Update: This restaurant has closed.
For our last meal in Victoria we went to another rather odd location, Hernande’z Cocina, for Central American food. This is apparently as close as you’ll get to a traditional Salvadorean cocina here in BC, with two sides of a mall hallway doubling for a rustic village market stall. Well, they didn’t quite deliver on the atmosphere, but it’s an interesting setup and it seems to be working for them.
It is all very DIY and kind of confusing for a newcomer, however they have plenty of hand-written cardboard signage and if you’re feeling overwhelmed it pays off to start reading. Or do what we did and browse the page after page of instructions and explanations on their website. Many people have been complaining in various reviews about this style of service, or self-service to be more accurate, along with the various rules for dining there but after reading what the owners have to say about it I felt good about giving them our business and it all seemed to make sense to me. Most of it has to do with keeping costs down and quality of food high, although it’s hard to understand the justification for a $4 side of rice or beans…I guess they must be HUGE. Everything else was quite reasonably priced though.
They have a slow food and an express menu, the main difference seems to be that the slow food comes with their home-made tortillas and is served table-side via a strange (but cool) loteria card-based system that involves a bit of shouting and hand-waving. Express food is picked up across the hall at the kitchen. I think the only express item we ordered was the burrito, but everything seemed to come out of the kitchen at a good clip so maybe slow food is a bit of a misnomer. Messier items come on a plate whereas finger-food is on butcher paper, however plates can be rented for $1. Yes, things are done a little differently here, but read their website manifesto and then sample the food before you judge.
The Tacos de Carne were a bit less bang for buck at three for $6 than the other tacos which come with five for the same price, but the organic beef they use apparently isn’t always in stock so we had to try it. And we were glad we did! The beef was sooo tender and juicy, with a generous portion of cilantro folded in delectable home-made tortillas.
The Pork Enchilada came swimming in a very cinnamon-y sauce which reminded us of a mole. Intriguing on first bite, but by the end we were getting sick of it due to the overwhelming sauce. On the plus side the meat was juicy and there was lots of gooey cheese smothering it.
The folks both ordered a Huarache. This is very interesting as we’ve never seen these thick handmade corn tortilla concoctions offered anywhere else before. It’s basically as it’s described. One might expect the approximately inch-thick tortilla to be mealy and dry but that was not the case at all. Probably due to the sauce seeping down from the toppings or because of the fact that they’re made fresh. They were moist but not soggy and a very pleasant texture in the mouth. The fact that they opted to use salad greens instead of regular old lettuce really differentiates them from the usual Latin fare. Flavor-wise as a whole the meat and beans tasted like the fillings in the other food items we ordered…just plated differently.
There are burritos on the menu that can be had for a couple dollars cheaper, but the Burrito de Pollo has a deservedly good reputation so it was a must try. The perfectly seasoned and incredibly juicy meat left a big wet puddle on the paper by the time I was through, but the expertly wrapped steamed flour tortilla magically held it all together until the last bite. Again, the inclusion of mixed greens instead of plain lettuce really brought it up to next-level status. We also had a medium order of chips and salsa since we were informed it was Family Day (Sunday) and as we had brought the fam it was free. There was just enough chips to go around but the salsa was gigantic and the folks ended up taking most of it home with them. We also sampled a small order of spicy salsa for 75 cents and a side of guacamole, neither of which were very impressive. The salsa itself was quite tasty but there wasn’t enough of a difference heat-wise between them to justify having two temperatures in my opinion. The guacamole seemed pretty plain, just avocado, lime and salt. But hey, maybe that’s just how they do in El Salvadorian cocinas.
I also have to say I was really impressed with the kindness and honesty of the staff. I had left a bag with a wallet stuffed with bills, phone etc. sitting on my seat in the mall hallway when we left and didn’t realize until 5-10 minutes later. After sprinting back in a state of panic the cashier handed my bag back to me fully intact, complete with a little note with the date and time it was left attached to it. Needless to say she has my endless gratitude! So come with an open mind, a bit of cash (debit/credit not accepted) and maybe even your own bottle of water since they explicitly (and graciously) allow it, and enjoy a truly unique experience.
A note of interest in the era of online customer reviews and blogs: http://www.hernandezcocina.com/about/a-note-about-reviews/