Dinner at the Bent Taco

Bent TacoWe had dinner at the Bent Taco on Pine Street last night. Collingwood’s nuevo-Mexican restaurant is not exactly Mexican but influenced by it, and in a good way. Food was excellent. If you haven’t been there, you should go. Very popular place and I wondered why it took so long for us to get there.

Don’t go expecting traditional Mexican fare (hint: go to Mexico and get outside your resort for that!) You won’t get huachinango a la Veracruzana or Oaxacan tamales here, but you will get recognizable choices like tacos, burritos and tortas (the latter sadly red meats only, no fish or chicken or veggie options – there are some veggie choices in the tacos and burritos, though).

Go expecting food that pays tribute to Mexican style, tastes and flavours but with local flare and inventiveness. (Another hint: Taco Bell is NOT Mexican food, so open yourself to new ideas if that’s all you know).

There are homemade loteria cards posted around the restaurant as part of the theme. That caught my attention. See how many you can spot (and where possible get up close to see what they are). If you don’t know what they are about, ask your server. Or look them up online ahead of time. I hope one day the restaurant expands on that element – maybe a game night. Or a tequila tasting night that incorporates the cards…

No pico de gallo salsa at the table. This is a common side dish in many Mexican restaurants and when we’re down there we eat it by the shovelful – at least when it’s fresh. With Ontario’s great tomato crop this year, it might be the perfect time for them to develop their own (hint, hint). But also for you, dear reader, to give it a try. And you can add it to scrambled eggs to get a good huevos a la Mexicana for breakfast.

Most places we visit in Mexico offer two sauces on every table: a red (roja, which has a broiled tomato base and often has chipotle and/or ancho chiles for a smoky overtone) and green (verde, made with roasted tomatillo and jalapeno chiles; not as hot as the roja) sauce. Neither is usually hot enough for my taste and I often have to ask if there is something ‘mas picante’ in the kitchen (there often is, but seldom served to gringos).

But don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t detract from the BT’s food or service. Just that if you go looking for some traditional items, you won’t find them (yet). The BT’s hot sauce is good, but I would like to see more options in their salsas.

Bent Taco makes their own hot sauce however, a roasted garlic habanero, which is also very good although not quite as hot as I like (hot enough for Susan). Food at BT is not spicy, BTW, so you might enjoy some of this hot sauce as a garnish. I went through one of their small bottles of it with my meal.

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Still hot and getting hotter

Blair's After Death SauceIt’s hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since I last updated my web page on hot sauces, and about 15 since I first wrote it.

My, how times flies. So many years, so many hot sauces since then.

I’ve been a hot sauce aficionado for much longer than that, though. Most of my life, and all my adult life. But only in the last two decades has there really been a significant choice available in product. I can remember when Tabasco was it; the only hot sauce ever found anywhere. Now there are stores that specialize in nothing but. And the choice of hot peppers is tremendously expanded, too, from the barely-warm jalapeno to the brutally hot bhut jolokia.

The little bottle above left – Blair’s After Death Sauce – is one I opened this past weekend. Hot, scorchingly hot, but tasty, too. I’ve always liked Blair’s sauces. This mix is much hotter than the original Death Sauce, but below his Sudden Death. I went through a bottle of the latter, late last year, but didn’t like it as much as the After Death or his “cooler” sauces. Sudden Death was not as tasty, but hotter and that makes it difficult to get just the right amount, since so little is needed.

Personally, I want flavour as well as heat. After Death has both heat and flavour, without quite tipping over to the inedibly hot level – assuming you’re sparing with it. Which I seldom am, of course. But likely next time I find a selection (we found the latest bunch in Orillia), I’ll move down a notch to a slightly cooler sauce, in exchange for the added flavour.

It’ll still be ten times hotter than most of my readers can bear. But keep in mind: hot sauces work by tricking you: they’re not really hot (as in temperature) no matter what your tongue tells you. You think your mouth is burning, but it really isn’t. And your body quickly adapts to the sensation:

…your nervous system isn’t going to just let you suffer with your mouth on fire. So it also launches a whole series of actions to help us deal with the pain. It releases endorphins — the morphine-like compounds that give you a natural high. And it makes the nerves on our tongue more tolerant to pain.
In other words, spicy peppers may hurt at first, but then they have an analgesic effect…
When (hot sauce) hits your tongue, capsaicin activates sensory neurons in a very specific way. They bind and open up a receptor on the nerve’s surface, called TRPV1.
This receptor also gets activated by high temperatures — anything above 109 degrees Fahrenheit. So your brain thinks the nerve is touching something hot when the hot sauce hits the receptor.
A similar mechanism happens with mints and cough drops that give your tongue a cooling, icy sensation. Cold temperatures are sensed by a receptor closely related to TRPV1 (called TRPM8).
And guess what molecule also activates this receptor? The menthol in peppermint and spearmint. So minty gums trick your mind into thinking you’re eating something cold.

It’s called an endorphin rush:

Despite the incredibly intense burning — which persists for about 20 minutes — Barrus says the 40-minute period of bliss that follows is worth the pain.

“There’s a massive endorphin rush, and I feel really good after all the pain and craziness,” he said. “My body starts tingling all over, my hands and arms start to go numb, and I sometimes get lightheaded and euphoric. It feels good.” Released in response to stress and pain, endorphins are brain chemicals that reduce the perception of pain.

Long-distance runners know the feeling, albeit without the initial pain.

Life without hot sauce – meals without at least a dab – is dull. Boring. Mundane. Hot sauce doesn’t have to be so hot it makes you weep (although that’s okay, too…), just hot enough to make your eyes widen and the endorphins to kick in.

Sampling the latest bottle got me thinking about hot sauces again (it seems as I age, my tolerance for heat is increasing – what I now consider mild I used to think of as hot….). And what has transpired since I first wrote about them; how the market has grown and gone mainstream. And to bemoan the lack of a good local selection of hot sauces (not a single local grocery store carries the Tabasco habanero, which is light years hotter and tastier than the standard Tabasco, much less anything exquisite like Blair’s sauces…).

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