By Ashwin Shingadia
When Emilio Escobedo came to Canada four years ago, he couldn’t find authentic Mexican food. Now he can, at the two restaurants he owns and runs on Bank Street in the Glebe, with a little help in the kitchen from his mother.
“She is in charge of the traditional recipes she brought with her from Mexico,” says Escobedo. “We make everything from scratch.”
Mona’s Taqueria, his new restaurant, opened its doors at 873 Bank on September 1. That same day, his other restaurant, Margarita, moved from that location to 895 Bank (previously Bowmans) and opened its doors too, with a considerably expanded capacity for its full range of traditional authentic Mexican dining.
I met Escobedo at Mona’s. He stood erect behind the counter and talked to me through a mask while darting in and out to serve his customers, returning to continue our conversation and explain the difficulties he’s faced the past few months.
“When we were open only for a few months, COVID-19 hit us,” he said. “The lockdown was very painful. We all hated it. We could not just sit at home and do nothing, paralyzed by the fear of COVID. Some 25 people and their families depended on me; I could not fire them.”
Before the anticipated second wave, he decided to innovate, adapt and work hard to provide all three types of services – dine in, takeout and delivery. He introduced a brunch at Margarita and began to cater for gluten-free, vegan and low-salt clientele.
Mona’s emphasis is tacos, but also offers starters, salads, quesadillas, alambre and tortas (Mexican sandwiches). Unique to his restaurants are cactus salads and cactus tacos – a local supplier is developing techniques for growing cacti for his needs. He also mentioned tamales (corn cakes) and pazole (soup). The desserts are mouth-watering churros (deep fried Mexican pastry coated with sugar and cinnamon), Tres Leches and Flan Napolitan. A portion of the sales from desserts goes to Meal Share, a project to help girls’ and boys’ clubs. The bar has the usual choice of beers, wines and cocktails, including Mexican brands of tequila and beer.
Escobedo graduated in law (IESA, Hidalgo) and practised in Mexico, but he always had a taste for the restaurant and food business. “My family has been in the food industry since I was seven. I helped my mother, Margarita, in the catering industry. My father left us when I was young; she had to look after my two sisters and me.”
His mother, he said, has many family secrets known only to her and the family restaurant called Las Penas in Hidalgo, Mexico. She’s now using those secrets as she cooks at her son’s restaurants and coaches other chefs.
Escobedo’s other staff are locals with multicultural backgrounds. On my previous visit, I met a young lady at the counter, Larkin, from Hamilton, who was recruited through an agency. She was a second-year student at Carleton in public affairs and had taken a year off due to COVID-19. Escobedo also introduced me to his silent partner, John Abdulnour, a Canadian of Lebanese descent. “He does administration and accounting for me.” And Escobedo proudly introduced another employee. “Here is Bilal from Syria, another of my managers!”
The atmosphere at Mona’s is friendly and intimate. One of Escobedo’s innovations is “the store,” shelves near the entrance displaying Mexican products and snacks. Two customers, Jessica and Chloe, came in, ordered takeout, conversed in Spanish and waited. Jessica is an education student at the University of Mexico (UNAM-Canada) in Gatineau, and Chloe is an Ottawa local. This was their first visit. As they left, one whispered to me, “He is very kind and generous.” Escobedo had given them an authentic sauce at no charge. I noticed them slipping a $5 bill in the tips cup. “We will come again,” they said. Another couple on their way out said, “Authentic Mexican, good.”
Mona’s Taqueria is open from 11.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Margarita is open from 11.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday.
A warm welcome to Mona’s Taqueria and best wishes.
Ashwin Shingadia is a long-time Glebe resident, a contributor to the Glebe Report and a former member of its board.