From Piñas to Toronto: this family serves up incredible home-style Ecuadorian cooking

Ismaila Alfa: Why is Ecuadorian cuisine a good fit for this warm weather?

Suresh Doss: Okay, imagine the flavour of a tart, refreshing mixto ceviche. You have this bowl of assorted seafood in front of you; fish, plump shrimp, sometimes clams. They’re all raw and brightened with acidity from lemon juice and accented with thinly sliced red onions and chillies. Then you have slices of plantain you can spoon the ceviche with. 

This has to be one of the best things you can eat when the weather is warm. 

Ismaila Alfa: Where do you recommend finding great Ecuadorian food?

Suresh Doss: There is a place called Las Fronteras.  It’s this small restaurant, tucked into the side of a plaza off Finch Ave West that has amazing food – including a great mixto ceviche.

Las Fronteras also has tamales and empanadas. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: How did you find this place?

Suresh Doss: I will drive long distances in search of a good empanada, and that’s how I found Las Fronteras. I went to try their Ecuadorian empanadas – those are some of my favourites because I lean more towards baked empanadas over fried.

I mean, that’s the beauty of the broad category of Latin American cuisine. While there are many similarities, there is also incredible regional variation as you cross from one border to another.

Empanadas are a great example, they have roots in Galicia and Portugal, and were brought to Latin America by colonists, but different local influences mean that, over time, they’ve developed into different variations.

So when it comes to empanadas, I tend to lean towards the way Ecuadorian empanadas are constructed, the fillings I mean. So, for example, the empanadas de verde con queso – stuffed with cheese and plantain or just a really good beef empanada, or even a queso empanada, where when you bite into it you get this glorious pull of cheese. And you can find all of these at Las Fronteras.

Carmen Torres inherited a restaurant from her mother in Ecuador. She brought her skills to Toronto and opened Las Fronteras. Her daughter Ines Balle helps in the kitchen and her granddaughter Marcela Silva supports the family business. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: Tell me more about this place.

It’s a small spot run by a powerhouse team; a grandmother, her two daughters, and a granddaughter. The grandmother, Carmen Torres opened this restaurant over 20 years ago after she came to Toronto from Piñas, Ecuador. Her sole reason she says was to make enough money and bring her family to Canada. But she’s been cooking for much longer than that.

Her granddaughter Marcela Silva says, “A lot of people knew her because back home she had a little restaurant in the supermarket. At first it was her mom that had it and then passed it to her. People from Piñas they say ‘Oh she’s here now,’ because she was really popular. This is her life. 

Ismaila Alfa: That is amazing, straight from the markets of Piñas to Toronto.

Suresh Doss: I’ve met Ecuadorian people in Toronto who have had her food in Piñas many years ago. And this is why I urge you to get to Las Fronteras and try her food. This is as close as you’re going to get to home-style Ecuadorian food.

The arroz con menestra at Las Fronteras is bursting with deep flavour. It’s cooked with garlic and cumin and achiote; ground spice from annatto seeds. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

The sancocho de pescado is a fish soup, with tuna and chunks of cassava. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: So I know you love the empanadas and the mixto ceviche there but what else should I try?

Suresh Doss: Okay, so the main event. The arroz con menestra changed my life.

Ismaila Alfa: That’s a heavy statement, my friend.

Suresh Doss: No really. I want you to picture a mound of rice, blanketed by a dark stew of lentils that have been lovingly cooked with garlic and cumin and achiote; ground spice from annatto seeds. Each spoonful is so luxurious with deep, deep flavour. And its then topped with very thin strips of seared beef. You can skip the beef if you wish. It’s a dish that is pretty rare in Toronto, and certainly Carmen’s version is hands down the best I have had. It’s a dish I will order with every visit. 

And I should say, I’ve ordered a different dish every time. During my most recent takeout order, I had the sancocho de pescado. This is a fish soup, with tuna and chunks of cassava. If you want something bold and fish flavoured, this is the one.

Business has been slow at Las Fronteras during the pandemic but the family is bolstered by their loyal customers. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Ismaila Alfa: Okay, this is a lot, let’s recap. We have the empanadas, the seafood mix or mixto ceviche, the life-changing rice and lentils with strips of beef. That’s called arroz con menestra.

Suresh Doss: Yes, and the fish soup or sancocho de pescado. Each trip really is a journey into an Ecuadorian grandmother’s kitchen. And prior to the pandemic, it was nearly impossible to walk in and get a table.

Ismaila Alfa: How are they doing now?

Like most restaurants, business is slow but it’s bolstered by their loyal following in the local Ecuadorian community, which used to be centered in the area. But even as people have moved to other parts of the GTA, they still drive in for Carmen’s cooking. I asked Marcela if her grandmother is okay, she’s been on her feet for many years now. And Marcela says that Carmen has no intentions of slowing down anytime soon.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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