Review: Monarca serves fine Mexican cuisine in Vancouver

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Ophelia’s sister restaurant, Monarca Cucina Mexicana, is a bit more creative.

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Monarca Cocina Mexicana

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Where: 181 Carrall Street, Vancouver

When: Dinner, daily; lunch, Wednesday to Sunday; Happy Hour, Saturday and Sunday.

Information: 604-569-2258; monarcavancouver.ca

Think “Top Gun” Tom Cruise is something to watch? Think of monarch butterflies that fly from Canada to central Mexico propelled by their fragile wings, then return.

These black, athletic-minded beauties inspired Francisco Higareda to name his second restaurant, Monarca Cocina Mexicana, after them. It was also to honor his father, who took him to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico as a child. “My father’s hometown is very close,” he says. His first restaurant, Ophelia, which opened two years ago in the Olympic Village, is named after his mother.

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His parents, in turn, imbued him with a passion for food – both were excellent cooks. And Higareda also has a migratory history, living and working in Mexico, Spain, Italy and now Vancouver where, luckily for us, he has settled.

Monarca Cocina Mexicana showcases the range and abilities of this chef. He could have imitated Ophelia’s dishes, but he refrained from layoffs – laudable in today’s harsh reality of staff shortages, rising prices and the need for efficiency.

Chef-owner Francisco Higareda.
Chef-owner Francisco Higareda. Alexandra Dunlap

Although Higareda has worked and acquired fine dining moves at restaurants like three-star Michelin Arzak in Spain and one-star l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, that’s not his focus here. He pours his knowledge of ingredients, flavors and techniques to enhance the kind of food he loved in Mexico. “It comes from my past, from what my mother used to cook. It’s traditional Mexican food. But as the world discovers it, Mexican food can be extremely sophisticated, layered with a history going back thousands of years. years with distinct regional differences, based on geography and political or immigrant influences.

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I found a lot to love at Monarca, starting with the tortillas, freshly made daily by Chancho Tortilleria with organic corn from 32 indigenous communities in Oaxaca. Depending on the source, tortillas can be yellow, blue, red, white, purple, or mixed. You’ll notice they’re called milpa tortillas on the menu, in reference to how corn is grown on small farms according to ancient traditions, including supplemental plantings to add nitrogen to the soil. “I get the fresh, hot tortillas every day,” says Higareda, who co-owns the two restaurants with John Crook and Eri.k Heck, which also operates Flying Pig restaurants – one of which was recently destroyed in a fire in Gastown.

My first entree at Monarca—dried shrimp and scallops with avocado, strawberries, red onion, and jalapeno-lime broth ($18.50)—was a beauty in appearance and taste. Okay, those weren’t local strawberries, but that lime jalapeno broth gave it some sparkle.

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Dried shrimp and scallops with avocado, strawberries, red onion and jalapeno lime broth.
Dried shrimp and scallops with avocado, strawberries, red onion and jalapeno lime broth. Alexandra Dunlap

The Ahi tuna with serrano aioli, salsa, mache and leek on a tortilla ($16.50) featured very fresh and bright tuna.

The achiote-braised pork with habanero pickled onion and queso fresco folded into tortillas ($26) comes with a delicious satiny black bean sauce that’s tastier than expected, but of course, it has just the right amount of onions, garlic, tomatoes and chipotle pepper for a sweet and rich complexity.

The guacamole, served with tortilla chips, was done in a thin, smooth style ($12.50). I prefer it chunky and found it a little bland, like the jalapeno, cilantro, and lime juice had gone to sleep. The grilled shrimp tacos with Oaxacan cheese and burnt tomatillo salsa ($20.50) was good with the crispy tortilla and melted cheese, but I concluded that I like my tacos fresh and shiny, not grilled. Just a matter of taste.

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A confidently marinated skirt steak with cheddar cheese chicharron, roasted whole garlic and smoky serrano sauce (three for $28.50) might have you wondering what exactly cheese chicharron is? The cheese is grilled so that it forms a crispy skin to cover the steak.

A seven-ounce beef tenderloin with truffled corn shreds and raspberry mole ($49) exemplifies why Mexican cuisine has been awarded Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status by UNESCO. The “truffled corn squids” in the dish refer to the Cuitlacoche, or Corn Mushroom, prized since Aztec times for its truffle-like character. It’s not available fresh, but Higareda has found a source of it in a freeze-dried form that requires rehydration. The raspberry mole is made with a starter mole he had kept for 720 days when I interviewed him. As in Mexican households, it continues to add and rebalance. For this dish, he added fresh raspberries for “flavor”. He finished the dish with freeze-dried and powdered raspberries. I love her mole, which is also used in a few dishes at Ophélie.

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For dessert, we had the choice between churros and ice cream, chocolate cake or “lemon cake”. After the waiter demonstrated the enormity of the chocolate cake with his hands, we hesitated. It’s one-eighth of a 16-inch three-layered Oaxacan chocolate cake – unthinkable for me, so we opted to share the lemon cake. I was puzzled how it was made. It wasn’t ice cream. It wasn’t frozen mousse. It was, as Higareda told me, a Carlota, “a dessert that every mom makes. It’s so simple,” he says. You whisk evaporated milk, condensed milk, and regular milk with lime and lemon until it thickens, and top the mixture with Peek Frean Marias cookies. “You build it. The acidity makes it possible to curdle the creams a little. Then you freeze it and we all eat it. This, I am sure, is not an Aztec remnant.

Monarca has a solid wine list and a good selection of Mexican and local beers, but the bar’s real star is its tequila and mezcal selection. Can’t make up your mind? Premium brand flights are available. The cocktails, of course, also contain agave spirits.

Higareda’s restaurants are illuminating this city on the depth of Mexican cuisine, and it’s not over. He hints that there may be a third at some point – fine Mexican cuisine. Oh please. Yes yes!

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