Review: Monarca serves up elevated Mexican food in Vancouver

The sister restaurant to Ophelia, Monarca Cucina Mexicana goes a little more creative.

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Monarch Mexican Cuisine

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Where: 181 Carrall St., Vancouver

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

Info: 604-569-2258; monarcavancouver.ca

You think “Top Gun” Tom Cruise is something to behold? Think about the monarch butterflies that fly from Canada to central Mexico propelled by their fragile wings and then back again.

These athletic marigold and black 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 dad’s home town is very close to it,” he says. His first restaurant, Ophelia, which opened two years ago in Olympic Village, was named for his mother.

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

Monarca Mexican Cuisine showcases this chef’s range and abilities. He could have ditto-ed dishes from Ophelia, but he refrained from redundancies — laudable in today’s harsh reality of staff shortages, rising prices, and the need for efficiencies.

Chef-owner Francisco Higareda.
Chef-owner Francisco Higareda. alexandra dunlap

Although Higareda has worked and acquired fancy food moves in restaurants like the three-Michelin star Arzak in Spain and one-star Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, that’s not his goal here. He pours his knowledge of ingredients, flavors and techniques into elevating the kind of food he liked in Mexico. “It comes from my background, what my mom used to cook. It’s traditional Mexican cuisine.” But as the world is discovering, Mexican cuisine can be super-sophisticated, layered with history reaching back thousands of years with distinct regional differences, depending on geography and political or immigrant influences.

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I found a lot to love at Monarca, starting with the tortillas, made fresh daily by Chancho Tortilleria with organic corn from 32 indigenous communities in Oaxaca. Depending on the source, the tortillas can be yellow, blue, red, white, purple, or mixed. You’ll note they are called milpa tortillas on the menu, referring to the way the corn is grown on small farms following ancient traditions, including complementary plantings to add nitrogen to the soil. “I receive the tortillas fresh and warm every day,” says Higareda, who co-owns both restaurants with John Crook and Erik Heck, who also operate Flying Pig restaurants — one of which was recently destroyed in a Gastown fire.

My first starter at Monarca — cured prawns and scallops with avocado, strawberries, red onion, and jalapeno lime broth ($18.50) — was a beauty in looks and taste. Okay, so they weren’t local strawberries, but that jalapeno lime broth gave it sparkle.

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Cured prawns and scallops with avocado, strawberries, red onion, and jalapeno lime broth.
Cured prawns and scallops with avocado, strawberries, red onion, and jalapeno lime broth. alexandra dunlap

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

Achiote-braised pork with habanero pickled onion and queso fresco folded into tortillas ($26) came with a delicious, satiny black bean sauce, tastier than expected, but of course, it has just the right amount of onions, garlic, tomato, and chipotle pepper for a smooth, rich complexity.

Guacamole, served with tortilla chips, was made in a fine, smooth style ($12.50). I prefer it chunky and I found this a little bland, as if the jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice fell asleep. The grilled prawn tacos with Oaxacan cheese and burnt tomatillo salsa ($20.50) were good with the crispy tortilla and melty cheese, but I’ve concluded I like my tacos tasting fresh and bright, not grilled. Just a matter of taste.

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

A seven-ounce beef tenderloin with truffle corn esquites and raspberry mole ($49) exemplifies why Mexican cuisine was given an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status by UNESCO. The “truffle corn esquites” in the dish refers to cuitlacoche, or corn fungus, prized since Aztec days for its truffle-like character. It’s not available fresh, but Higareda found a source for it in freeze-dried form which requires rehydrating. The raspberry mole is made with a starter mole he’d kept going for 720 days when I interviewed him. As in Mexican households, he keeps adding and rebalancing. For this dish, I added fresh raspberries for “perfume.” I have finished the dish with freeze-dried and powdered raspberries. I love his mole, which is also used in a few dishes at Ophelia.

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For dessert, we had a choice of churros and ice cream, chocolate cake or “lemon cake”. After the waiter demonstrated the enormity of the chocolate cake with his hands, we demurred. It’s one-eighth of a three-layer, 16-inch Oaxacan chocolate cake — unthinkable for me, so we opted to share the lemon cake. I was puzzled about how it was made. It wasn’t ice cream. It wasn’t frozen mousse. It was, as Higareda informed me, a Carlota, “a dessert every mom makes. It’s so simple,” he says. You whip evaporated milk, condensed milk and regular milk with lime and lemon until it thickens, and layer the mix with Peek Frean Marias biscuit cookies. “You build it up. The acidity helps curdle the creams a bit. Then you freeze it and we all eat it.” This, I am sure, is not an Aztec holdover.

Monarca has a solid wine list and a good selection of Mexican and local beers, but the real star of the bar is its selection of tequila and mezcal. Can’t make up your mind? Flights of premium brands are available. Cocktails, of course, also feature agave spirits.

Higareda’s restaurants enlighten this city on the depth of Mexican cuisine, and he’s not done. He hints that maybe there will be a third at some point — fine Mexican food. Oh please. Yes Yes!

mia.stainsby@shaw.ca

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