It’s a chilly Thursday evening in downtown Halifax, and as I hurry down the street, the cold Atlantic wind blows in the last tiny snowflakes of the winter season. The newly renovated Argyle street is not the only novelty on the block and I quickly spot the teal blue storefront of Antojo Tacos and Tequila, which has been the talk of the town since it opened this past January.
As I push open the front door of the Mexican eatery, I can’t help but immediately notice the extreme attention to detail put into the decor, as the door is covered with colourful leather belts and different shaped buckles.
After being greeted by the friendly staff, I am directed towards my table and pass in front of a long bar complete with high wooden chairs. Rows of dried chillies are hanging from behind the counter, reminding me that what I am about to taste is sure to have some flavour. I take a seat at a comfortable two person booth with cozy leather couches and am delighted to find a few hooks attached at the end for my coat and bags to rest on while I eat.
Antojo’s atmosphere immediately makes me feel as if I have travelled south of the equator, with a multitude of warm tones and deeply dimmed lights in every direction. Taking a look at the menu and getting acquainted with the small cactus that shares my table, I smile to myself as I hear Spanish tunes playing in the background. Colourful skulls and reclaimed wood from crates adorn the walls and on my left I notice a large painting of a woman with her face traditionally painted in honour of Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).
While I admire my surroundings, I am brought complimentary corn chips accompanied by three very distinctive salsas: Pico de Gallo, Salsa Verde, and Salsa Tatemada. I am so surprised by how fresh the salsas taste that I kindly ask my waitress to list the ingredients twice.
As I savour each bite of salsa-dunked crispy corn goodness, I am joined by Chef Luis Lopez, the mastermind behind the creations that I am about to taste. A Mexican native himself, Luis goes on to explain how he has decided to combine flavours from his hometown of Mazatlan (a resort city on the Pacific coast of the country) with some more southern and central Mexican culinary influences to create Antojo’s tasty and innovative menu.
As we discuss the inspiration behind his cooking, our conversation is momentarily interrupted by the arrival of the Hidalgo, an amber-coloured cocktail named after the famous Mexican rebel. A beautiful blend of blanco tequila, espadin mezcal, vermouth wine, and amaro liqueur, it is served in a small coupe glass and comes garnished with delicate citrus peels. Smokiness and almost caramel-like undertones gently warm my throat on each mouthful.
As I slowly sip my drink, the Tuna Tostada makes its grand entrance. Served on a black ceramic plate, sushi-grade tuna is put together with fresh cucumber and grilled onions tossed in lime-Chile de Arbol sauce and sits on a crispy tortilla chip surrounded by artful droplets of beet and red pepper chipotle sauce. The explosion of flavours and the freshness that hits my palate has me wondering how this will not become my all-time favourite .
After polishing off my plate, I am brought out the next item, the Grilled Octopus Bocadito. Marinated in traditional Adobo sauce (a paste made from three different chilis), it comes complete with a side of brightly coloured pickled slaw and charred lemon. The dish is also topped with the exquisite detail of a black coral tuile, which as Chef Luis explains, he creates using the special Recado negro paste made with charred chillies from the Yucatan province.
The making of this paste is quite an undertaking as it creates a very acrid smoke that can lead to strong sneezing, choking and watery eyes. This explains why in Merida, the place of its origin, the production of Recado negro within the city limits has been banned.
Finishing off the last little bit of slaw on my plate with a satisfactory sigh, I am still under the spell of the wonderful savoury dishes I just had the opportunity to try. Most of all, I revel over the fact that everything I had tonight was carefully balanced with a perfect combination of strong flavours, fresh ingredients, and the spirit of Mexico on your plate.
As I thank Chef Luis for my wonderful meal, I decide to quickly ask him one more question – “what is the meaning of Antojo?” “A craving” he replies, laughing gently as he sees me to the door. And as I walk out into the cold crisp night, the frosty air hits my face and I can’t help but smile thinking to myself how Halifax’s Mexican craving has now been satisfied.