Small NDG joint Amaranto brings Mexican sunshine into wintry Montreal
Amaranto is the kind of place I would like to clone with some sort of replicating ray and sprinkle onto street corners throughout Montreal. The young, ridiculously friendly couple from Mexico City who own this restaurant in NDG started out with a small store, and decided to add just a few tables and a short menu. Now, preparing seriously affordable Mexican food makes up the majority of their business.
And what food it is. It’s a rare treat in this frigid netherworld to enjoy a meal so bursting with freshness, flavour and vivacity. I can hardly wait for summertime, when the tomatillos and other ingredients will be available fresh and not canned.
The complimentary fried wedges of tortilla were simply a joy. A skilled hand at the deep fryer extracted maximum crunch and no cloying greasiness. The salsa rojo was also superb, making the best of February tomatoes through the smoky essence of chipotles.
Tacos al Pastor, the standard dish of tortillas filled with strips of annatto-marinated pork, was tasty, chewy and crispy without being at all dried out. This texture was achieved by roasting a large piece of meat doner-style on an upright rotisserie, then finishing it on a George Foreman-type grill. Hey, whatever works. Tacos filled with strips of nopales (cactus) and Oaxaca cheese were pleasantly and refreshingly tangy, not stodgy. Again, fresh cactus in warm months will make this even better. A small accompanying bowl of black bean soup was delicate and not too thick, flavoured simply with dried epazote. Sopes – thicker, smaller corn tortillas – topped with black beans and crumbled feta, were also delicious, dodging the usual Mexican bugaboo of lardy heaviness. The fact that each one had a dried Chile de Arbol poking out of it should show you the attention to detail here.
The tamale, the specialty of the day, was gobsmackingly wonderful. A banana leaf was stuffed with a huge portion of cornmeal, large shards of both chicken and pork, and a ladleful of complex, aromatic mole. Opening it to bathe in the steam offered the kind of shvitz they should have in the Catskills. The sauce was so good I assumed it was homemade; when told that it wasn’t, I could suddenly hear Jack Nicholson screaming, "You can’t handle the truth!" The mole (made with chocolate, plantain, raisins, pumpkin seeds, three different Chiles, cinnamon and many more ingredients) is a special import Amaranto brings in (and tweaks slightly) from one of Mexico’s great mole towns, San Pedro Atocpan. This brand bears as much resemblance to the usual commercially available mole as porcini risotto does to Rice-a-Roni.
I need to also point out that when eventually my fellow diner and I were the only ones remaining in the restaurant, our hostess, without prompting, produced lit candles and turned the lights down low for atmosphere. A small thing, but such respect and genuine interest in a customer’s evening is rarer than it should be. This was the most enjoyable meal I’ve had in a while. Go.
5974 Monkland; 514-510-1225
Dinner for two, before tax, tip and drinks: $20-$35