew filming a documentary for Netflix about diversity in Canada.
“We fed the film crew pancita (tripe soup). They were nervous but you’ve got to get people to try the food,” Debra said.
Univision Canada has also filmed six episodes there for a mini cooking show series — three have aired, and three are to come, including one celebrating Day of the Dead Nov. 2.
La Mexicanada is also celebrating Day of the Dead, with new decorations from Mexico going up this month.
One of the dishes they made for the Univision show is pambazos, a sandwich of grilled bun, chorizo, onions, potato, salsa, and guajillo chili.
“We’re not just your meat and potatoes and apple pies. Mexican is Canadian now,” Debra said.
“We’re trying to bring a little bit of Mexico City that people aren’t familiar with,” added Edson.
Debra and Edson met in Mexico — she was on vacation, and he worked at a nightclub in Cancun.
“Two weeks later we got married,” said Debra, who grew up in Toronto. “We didn’t speak the same languages (but) we have a lot in common.”
Twelve years later, the couple is going strong, and Edson officially became a Canadian citizen last month.
“Moving to Canada is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me,” he said. “It’s given me the chance to show my culture to people a little more.”
Now, they are bringing their experience from years of travelling together throughout Mexico to Bradford.
They nearly painted La Mexicanada orange in tribute to “the orange house” in Mexico City, a home that sold alambres they loved, Debra said.
While visiting family in Mexico for a month, they also discovered a food vendor who made delicious barbacoa consomme. Debra spent an entire day with the vendor to learn how to make it.
“Now we have this recipe. We’ve fed it to all our friends and family,” she said.
While most Canadians may be most familiar with dishes such as tacos, enchiladas and burritos, she said, they suspected others like the consomme would be “too authentic, too traditional.”
But, so far, their customers have loved them, and many other recipes come from Edson’s family.
In the kitchen at La Mexicanada, just the smell of the food is mouth watering.
The staff is relaxed and friendly, and Debra and Edson are just as comfortable back there, tossing some sausage, beef, cactus, peppers and little onions on the grill to start making a molcajete — the name for a dish served in a large stone bowl that is heated on a stovetop and will keep the heat for more than an hour.
At the same time, Debra tosses sirloin steak, bacon and a mix of chopped peppers and onions onto the grill for alambres.
“I love garlic powder. Garlic powder on everything,” she said, sprinkling some over the food.
When it is time to assemble the dishes, salsa is poured into the molcajete bowl and it immediately starts to sizzle before cheese and the other ingredients are added on top.
The little onions are from Mexico and some customers eat them with just lime juice and salt on top, Debra said.
I had never eaten just an onion before, but it was surprisingly a little sweet and not overpowering.
It paired perfectly with the meat — and even the cactus. Digging into the bowl, which could easily be shared between a couple people, I cut off pieces of meat and dipped them into the melted cheese at the bottom of the salsa, piling vegetables on top.
The alambres ingredients were also mixed together and served with corn tortillas, rice, beans and salsa.
Well, there may not be food much better than alambres in fresh corn tortillas.
All the food, washed down with a mango-flavoured Jarritos pop from Mexico, was completely delicious.
“It’s what you see in a Mexican cantina,” said Debra. “Every time we’re in Mexico, we think, ‘I wish we had a place like this.’ Now we have it.”
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