Edmonton’s COMAL is back and kicking off 2017 with a series of Mexican dinners titled Taco Therapy. A deviation from their previous Table Dinners, Taco Therapy zones in on the popular dish with a focus on COMAL’s Nixtamal Program, a feature that nobody else in Edmonton is doing.
Last wendsday COMAL Taco Therapy hosted @cafelinnea was a wonderful event, thanks to all our guests who came to try out our Mexican tasting menu featuring 100% nixtamal hand pressed corn tortillas. Big shout to all our volunteers and people who helped out, next April we are coming back! Photo by my very good friends @gregoryrep & @crystal_soup visual art by talented @andreweirich #photography #design #tacos #tepache #mezcal #cacti #comaltacotherapy #yeg #yegpopup #yegfood #mexicanfood #mexicandrinks #repost
Taco Therapy is a play on Chef Israel Alvarez’s and Chef Matthew Marcotte’s love for the progressive trance group Above & Beyond’s weekly radio show, Group Therapy. I’d say we all could use a little taco therapy in Edmonton. Last week’s installment of COMAL Taco Therapy was held at Cafe Linnea. Revamped into a taqueria with displays of potted cacti and bottle gourds, I forgot that I was in a Scandinavian-inspired space.
We started off our night with Agua Fresca Tepache, a fermented beverage made from pineapples, sweetened and spiced with cinnamon, and a staple in Mexican taco shops. In addition to pineapples, COMAL Taco Therapy also uses oranges in their four-day fermentation process and adds star anise and clove. A small amount of beer finishes the tepache off. It was the perfect drink for the night and one that I could drink all day long in Edmonton’s hot summer months.
COMAL also offered two different kinds of mezcal: Del Maguey Crema De Mezcal served with Orange and Agave Worm Salt and Miel de Tierra. Although the Miel de Tierra’s origin sounded interesting (“earth honey”, the natural tree sap from the single batch mezcal barrels made of fresh natural oak timber), it was the sal de gusano (agave worm salt) that piqued my interest. It’s exactly what it sounds like. These moth larvae are typically found living in the agave plants used to make mezcal. Toasted, ground, and mixed with rock salt and dried chili then sprinkled on a wedge of orange, it made for a nice finish of smoke, spice, and acid to the Del Maguey.
The botana (Spanish word for appetizer or snack) was served to start. Wanting to steer away from tortilla chips, COMAL served refried pinto beans, sikil p’ak (pumpkinseed tomato dip), and guacamole with tostones, twice-fried perfectly cut plantain slices. The addition of oranges and Habanero peppers in the sikil p’ak kept me coming back for more. By the end of my plate though, the refried pinto beans were my favourite, lighter than the sikil p’ak and a great pairing with the tostones. I’d take those plantain slices over tortilla chips any day.
COMAL’s Nixtamal program is one of its kind in Edmonton. Nobody else is making corn tortillas from start to finish in the city. Corn is sourced from Mexico or Peru and goes through a process called nixtamalization. Not only does this preparation make maize (corn) digestible, but it also enhances its flavour. First the unprocessed grain is mixed with an alkaline solution (nejayote) and cooked for 90 minutes. This breaks down the structure of the corn cell walls, separates the hulls from the kernels, and softens the maize. The mixture is left to sit for 12 hours to yield nixtamal (or whole hominy). From there, the nixtamal can be ground and made into tortillas, tamales, and arepas; or subsequently dried and ground (masa harina) and then reconstituted to be used. The dough is then pressed into tortillas and cooked on a smooth, flat griddle — a comal.
The tortillas came out in a basket, warm and ready to eat. They were thicker than I’m accustomed to but it was absolutely lovely. They were hands down the best corn tortillas I’ve ever had — notably strong corn flavour, a fantastic variety of texture with each bite, pliable enough to fold, but sturdy enough to hold the fillings without doubling up on the tortilla. Well done COMAL, well done.
The night’s selection wasn’t served communally or family-style but as individual courses. I take this as a sign that COMAL is experimenting with styles of serving, perhaps for a future endeavour (cough, restaurant, cough). Both the Poblano Rajas (roasted poblano peppers, onions, zucchini, corn, crema & quesa) and the Duck Carnitas (duck confit, orange, onions, star anise, and Mexican cola) made a reappearance, clearly a favourite with diners.
The Braised Short Rib was new to me, the plate looking deceptively small and a lot more manageable than the duck. Trust me when I say COMAL wants you to leave completely satiated. Served with a yellow mole, there were strong cashew and almond notes. I’m overwhelmed with how each mole can taste so different. Each region in Mexico has their own version of mole. Heck, even one region could have several different mole. It’s amazing.
A trio of salsas accompanied the tacos: verde, morita, and borracha.
Morita chiles are actually smoked red-ripe jalapeño peppers, much like the more popular chipotle pepper. The main difference: the amount of time to smoke the peppers. The morita salsa closely mimicked a fruitier BBQ sauce, was considerably more smoky, and had a welcomed lingering heat.
Other sides included Mexican Red Rice and Chiles Toreados, deliciously spicy and a fun addition to the tacos.
As if we weren’t awed enough, dessert came with more questions from our table. A Mamey Fruit Crème Brûlée with Tequila Flambé left us wondering what on earth was this weird combination of flavours, a resemblance of sweet potato and peaches. The mamey fruit looks very much like an avocado, brown on the outside, but orange or yellow on the inside. The texture is creamy and soft like an avocado, but fruity notes were there. Traditionally it’s made into milkshakes, smoothies, ice creams, and marmalades. Offering it as a crème brûlée, the mamey fruit was softer in texture. It’s a shame the tequila bianco didn’t stay aflame by the time it reached the table, but it was a treat nevertheless.
By the end of the night, I was more than content. I can almost guarantee you that a dinner with COMAL will be filling in more ways that you can imagine. Both physically and mentally. I always leave COMAL with more answers about Mexican cuisine, and equally more questions. It’s meals like these that truly get me excited.