Exploring the La Carnita Hype

Toronto’s undisputed king of underground taco fare, La Carnita, is a bit of an anomaly in the food world. They don’t run a restaurant. They don’t have an industrial kitchen. There aren’t even any trained chefs manning the helm. But what Andrew Richmond, the driving force behind La Carnita’s success, possess is a solid grasp on how the web savvy and hungry of this city like to eat and socialize. Richmond, a graphic designer by trade, has certainly stumbled onto something pretty special in his budding La Carnita enterprise.

Trying to explain the La Carnita operation to the uninitiated tends to net a whole lot of raised eyebrows. “What? You can get tacos through the twitter? You then wait AN HOUR in line to get them?! They hand out free art?” are all amongst the confused responses I’ve heard after struggling to explain the concept to someone. The answer to all of the above, by the way, is simply “yes.” Here’s how it all goes down. First, the La Carnita gang pairs up with a local business who provides the actual space for the event and in turn acts as the venue host (in the past locales have ranged from skate shops to the actual studio where Richmond acts as the resident design director). This collaboration is referred to as a pop-up-shop, by the way – which even big time vendors like Target are cashing in on these days. These one time only events are then announced ahead of time over La Carnita’s twitter feed, and somewhere along the line a local artist is brought on board to create a limited edition print which is distributed to the first couple hundred or so who show up.

Rinse and repeat until you are internet famous.

With this approach La Carnita is able to capitalize on the mobile food craze that is sweeping urban centres across the continent, all the while avoiding the red tape pitfalls that are currently plaguing the city’s budding food truck scene. Needless to say, it has been a pretty successful formula for La Carnita so far. Now, it wouldn’t be a major leap to simply write this whole craze off as a hipster fantasy run amok, and to some extent that knee-jerk reaction is certainly justifiable. You are probably safe in assuming that you’ll see a lot of asymmetrical haircuts and deep Vs at a La Carnita event. But that’s besides the point. What really matters is the fact that you can also expect to find yourself thrown in the middle of an incredibly unique atmosphere that features approachable art, great music, and some truly phenomenal tacos. The perceived exclusivity / “cool factor” of a La Carnita event is undeniably part of the appeal, but the operation wouldn’t be the success story that it is today without a great product to offer.

Richmond aboard the ElGastro truck. (www.elgastro.com)

La Carnita’s tacos are styled after the traditional Mexican counterparts from which their name is derived (carnitas being the savoury and slowly braised pork filling of street tacos south of the border). They source their ingredients from local vendors, serving their creations atop tortillas which are made in house at La Tortilleria in Kensington Market. Their signature menu item, the Voltron fish taco, really is a thing of beauty. No doubt capable of converting even the staunchest of fish taco haters, it is a perfectly executed handful of tempura battered spicy magic. Sure, Toronto has its fair share of great taco joints, but none of them offer a suitable venue to build a Friday or Saturday night around the way La Carnita does. The pop-up shops are as much about the social element as they are about the food or the art. The rather lengthy line that tends to spring up at every event is unfortunately unavoidable, but at least the chances are good that you’ll be standing next to someone interesting and worth chatting up. Coupled with the Djs that are always spinning something to get your head bopping and the bartenders that are always hustling to keep the crowd lubricated, its pretty tough to have a bad time at a La Carnita event.

What this all amounts to is an entirely unique way for people to support a whole slew of local culture en masse and on the cheap. As much as most people would no doubt love to have a personal budget that features a “buy local art” line item, such is not the case for the majority. La Carnita’s approach gives those of us with more modest spending requirements a way to get in on the action and support the city’s art scene in our own way without breaking the bank.

La Carnita’s next event, Uno, will be held on Friday April 13th at the Evergreen Brick Works. It will feature the troupe’s signature tacos, as well as a street art exhibit showcasing the works of San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, Orlando, Montreal, and of course Toronto based artists. Best of all? The totally free cost of admission.

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