Picking my favorite cuisine has always been a challenge (same goes for favorite restaurant, meal, etc). I mean, c’mon, there are wayyy too many good cuisines to decide on just one, and my cravings are much too fickle to make such a rash declaration.
That being said, I am regularly drawn toward the cuisines that pack a powerful flavor punch. Latin American and Asian cuisines typically achieve this for me and thus, are frequently being craved by my insatiable appetite.
This is why a restaurant concept like Cartel Street Food Bar is right up my alley. They serve up a unique tapas menu inspired by the flavors of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and even a bit of the good ol’ U.S. of A. And the best part: it’s all street food style.
Rita ventured out to the Mile End with me in cold, snowy weather to get our grub on. We were greeted at the door by a very friendly man that we assumed to be the owner. He sat us in a cozy and intimate booth towards the back of the restaurant and ended up serving us throughout the evening.
We came on a Thursday, which is their 5 à 7 evening, where they serve tapas and drinks for $5 – 7; however, oddly enough, it goes on till 11 o’ clock, not 7 (hey, I’m not complaining).
We, of course, started with drinks. Rita ordered the Blackberry Mojito off the 5 à 7 menu, and I took the suggestion of our waiter/maybe the owner and went with the Pisco Sour (made with Peruvian pisco). I thought I was coming down with a cold, so I didn’t try Rita’s drink, but I’m pretty sure she enjoyed it. I really liked my Pisco Sour. It had a nice balance of sweetness and sourness, and the creaminess from the egg white was perfect.
We decided to order a bunch of tapas and share. I think that’s best plan of action at a place like Cartel. We only ordered two items off the 5 à 7 menu, which ended up being a wise decision because the portions seemed to have been halved in comparison to the items off the regular menu.
Our first 5 à 7 choice was the guacamole and tortillas. Don’t even get me started with guacamole. I love it. I could probably put it on anything. And, I’m not going to lie; I kind of have high guac standards. This guacamole was fresh, it had the acidity I wanted, but...it had one major flaw: ¿dónde está the salt, jefe? Luckily, a whole shaker of it was on our table, so we, of course, added our own. Catastrophe averted, and I’ll even forgive them because their tortilla chips were homemade AND absolutely delicious.
Next up: the 5 à 7 Tostada du Jour, which was pulled chicken with mole that evening. As I mentioned, the portion was pretty small, and it was hard to share because it was difficult to cut (gracefully, that is). “Tostada” or “toasted” refers to the fried tortilla base. It added a nice crunch to the typical taco experience. The pulled chicken was good but not great. It was lacking salt and that flavor punch I so hoped for. I was really pleased with the toppings; they were vibrant and fresh. The pickled onions were a nice, unexpected touch.
Our next dish, the Rollitos de Pato (crispy duck and shiitake spring rolls), was off the Chifa portion of their menu. Chifa refers to the fusion cuisine that was born in Peru after the influx of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rolls were yummy, but the flavor from the duck was definitely not distinct. Nonetheless, it was still tasty.
Next, we ventured back over to Mexico with the Braised Beef Tacos with salsa roja and crema. The tacos were folded and fried, which although not what we were expecting, was totally acceptable. The braised beef was very tender but unfortunately, also lacking some salt and flavor. Once again, I enjoyed the freshness of the toppings, and this time, the salsa compensated somewhat for the lack of flavor in the meat.
Finally, we had the Kam Lu Wantans, also from the Chifa menu. It consisted of three fried wontons with a chicken and shrimp filling with tamarind sauce, pork belly, and a quail egg. This was one of the better dishes of the evening. I thought the wontons were nicely fried and fairly tasty. The tamarind sauce that they were plated on was pleasantly sweet. The pork belly, which, from what I understood from the owner, was locally sourced, was my favorite part. I wasn’t so sure how they intended for it to play into the rest of the dish (same goes for the quail egg), but independently, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was rich and succulent.
To top it all off, we ordered the churros with a chocolate dipping sauce. These prepared-to-order strips of fried dough arrived warm and lightly dusted in cinnamon sugar. It was the perfect sweet ending to our over-indulgent evening.
Overall, I liked Cartel. There were some shortcomings, but I really appreciated their creative menu and their emphasis on fresh ingredients.
Cartel Street Food Bar
101 Avenue Fairmount Ouest
Montréal, QC H2T 2M4, Canada