Estrella Taqueria opened their doors just a couple of weeks ago, but awash in all the published material on the new Yonge and Sheppard ‘hotspot’ is its likeness to Chicago staple, Big Star. Though their official launch party didn’t provide much of a likeness to the dining experience one would have at the restaurant, it did do well at aping the Big Star motif.
From the “honkey-tonk” aesthetic to the near-literal plucking of menu items, like their Taco de Panza (slow braised pork belly, guajillo sauce, cilantro, queso fresco and, subbing in cabbage for onions), even the font on their menu mimicked Chi-town’s joint.
Estrella boasts a whopping 300-seat capacity spaced throughout two floors. Small sunken nooks with lounge chairs and metal chandeliers border the windows, high stools surround their central bar, and there’s even some seating along the walls of the purple ping pong/pool room at the back. Colourful and creative full-wall murals by Toronto street artist ELicseR add a distinctively cool touch to the view from the upper floor. Come summer, a 130-seat rooftop patio will welcome an eclectic mix of patrons from around the area, to what Co-owner Charles Markowitz calls “the GTA meet-up hotspot.”
As a lively cover band played throughout the evening, platters of tacos came careening out of the kitchen in the hands of Día de los Muertos face-painted servers who rushed to service neglected corners of the room. Admittedly delicious and nicely assembled, I kept wondering where their apparent signature dishes could be found. No grilled japapenos? (Another borrowed dish from Big Star.) What about their Día de los Muertos Margarita made with Tromba tequila, agave syrup, muddled cilantro and pickled jalapenos? All I got was an overly sweet, pale green margarita concoction failingly jazzed up by a flaming spritz of atomized vanilla bourbon – the antithesis of balancing.
Cocktails aside, the duck confit taco finished with ancho chili sauce, crispy shallots and purple cabbage was something I’d come back for. I’d snack on their tongue tingling pickled jalapenos, too, while sipping some tequila in between rounds of pong.
At one point, shortly before my sugary sip of margarita at the bar, a gentleman emphatically remarked to me, “Isn’t this exactly what Toronto needs?”
Well, kind sir, I’m not sure that Toronto is lacking in lively taquerias. However, if they can execute well during proper service, then Estrella will be a welcome addition to a neighborhood that offers little more than quality Korean fare and a few depressing chain restaurants.