Elizabeth Acosta and David Fillmore are a little bit distracted. It's the first day a new chef is working the lunch service at Que Tal without either of them in the kitchen. They are excited and confident, but also nervous. They haven't had three full days away from the restaurant since it opened in May, so even one hour's break from service is a big deal.
Que Tal has been a real passion project for Acosta and Fillmore. Neither has an extensive food service background–they just love Mexican food and culture and wanted to bring that to Halifax.
The pair decided to test out the waters at the Historic Market, moving in early in 2011 after much of the market had emptied out. It took them a few years to find a space for the restaurant, but after a deal in the downtown core fell apart, they found a home in Portland Hills.
It's a warm space, bright rows of papel picado–gossamer tissue paper banners cut like colourful snowflakes with floral and skeletal designs–weave their way around the ceiling of the restaurant. Walls are painted warm, summery hues and vibrant paper lanterns and Talavara tile bring more pops of colour to the space.
Acosta says she wants people to feel like they are in Mexico. And she wants customers to experience what she knows of the country.
"I come from Mexico City," says Acosta. "Part of my family is from the centre, and part is from the coast. So that's the cuisine I know the most. We incorporate some seafood, but it's mainly about the central region of Mexico."
The flavours centre on chili peppers, corn and pork. There are spices, but that doesn't always mean heat–while there are spicy options like jalapenos con queso and tacos with habanero peppers, there are also simple, flavourful dishes like pozole and pescado a la talla, which uses the milder guajillo pepper, and cinnamon-laced sweets like horchata and churros.
"Right now we offer what is traditional food in Mexico," she says. "So we have molé, we have enchiladas–those are pretty familiar to everybody–we prepare other marinades for tacos that are based on dried peppers or other fresh vegetables. We also have influence from Spain, and that also has influence from Arabic foods, with nuts and dried fruits."
But there is, as Fillmore says, a twist: Wayne Arnold, the new chef they've left to his own devices today. "He'll bring what more modern Mexican chefs are doing," says Acosta. "Elements of our traditional cuisine but incorporating new ingredients. In Mexico for example, we eat lots of pork. But here is more about seafood or beef, so he'll try to incorporate the elements of what I know—what I learned from my mother and grandmother—with things from here, like seafood. We don't want to go into Tex-Mex, though. We want to keep the traditional, but with a modern twist."
The first few months were a struggle for the pair, not only because of the steep learning curve that was their introduction to food service, but because a lot of people came in the door expecting a bit of Tex with their Mex. "I think the customer base has changed," she says. "When we opened I find customers were expecting more Tex-Mex style. But now our customer base knows our food and they know what it's about. And that new customer base is more willing to risk and try new flavours."
Those flavours can be difficult to produce in Nova Scotia. There is only one supplier for dried Latin American peppers in eastern Canada, so a delay can mean a lot of head-scratching and hail-Mary specials. But there are some things that have been easier, thanks to local farmers.
"We use green tomatillo for our green salsa and our base for the guacamole, and one of the farmers that we met at the farmers market—Ted Hutten—he's growing it for us in the valley. So that's huge," says Acosta. It would be very difficult to cook Mexican without green tomatillos. Unless you buy a can, but you don't want to do that, right?"
And service can be slow at Que Tal, in part because Acosta and Fillmore are dedicated to making everything from scratch, to order. They have also been striving to keep Que Tal gluten-free, using only house-made corn tortillas.
"I mean, we want to do it," says Acosta. "We want to mimic as much as we can from what we would see back in Mexico."
"And we make as many of the things as we can ourselves," says Fillmore. "Anything from the pickled jalapenos to the fresh cheese—queso fresco—the tortillas, of course. The salsas are all house made. And the tamales, our refried beans, our own chorizo."
"Everything," Acosta says with a laugh. "Everything except the sour cream."