Xola Restaurant
By YP Contributor

The Beaches' Own Authentic Mexican Cuisine

When Mali Fernández opened up her tiny Mexican restaurant Xola, she was blown away by the reception. Salivating passersby would peer in the windows of the still-being-renovated space, some even asking about reservations. “Reservations?” Mali would reply. “We don’t even have a phone!” “Wow,” she said to her husband, “We are going to be packed.” She was right; Xola was, right from the restaurant’s opening in August 2013.

Clearly, Beaches residents were yearning for authentic Mexican food. And as an Upper Beaches resident, Mali had noted the lack of Mexican options along the Queen East strip. When her sisters asked why she chose this area in particular, she told them: “I don’t know. I have a good feeling about that place.” And when she spotted the little vacant storefront way out on the eastern fringes of the Beaches, she pressed her face against the glass and thought, “This place is perfect. Perfect!”

I don’t want a big place. I want to be in contact with my customers. When you’re a big restaurant you don’t even know who your chef is. - Mali Fernández, owner and chef

The Richness of Mexican Cuisine

Mali is determined to educate Torontonian palates on what real Mexican food should taste like. “We don’t eat tacos everyday,” she insists. “Mexican food is rich!” When Mali was growing up, her family moved all over Mexico for her father’s job. She learned to cook from her grandmother who lived in Mexico City and from her mother, too. “This is my school — my family,” says Mali. She moved to Canada almost 10 years ago, originally to work as a chef in her sister’s Spanish restaurant. They then moved on to a Mexican restaurant on the Danforth. With Xola, Mali has branched out on her own.

Xola invites you to taste the food of living Mexico, with a menu featuring the familiar burritos, quesadillas and tacos, but also leaning heavily on Spanish influences. Mali wants to provide her customers with a variety of tastes and so she whips up dishes from Baja to the Yucatán.

Mali is excited to have Mexico’s version of the truffle huitlacoche on her menu. Known in North America as the pathogenic fungus corn smut, huitlacoche is a grey bulbous mass that is harvested from organic corn. It is fried up with garlic and chilies, imparting a complex, musty flavour to Xola’s tacos, quesadillas and gorditas. Mali has learned, though, that you can only stretch Canadian palates so much — she’s had to take tongue off the menu.

Xola offers patrons an authentic taste of Mexican cuisine, from tacos and quesadillas to burritos.

A Perfect Little Spot

You might think, looking at the 20-seater dining room, that Mali could’ve been more ambitious, but Mali insists, “I don’t want a big place. I want to be in contact with my customers. When you’re a big restaurant you don’t even know who your chef is.”

Walk into Xola and the feeling is at once warm and welcoming. Mali has made ingenious use of reclaimed doors from Habitat for Humanity, having built a bar out of them. “I love doors," adds Mali. "They’re everywhere but nobody sees them.” The walls are painted deep red with turquoise accents, and a bizarre, multi-coloured creature – creation of Toronto-based Mexican graffiti artist, André Castro – is scribbled across the opposite wall. When André asked Mali what she was after, she said, “Something crazy.” He certainly delivered; it’s arresting and beautiful.

In late 2014 disaster struck. A fire destroyed Xola’s kitchen. Messages of support from distraught locals filled the papered-over windows and, bouyed by local support, Mali managed to re-open by the following summer. Much-loved Xola is certain to remain at the centre of the Beaches community for years to come.

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