by Bryn Skibo-Birney
On a cold, dark, and (inevitably) rainy evening in January, walking into Cacao is instantly welcoming.
Candles wash the white walls gold against black trim, while teal watercolor paintings – by local artist Hoai Dang-Lachance – and adobe pottery add pops of elemental color. The oak tables and benches (there aren’t many, so reservations are a good idea) are simply adorned with glass hurricane lanterns placed on thick slices of tree branches.
Even during the relatively quiet period after the holidays – and on a night when ordering in and watching Netflix seems particularly appealing – nearly every table in Cacao is full.
But rather than feeling overly crowded, the setting is cozy, like the small neighborhood restaurant that it is. At the same time, since every couple is given a four-top, the ambiance is relaxed and intimate.
It feels like your local (not the Local) neighborhood joint, if your local neighborhood joint served wildly inventive, gastronomique pan-Latin/Canadian fusion comfort food.
Fortunately, if you live in Kitsilano, it does.
I visited Cacao, co-owned by Chef Jefferson Alvarez and Marcela Ramirez, on “test-kitchen Tuesday,” when the ever-daring Alvarez experiments with new dishes that will eventually appear on the main menu, only after plenty of customer feedback.
True to its name, the ten plates that come out of the open kitchen are brilliantly experimental: creamy white sweetbreads are offset by devilishly carbolic and pointy (yet surprisingly delicate, with a satisfying crunch) lace made of rice and vegetable ash.
The black and white of the lace and sweetbreads is set off by a pool of adobe-red macha manteles (“table-cloth stainer”), a smokey and subtly piquant sauce similar, Alvarez says, to “a young mole” (pronounced mo-lay, not like the small mammal).
In contrast, Alvarez’s tamago is emerald green, topped with dandelion yellow aioli and slivered pink and white radishes on a bed of spiced, light-green pumpkin seeds, a vision, scent, and flavor of the sea and fields of Vanier Park in the summer.
The dish is an inventive nod to Nikkei, the Japanese-Venezuelan fusion food Alvarez knows from his childhood in Venezuela. Alvarez makes it his own with the use of Fanny Bay oysters, sea lettuce, and sweet corn – blending ingredients from his adopted Canadian home of twenty years with the textures and techniques of South and Central America.
This combination – of vibrant colors and contrasts, of complementary textures, and seamlessly and uniquely blended geographies – is precisely the goal of Cacao.
Every dish I had on Tuesday achieves this creative and surprising fusion: from corn-meal arepas and bison tongue with mole to passion fruit custard cake and frosted reindeer moss (unexpectedly, it tastes like spearmint).
And most important, it’s all delicious, especially when you pair it with Alvarez’s perceptive wines choices.
If you’re more of an “eater” than a “foodie,” don’t let the insanely artistic platings fool you: the purpose and passion of Cacao is flavor.
Alvarez and Ramirez both speak at length about their desire to introduce Latin food to Vancouverites, beyond “just” tacos. (To be fair, we all agree that tacos are delicious; Cacao’s own octopus and “drunk sauce” taco is both sweet and earthy. It offers the ease and fun of tacos with the extra-credit of eating octopus that hasn’t been fried.)
But while Alvarez and Ramirez want to challenge diners to move outside their comfort zones – perhaps ordering the customer-favorite beef asado as well as the lesser-known sweetbreads – this challenge isn’t hard considering that all of Cacao’s offerings are essentially comfort food.
The opening dish of arepas, cornmeal fritters which Alvarez stuffs with house-smoked zucchini in chorizo sauce, is blissfully crunchy on the outside before you hit the warm, dense interior: rich and smoky with a slightly spicy tickle at the back of your throat. To top it off, the arepas are vegan (no sausage used with the chorizo sauce) and gluten free.
Tell all your friends, order a dozen and some cocktails, and you’re golden.
True, you could say that cornmeal fritters aren’t overly daring if we’re talking about encouraging non-Latinos to try new cuisines. But the sea-green conch soup is equally heart-gladdening.
The addition of tapioca (a common ingredient in Brazilian cooking) thickens the stock and creates savory micro-dumplings that smoooosh on your tongue, a delightful textual combination paired with the chewier (and locally sourced) conch. The tapioca also soaks up the parsley-and-cilantro-based broth, creating minor taste explosions as you chew.
It tastes and feels as homey and comfortable as rich, briny chicken noodle, but looks like a mix between a vignette from Tofino’s Chesterman Beach and Titian’s The Birth of Venus. Speaking of romance, the soup is a great option for a date; conch has historically been used as an aphrodisiac, and nothing offers a better meet-cute possibility like sipping the remainder of the soup from the tip of the shell.
Alternatively, you can sip Alvarez’s suggestion of a floral, slightly sweet Albarino (white wine from Spain) and avoid a bill from the dry-cleaner.
I could go on: about the paradoxically light, yet succulent duck confit served with unripe tomato marmalade; about the eyerollingly-creamy custard cake with Tonka bean, spiked with a mischievously tart passion-fruit glaze; or about the candied jelly mushroom served on a plate of bark (both foraged from the forests of Vancouver Island).
But it could all be different by the time you get there (and you should get there). So, before we close, let’s discuss mole.
I was lucky enough to chat (sometimes with my mouth full) with Ramirez – Cacao’s chief of salsas and sauces (see recipe below) – who graciously explained the culinary differences between northern and southern Mexican cuisines.
While her family now lives in Monterrey (north), they originate from the south, an area famous for its salsas, “drunk sauces” (made with Mezcal and beer, featured on the octopus taco), and moles. Families in the south, especially Veracruz, develop unique mole recipes, which are prepared by an individual woman – the family’s official mole maker – who will then make the sauce for the rest of the extended family (Ramirez’s grandmother prepared mole for over sixty family members for years).
It’s a responsibility that can easily take at least a week because each of the twenty or so ingredients requires a particular process before being added to the sauce. Over generations, new mole makers are designated and mole stocks are handed down (literally, a woman is gifted mole when she leaves home) through generations.
Ramirez received her own gift of mole, as well as the lauded role of being her family’s mole maker, just before she left for Vancouver, over two years ago, and it is this 104-year-old mole which adds piquancy and depth to the restaurant’s dish of bison tongue with pumpkin seed crumble (a staple in Guatemalian cooking, Ramirez tells me. If you’re counting, the dish features tastes and textures from at least three Latin countries: Ramirez’s Mexican mole, Guatemalian pumpkin seed crumble, and Canadian bison, not to mention the fantastic Chilean Pinot Noir Alvarez paired with it).
But more than that, a central component of Ramirez’s mole is her family history and tradition, both steeped in the geography where she comes from. When she prepares the mole for Cacao, she is using a sauce started from the very one she received from her mother, who received it from her mother, and on and on.
Though Ramirez is the official mole maker for her extended family, it is Vancouverites who are the lucky recipients of generations of training, tasting, and testing.
When Alvarez says that he wants customers to take away flavor above all, it’s not just the immediacy of the spice in the macha mantelas or the subtlety of the sea salt in the tamago: it’s also an intangible sabor of where Alvarez and Ramirez come from.
As Ramirez tells me, gesturing to the deep-red sauce on the plate and the glowing candle-lit walls, “This warmth that was in my home is now in here. When you cook, you need to feel the passion, the food, and the ingredients.”
Flavor, passion, warmth, and artistry: this is Cacao and it needs to be your new local.
What to try:
- Cacao shines when you step out of your comfort zone. The tasting menu ($85), available Wednesday-Saturday, may seem initially pricey, but it’s generous and lives up to its title, “Journey,” as it spans South and Central America and Canada. Alternatively, Chef Alvarez is offering 10% off of the “test-kitchen Tuesday” – ten dishes soon to appear on the tasting-menu – for readers of Kitsilano.ca; just mention this review and Kitsilano.ca with your reservation.
- Don’t forget: compose your fork with as much care as Chef Alvarez, Chef Gayowksi, and Ramirez compose the plate. Each ingredient is designed to add something particular – the creamy, piquancy of the aioli against the subtle brine of the oyster tamago, the bitterness of the olive oil against the rich, smokey mole – and they achieve a revelatory harmony when put together. You would be missing out to eat them separately (or, gasp, not at all. Random, abandoned parsley this is not.)
- Cacao will participate in Dine Out (January 18 to February 3, 2019); you can buy tickets online.
- Look for Marcela Ramirez’s line of salsa – Salsa by Marcela – based on recipes she learned from her family (or try it yourself with the recipe below). While Papa Carlo’s “emergency salsa” will be ideal for huevos rancheros, it’s Tio Emilio’s (vegan!) creamy, avocado-y, herby fresh recipe that I predict will finally give new life to the ubiquitous eggs benedict.
Make it at home: Huitlacoche Sauce (serve with quesadillas)
Introduction and recipe by Marcela Ramirez
The Huitlacoche (Ustilago maidis) is a corn truffle, or a black mushroom, that invade corn species worldwide, but only in Mexico is the corn truffle considered a traditional delicacy. It is such a prized product that corn infected with huitlacoche fungus costs 50% more than healthy ears of corn. This discrepancy is due largely to the flavor: a mix between black truffles and shiitake mushrooms, it’s a wonderful aroma that smells of wet earth. While huitlacoche is often difficult for farmers to find, you can find it easily here in Kitsilano; Cacao sources many of its hard-to-find Central and South American ingredients from Fresh is Best, located at 2908 West Broadway; mention Kitsilano.ca at check-out for a 10% discount.
Ingredients for huitlacocha sauce:
- 2 jalapeño or serrano peppers (spicy; for less spice, use 1 chile poblano)
- 1/4 white onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 3 Tablespoons of oil
- 1 cup canned or preserved huitlacoche
Ingredients for quesadillas:
Cut the jalapeño or serrano peppers into slices. If you want it a little less spicy, use instead one chile poblano (ancho chile), cut into slices. Cut the quarter onion into strips. Finely chop two cloves of garlic.
In a saucepan with three tablespoons of hot oil, fry the chili and onion. Once they are soft, add the garlic and incorporate it into the chili and onion. Add 1/2 cup of water and leave everything on a medium flame, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add the canned huitlacoche with a pinch of salt and keep on medium heat for 5-10 minutes, or until you see that the salsa has been slightly reduced. (You can add more sliced chilis if you want the sauce to be spicier.)
Prepare the quesadilla by heating and bending the tortillas; add cheese to the middle and cover with the hot huitlacoche sauce. Your quesadillas with huitlacoche sauce are now ready to be enjoyed with your family and friends!
Cacao, 1898 West 1st Avenue, 604-731-5370, cacaovancouver.com
Last modified: May 30, 2019