Push through the swinging cantina doors and pull up a seat in a room with French-inspired decor and a large black and white photo of a turn-of-the-century (the 20th century, that is) political figure in full regalia. This is La Cantina de Don Porfirio.
Named for Mexican general and politician Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915), the new restaurant has taken over the space at 151 E 8th Ave that was previously home to Side Hustle Sandwiches.
Fittingly, Don Porfirio - the restaurant - is housed in a Vancouver building called the Depencier House that dates back to around 1894, when the seven-term Mexican president was in office. This isn't the kind of Mexican restaurant with vibrant colours, a beachy motif, or mariachis strolling. Instead, the aim is to offer Vancouverites a glimpse at a popular kind of establishment in Mexico City that's a more akin to a saloon of yesteryear (hence the swinging doors). It's a term that entered the vernacular in Porfirio Diaz's time.
The restaurant is the latest venture for a Mexican native who previously owned the commissary spot Tacos Jorge; he operated the take-out and delivery business for about two years before selling it (the taco spot carried on using the same name under new ownership for a spell) and spending some time back in Mexico.
Now, however, his focus is on his nod to Mexico City canteen culture, Don Porfirio, which opened mid-September for lunch and dinner service.
What's on the menu at Don Porfirio?
The chef, who also hails from Mexico, is turning out a selection of classic Mexican "cantina" dishes, such as choriqueso (a skillet of hot cheese topped with crumbled chorizo served with warm tortillas and salsas), a couple of seafood options (a traditional shrimp ceviche and a shrimp cocktail in clamato juice with saltines), and several tacos.
The tacos can be ordered a la carte or in a set "tasting" option which features a street-style birria taco (in a smaller tortilla) with consomme for dipping, and a lamb barbacoa taco with a meat-studded broth as well, along with a third soup, a traditional pozole, which is a rich, pork and red chile broth with hominy - nixtamalized corn kernels.
When asked what he recommended, the owner suggested an off-menu option, the Torta Ahogada, which is a "drowned" sandwich of juicy pork carnitas on a roll with a crunchy exterior and soft interior that you soak in a broth, kind of like a French Dip au jus. This was a good tip, as the sandwich was rich and satisfying - definitely comfort eats.
Right now Don Porfirio doesn't have its liquor license but the plan once the red tape is handled is to have a fun drinks selection (right now it's all about Jarritos, the fruity bottled Mexican soda pop).
While in Mexico it's not uncommon to find businesses, including a popular Mexico City bakery-cafe, named for the famous Don Porfirio, this new Vancouver cantina is an independent venture. So far, they are only present online on Instagram @donporfiriovan.
Video: Checking out Vancouver's newest Mexican cantina, Don Porfirio
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