It is true when they say Mexican food runs in your blood. But it holds especially true for the owner of Tacos Moras, whose brother owns the famous Mexican chain Gus Tacos. With that kind of pedigree mixed in with healthy sibling competition, this newly-opened taqueria had big shoes to fill. And boy, did it fill them.
Sitting on a busy street in the bustling St. Clair neighbourhood of Toronto, Tacos Moras fits perfectly with its surroundings. A stone's throw away from a Caribbean jerk chicken place and neighbouring Indian and Mediterranean restaurants, this Mexican joint seems right at home in a vicinity filled with international food spots.
Starting from its facade, one can tell it's a no-nonsense, unassuming restaurant that gives way to the frills and chooses to focus only on its menu. The clean and plain canvas it presents allows enough space for its vibrant, colourful and deeply-flavoured food to take centerstage and do all the talking.
Stepping inside, one's eyes are drawn to the open kitchen surrounded by a bar where one can sit and see all the delicious tacos, burritos, tortas and more being prepared right in front of their eyes. And take in all the wonderful aromas, too, of course.
On the wall opposite the kitchen/pass exists a large and beautifully-painted mural in the style of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead –a Mexican holiday where families and friends gather to pay their respects and to remember the ones who have passed away.
A talking piece, the mural features bright and colourful flowers and two skeletons — one presumably dressed up as a bride with a margarita in her hand while the other is a cowboy holding a glass of cerveza. Add to this art piece the open kitchen, tiled bar with aluminum siding and the melody of Mexican music in the background, and what you end up with is a classic cantina— which is precisely what Miguel Morales, the owner of Tacos Moras, intended.
"[We want people to feel] like they're in a Mexican place," he said. "Like in Mexico City, you go inside a place, they look like this — the music and everything."
Even with the way the seating options are set up, Morales wants to replicate an authentic Mexican joint. Besides the bar that wraps around the kitchen, he intends to have tall tables so that people can gather around them and eat while standing up just like they do in his country. If the music seems right, the tall tables also leave room for customers to break into a little salsa (dance, not sauce) while they wait for their food.
Speaking of food, Tacos Moras offers a wide variety of meats that can be ordered in various styles — from classic tacos and burritos to tortas and quesadillas. With the basic structure already decided for each dish, customers get to choose whatever filling they want and leave the rest to the talented cooks. With the rest of the building blocks already in place, it takes a lot of decision-making stress away from the eater so that they can have a tried and tested meal every time they walk through the doors.
For the protein options, customers can choose from a list of asada or grilled steak, birria or stewed beef, pastor or grilled pork, carnitas or braised pork, pollo or grilled chicken, costilla or short ribs, pescado or grilled fish, camaron or grilled shrimp and even nopal which is grilled cactus.
Once you've chosen your protein(s), the next step in building your meal is choosing the kind of dish you want, each of which comes with a set of ingredients where the only thing substituted out is your protein choice.
The eponymous taco at Tacos Moras is served simply with cilantro and diced raw onions. This kind of preparation lets the beautifully-cooked protein shine through and allows the consumer to taste the numerous layers of flavours that Mexican cuisine is known for.
The carne asada and the carnitas tacos present themselves as beautifully seasoned, hearty and tender grilled beef and pork dishes, respectively. The raw onions provide a wonderful break to the mild texture of the meat and give the palate a reinvigorating explosion with its crunch and acidity. The cilantro comes through after with that much-needed freshness which preps the taste buds for each subsequent bite.
Al pastor is grilled pork whose cooking technique is based on lamb shawarma brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. Its preparation usually involves an adobo marinade made with chiles, garlic, vinegar and other aromatics. At Tacos Moras, an al pastor taco is served with a sliver of pineapple on top, providing a certain sweetness to counteract the acidity and smokiness of the meat, making for a well-balanced bite each time you chomp down.
The camaron or the shrimp taco is the only one served with melted cheese — mozzarella, to be specific. Cheese is melted straight on the grill along with some peppers before the fully-cooked shrimp is thrown in there to assimilate with the flavours forming on the grill. Once all melted and combined, the mixture is placed onto a tortilla and served to the eagerly-waiting customers while the cheese is still gooey and hot. This preparation makes for an entirely different flavour profile and mouthfeel from the other tacos, giving it a multi-dimensional existence.
The nopal is a classic Mexican preparation of grilled cactus — a protein choice popular in Mexico. Served with queso fresco and the usual accoutrements, it has an interesting vegetal taste that is acidic and fruity. The addition of the cheese rounds off the flavours and gives a creamy texture to balance the bite of the cactus.
Coming to the star of the show, the birria taco is easily the most popular as well as labour-intensive preparation at Tacos Moras. Accompanied by the deeply-flavoured consommé, there are so many layers to it that give the consumer a truly unique experience. The stewed beef has such an intense flavour by itself, but dipping it into the soup takes it to the next level.
While figuring out the menu for the restaurant, Morales knew that he had to include birria, owing to its growing popularity in the country and the world in general. It's the dish he wishes for the restaurant to be known for — if for nothing else than just the sheer time it takes to perfect the flavours.
To prepare for an 11 a.m. restaurant opening, cooking begins at 6 a.m. for Morales. The marinade for the birria takes about 40 minutes, after which the beef is cooked for three hours and then rested for another couple of hours before it is ready to be served. If that's not a labour of love, we don't know what is.
Fresh ingredients meet the perfectly-seasoned chicken and cheese in the chicken quesadilla. Although the fillings might be nothing fancy, they pack a mighty punch through a medley of flavours and textures, all wrapped in a perfectly grilled tortilla with a blanket of melted mozzarella cheese.
The carnitas burrito is a meal for two packed into one hefty unit that is dense and rich in the best way possible. This sizeable creation comes packed with ingredients that balance out each other perfectly, making for a wonderfully homogenous bite every time. The deeply-flavoured protein, creamy avocado, crunchy lettuce and smoky chipotle mayo all work together, building layer upon layer of flavour for an experience your taste buds can never forget.
Mexico's response to a hearty submarine sandwich, the torta, is a beautiful creation. It all starts with hollowing out bread and filling it with shredded cheese. Then go on all the toppings — in this case, the carne asada, guacamole, beans and chipotle mayo. The crumbly and pillowy crust of the bread complements the creamy guacamole and soft meat really well, providing a dichotomy of textures for the palate.
At the end of the day, the thing that elevates the torta from a subpar sandwich to a thing of beauty is the quality of the bread used. It's light and airy while still having a pronounced crunch and soft interior.
While the dishes on offer are wonderful by themselves, the one thing that Tacos Moras and Miguel pride themselves on is their salsa bar. That was one of the key conversations that were had during the brainstorming sessions prior to opening.
"A lot of places you go, you cannot put your own salsas. You want some more salsa? You need to go ask," Morales said. "So we thought to put our own salsa table so you can put as much salsa as you like."
These salsas showcase the power of collaboration between Miguel Morales and his brother, Agustine, the owner of Gus Tacos. The siblings worked together to create three flavourful salsas that feature an increasing degree of spice.
The mildest offering is a green variation with serrano chilis, avocado, cilantro and lime. It's a refreshing accompaniment that adds zest to any bite without overpowering spice.
For the middle of the pack, the medium salsa features a blend of Chile de Arbol and Guajillo peppers which not only make the salsa spicy but also lend earthy notes of coffee and chocolate.
Finally, the spiciest offering is the hot salsa with not only Chile de Arbol but also habanero thrown into the mix. And while that certainly makes the sauce quite potent, it doesn't take away anything from its flavour. The profiles are still well-balanced, meaning it's not hot just for the sake of being hot.
The thought process behind the creation of the salsas was quite extensive, mainly because Miguel Morales considers the accoutrement to be one of the most integral parts of Mexican cuisine — if not the most important.
"For me, I cannot eat without salsa," he said. "That's the most important thing."
While Tacos Moras might only be a couple of months old, cooking has always been in the Morales family's blood. Hailing from Leon, Guanajuato in Mexico, Miguel and his family have been cooking for ages, long before they even set foot in Canada in 2015.
After moving and establishing a base, Agustine opened La Chilaca in Kensington Market, where the Morales trio — him, Miguel and their father — worked for a few years. After its success, Agustine moved on to opening the first location of Gus Tacos — a chain that has become a Mexican staple in the Greater Toronto Area. He was joined there by Miguel and they worked together for another few years before Agustine had an idea to open another place that serves a different variety of meats and salsas.
And thus, Tacos Moras was born.
The choice of opening the first location in St. Clair was also a conscious one. With a bunch of international food spots in the vicinity, it is clear that the people that call the neighbourhood home are open to trying all kinds of cuisines.
On top of that, Miguel also said that there's a large population of Mexican people living in the area, making the neighbourhood an obvious choice to build the foundation for Tacos Moras.
While the demographics might come with added pressure to put out great Mexican food, the restaurant has seemingly been passing the authenticity test with flying colours day in and day out. With plenty of recurring customers — many of Mexican descent — it is clear that Tacos Moras is on its way to becoming a neighbourhood staple.
Although Gus Tacos has seen a vast amount of success and Tacos Moras is still in its nascent stages, that hasn't changed anything between the brothers. Miguel still helps out at Gus Tacos from time to time, and you can also find Agustine hanging out at Tacos Moras and helping with whatever's needed.
Having his own restaurant is something that Miguel Morales is enjoying a lot. And with a small staff of just five employees, he has the opportunity to be very hands-on with the cooking: checking each process, making sure the meat is cooked to perfection and even eyeing the tortillas on the grill to ensure that they're not burned.
And while all that ensures a perfect meal for the customer day in and day out, Morales' favourite part about owning a restaurant is the freedom to engage with the clientele. And with an open kitchen right in the middle of the restaurant, there is nothing in the way of a great conversation.
"I have time to talk with the clients, to be with the clients," he said. "Try to get a good [rapport.] They can sit at the bar. We are cooking, we are talking — we are having fun."
As for the future, Morales already has his eyes set on opening up another location in 2023, although the area is still up for discussion. As is the case for siblings, a healthy brother-on-brother competition fuels his thirst for expansion.
"I am following my brother," Morales said. "He opens one, I want to open another one."
While all of that is still up in the air, there is one thing for certain: Tacos Moras will continue serving the people of St. Clair vibrant, delicious and authentic Mexican food for (hopefully) years to come. And if Gus Tacos is any indication, we can expect multiple locations to pop up all over the city in the coming years.