Spice up your routine with a stop at one of these Latin American restaurants
Credit: Lolita's

Spice up your routine with a stop at one of these Latin American restaurants

Vancouverites have taken a deep dive into Mexican cuisine, drifting away from places where the decor outshines the food and regret sets in before the plates are cleared. Instead, authentic recipes, using fresh and season ingredients – sometimes with a West Coast bent – keep us yearning for more. While there are perhaps a dozen or more eateries worth exploring, we keep finding ourselves at these seven faves, serving up everything from tacos and burritos to kimchi and octopus.

Cuchillo, 261 Powell Street

Cuchillo, 261 Powell Street

There are ample adjectives that could describe Cuchillo, helmed by Chef Stu Irving, formerly of Cobre fame (he was also behind the recent menu reno at stalwart strip club No. 5 Orange). Ballsy is one that comes to mind. Who else would be audacious enough to pair shrimp with kimchi made with a mash up of ancho chilies and jicama? Or dare to dream up a taco filled with roasted cauliflower that’s been anointed with almond-date butter? And were the words duck fat and masa dumplings ever uttered in the same sentence before – much less served on the same plate – with braised venison, no less? Cocktails also hit high notes here. Cuchillo mixes up one of the best Sazeracs you’ll have north of New Orleans.

Insider tip: Put down the menu and let your server choose an assortment of dishes for you.

La Mezcaleria, 1622 Commercial Drive

La Mezcaleria, 1622 Commercial Drive

People who embrace Mexican cuisine at its finest comprise the crowds that flock to La Mezcaleria, an elegant offshoot of La Taqueria pinche taco shops. Dishes, such as barbecued tamarind squid or Fraser Valley duck confit tostadas topped with fruit mole, are crafted to complement mezcal, a smoky agave spirit that hails from Mexico’s Oaxaca region. Sample and savour by ordering a flight and cleansing your palate in-between sips with wedges of orange.

Insider tip: Beat the weekend crowds and enjoy the late-night menu available on Fridays and Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Lolita’s South of the Border Cantina, 1326 Davie Street
Credit: Lolita's

Lolita’s South of the Border Cantina, 1326 Davie Street

A step inside this Lolita's evokes blurry memories of beachside palapas and open-air eateries, courtesy of its bamboo-centric decor, shoulder-to-shoulder seating and heady aromas wafting from the open kitchen. Sure, you can sit at the bar and drink your way through the menu of top-shelf tequila, but the food deserves equal attention. Portions are plentiful and several items successfully stray from the traditional. Beef-and-chorizo tacos are drizzled with pomegranate glaze and the wild salmon burrito includes grilled asparagus and goat cheese.

Make some friends: Share the queso fundido, a beautiful mess of melted cheeses and poblano peppers. Add the extra chorizo for a hit of smoky pork goodness.

Bandidas Taqueria, 2781 Commercial Drive

Bandidas Taqueria, 2781 Commercial Drive

It can be a tall order to find a vegetarian Mexican restaurant that serves healthy and delicious dishes in a buzzing atmosphere where there’s also a focus on sustainability (local beer and wine, compostable packaging, organic chipotle tofu). Thankfully, such a place does exist, with some exciting departures from the expected. Smoked tempeh and poblano chilies give fajitas a little zing, nachos are adorned with corn, tortilla soup is changed up with a bit of feta, and roasted yams tucked into tacos offer hearty sweetness. Just want to nibble? Two tacos at Bandidas will set you back just six bucks. Stuff yourself with a four-taco sampler plate for $9.50.

A nutty take: Go for Connie’s burrito, which is filled with ground walnuts, apple salsa, cheese and roasted red pepper sauce.

Salsa and Agave, 1205 Pacific Boulevard

Salsa and Agave, 1205 Pacific Boulevard

Despite Salsa and Agave's Yaletown locale, this authentic eatery manages to keep its focus firmly on the food, thanks to its crew of Mexican chefs. Two-bite tacos are filled with ingredients such as carnitas (pork confit), lengua (beef tongue) and spicy chorizo, plated with the essential wedge of lime and raw chopped onions. Thick sopes are handmade from corn, and tortas (Mexico’s answer to the sub sandwich) are satisfyingly simple with fillings such as ham, grilled beef or roasted chicken, all topped with jalapeño peppers, avocado, beans and more. Don’t forget to order a horchata or pineapple soda to cool down the heat in case you’re a little too liberal with the habanero sauce.

Hangover cure extraordinaire: On weekends, try the stomach-settling pozole or menudo, two slow-cooked hearty soups that promise to cure whatever ails you.

Tacofino, 2327 East Hastings Street; food truck at various locations
Credit: Tacofino

Tacofino, 2327 East Hastings Street; food truck at various locations

Sidewalk or picnic table? The choice is yours since you can now eat at Tacofino’s food trucks (Vancouver, Tofino and Victoria) or its East Vancouver commissary. While the menus vary from curb to commissary, they share very important traits: the food is sensational and seasonal. What you want: Baja-inspired fish tacos covered with shredded cabbage, salsa fresca and chipotle mayo. It’s amazing, but messy, so lean forward if you’re eating street-side to avoid the inevitable drips. Seasonal selections include tacos made with sustainable B.C. spot prawns or roasted squash. When at the commissary, pay homage to Tacofino’s origins and order a Tofino Brewing Tuff Session Ale.

Unexpected entree: Grilled octopus salad with crispy yucca, market greens, avocado jalapeño crema, lime pepper aioli and spicy chili oil. 

Topanga Cafe, 2904 West 4th Avenue
Credit: Topanga Cafe

Topanga Cafe, 2904 West 4th Avenue

Cali meets Mexico at this Kitsilano mainstay that has been filling bellies with no-fuss dishes since 1978.

At the Topanga Cafe, you don’t need advanced Spanish lessons or a penchant for tongue or tripe to enjoy comfort foods carefully prepared according to original recipes. Instead, the menu is filled with accessible eats like crispy chimichangas, chile rellenos, tamales and combo plates for big appetites.

Bonus: Create your very own Topanga Cafe artwork with the crayons on hand and take home a Kits-style souvenir. Stay within the lines and, if you’re lucky, they may frame it and hang it on the restaurant wall.