With 88 seats in the dining room and a dozen or so stools at a long bar, the owners of a new Mexican restaurant in Wellington County are hoping to turn those tables a couple of times a night as La Reina makes its mark. Opened at the end of June (in the location that was formerly Van Gogh’s Ear in the very heart of downtown Guelph), La Reina wants to add yet another layer to the burgeoning food and beverage scene in the city.
While Guelph has food and dining variety, from fast-casual to finer dining as well as a good range of national and regional cuisines, there was a paucity of Mexican food that rises above fast-food quality. That, at least, is according to co-owner Bryan Steele and his Guelph-based partners Conrad Aikens, Justin Corstorphine and Derek Boudreau, all of whom have experience in food, hospitality and restaurant operations. Steele, formerly a chef, says keying in on authentic Mexican food was their first priority.
“There are a lot of different cuisines in the city, but Mexican was one that we did not really have,” according to Steele. “Van Gogh’s, where La Reina is now, was a sort of Chilean-South American scene.”
So, there’s a new queen — and there was even some palace intrigue and a rush to see who would ascend the throne. Word had been travelling through the local industry that several restaurateurs had the idea for a Mexican food-and-beverage operation. “We were first to the table, got the location and started developing the La Reina concept,” he says.
Steele stresses that they are striving for authentic Mexican food. That is the purview of head chef Jose Matamoros, formerly a sous chef at El Catrin in Toronto’s Distillery Historic District, who brought with him chefs of Mexican background and representing different regions of the country. The result is a collaborative regional influence on the menu. “We really wanted to fill that niche for Mexican at this level that you find in Toronto and Hamilton,” Steele says. The dishes and all their ingredients, as much as possible, are made in-house, and the food tries to be as authentically Mexican as possible. That comes from the people in the kitchen and what they bring to the cooking, he adds.
The menu covers lunch, dinner and late night, with several dishes that serve well if you want to put together a small tasting. The classic pastor taco can sit alongside the heady, earthy taco marquesa with oyster mushrooms, charred Brussels sprouts and epazote (a Mexican and Central American herb that’s akin to oregano). The venison is part of a salad with avocado and a cotija vinaigrette. La Reina’s version of carne asada uses flatiron steak, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and a marrow salsa. There are a number of inventive vegetarian dishes too: red rice with charred cauliflower, mushrooms and poblano salsa, and a vegetarian taco, to name a few. There are, of course, churros — delectably light, crisp and yet slightly creamy.
Dirty Domingo is geared to students after 8 p.m. on Sundays, with $5 specials for tacos, bar-rail tequila, margaritas, appetizers, guacamole, churros, and more. “The DJ starts at eight on Sundays, and we’re hoping to encourage students to visit.”
As for beverages, it’s safe to say that cocktails are currently a major component of upscale-casual bars and restaurants, and at such a place as La Reina, tequila rules. But not in a basic Jose Cuervo way. “There are many recognizable brands, but there is also a large selection of tequilas that are hard to find elsewhere,” Steele says. “That’s the direction we want people to try. It’s our goal to help people find something new to savour and linger over — and which is of a much higher quality.”
The intersection of Wyndham and Macdonell on which La Reina sits is graced with eclectic and intricate architecture that defines the immediate sightlines and contributes to the history and sense of place that is Guelph. From several vantage points at La Reina, but especially from the 14-seat patio, you have a view of the 1822 Petrie building, a former pharmacy with elaborate décor and one of the few remaining structures in Canada which has a stamped galvanized iron façade. The owners have drawn on that history as much as they can for their restaurant. An elaborate tin ceiling in the dining room, likely a product of late-Victorian or Edwardian interior design, was re-claimed from the Aker’s Furniture building, of Great War vintage, about three doors down in the same block. Builders and crafters used in the restaurant build-out came from the Guelph area and tables were made by a company in Elmira.
While the focus for the restaurant is on the food and dining, with the bar originally slated to be in support, Steele says the evolution of the space has seen a push to a late-night bar scene Friday to Sunday. “We’re open until 2 a.m.,” he says. “That started several weeks ago, and we want the 25-plus crowd to visit and be able to have a conversation and not have to yell an order at a bartender.” A private room with funky carved sliding doors can accommodate 24 people who must be willing to sit with the classic — and quite large — versions of the calaveras, fanciful and re-imagined human skulls that are illuminated. The room was already booked for Christmas parties in the late summer, Steele says. There is little doubt that La Reina might be a (likely crowded) venue to visit for “Los Dias de Los Muertos” between October 31 and November 2.
Restaurants evolve, develop and, in fact, mature as they work through refining their menus, staffing and systems. In this, its earliest iteration, La Reina has an energetic yet quite comfortable feel, so it will be interesting to see how it grows as an upscale and unique-to-Guelph Mexican restaurant. The late-night component is growing, and Steele says that brunch will be available in the fall, along with a take-away service that is part of the plan to offer unique goods and services to the community. “We want to add to the culinary scene here,” Steele says, noting that they’ve had initial success. “People understand what we’re trying to do and the direction we are going.”
10 Wyndham Street North, Guelph
Tuesday and Wednesday: 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
Thursday: 11 a.m.–12 a.m.
Saturday and Sunday: 11 a.m.–2 a.m.