Gordo EX Cafe
Address: 1048 Bathurst St. (near Dupont St.), 416-894-7905
Chef: Alex Sanchez
Hours: Tuesday, 2 to 10 p.m.; Wednesday, 2 to 8:30 p.m.; Thursday, 2 to 10 p.m.; Friday, noon to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Wheelchair access: No
Price: Dinner for two with coffee, tax and tip: $35
The rat-a-tat of New World Spanish greets me at the threshold of Gordo Ex Cafe.
“Bienvenido. Como estas?” asks a T-shirted waiter, using the familiar form.
It’s not just Venezuelans who gather at the friendly Bathurst St. restaurant for staccato conversations and the food of their homeland.
I hear other languages, too. English speakers come in with laptops to drink coffee while waiting for their clothes to dry at the laundromat next door. A group of Japanese language students takes over almost all of the 30 seats one night. When they depart, the waiters fan themselves in exhaustion.
The big guy — owner Alex ‘El Gordo’ Sanchez
There really is a gordo, Spanish for “fat one,” behind Gordo Ex.
Alex Sanchez got his nickname when he was heavier; he now carries 310 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. A former graphic artist and self-taught cook, the La Guaira native arrived in Canada in 1998.
Sanchez, 49, opened the café three years ago. It reflects his sensibility: vintage bullfighting posters and clever typography on the walls, his designs on the staff shirts.
His only rule? No speaking ill of the homeland, now in crisis.
“Venezuela is a beautiful country and we need to emphasize the positive. We have professionals, the arts, models,” says Sanchez through a translator, Miss Universe contestant Ninela Sanchez (no relation).
Coffee guide — coffee being made
Gordo doesn’t have a liquor licence. The closest you can get to beer is imported Polar Maltin, a brown malt beverage I watch an expat urge his girlfriend to try.
“This is so Venezuela,” he promises.
There is also papelon ($3), a dark lemonade that may be an acquired taste.
Far more likeable is the coffee, stronger here than the equatorial sun. Chalkboard diagrams outline the ratio of hot milk to coffee in the marron (half and half), tetero (mostly milk), guayoyo (mostly coffee) and cerrero (all coffee) versions.
The coffee doesn’t always arrive. In fact, if you don’t need to remind the waiter he’s forgotten something, then you’ve caught Gordo on a slow day.
Arriba! — arepa
Of course there are arepas, the overstuffed cornmeal sandwiches that are to Venezuelans what hamburgers are to Canadians.
The waiter crouches down to ask my young daughter what fillings she likes. The result — griddled ham, creamy chicken salad (reina pepiada) and marble cheese spilling out of warm crusted cornbread — is pleasing ($8.95), even without the proffered green (hot) or white (garlic) sauce.
But it’s not even the menu highlight. I’d award that to pabellon criollo ($18.50), beef stewed with bell peppers and served with sticky rice, soupy black beans and the ripest fried plantains. Or the tequenos ($1.95), gooey cheese sticks wrapped in fried bread dough. Best. Thing. Ever.
Lend me your ear — cachapa
Then there is the cachapa, a miracle of creamed corn formed into a pancake. It is folded around a thick, white slice of paisa cheese, squeaky and bland. With ropes of simple roast pork ($14) tucked inside, it is as satisfying as a good nap.
Tres leches ($5.75) is how Venezuelans end a meal, the waiter says; white cake soaked in evaporated and condensed milks plus whipping cream, with a hint of cinnamon. There are also churros ($5.75) for swiping through Nutella.
How much you like Gordo Ex depends on your patience. Are you fine waiting 45 minutes for food? Chasing down cutlery?
It’s a laid-back place that embodies “chevere,” or cool, as the Venezuelans who work there call their motto for living life.
Published on April 27, 2016