You will not find better Mexican food in Toronto, made with more care and love, than at Comal y Canela. Thanks to a tiny, 10-seat location at Jane and Lawrence, Comal y Canela has low overhead. And on paper, labour cost is minimal too, if only because owner Yasmen De Leon doesn’t pay herself—and has help from her son, husband, mother, brothers and nieces. But De Leon’s insistence on using hard-to-find ingredients and making everything from scratch drives her food costs, as a percentage, through the roof. It may be because of her previous career in home building that the first-time restaurateur won’t build a dish on a foundation of weak ingredients. “Italian oregano is amazing for Italian dishes but you cannot use it when cooking Mexican dishes,” De Leon says. “I will know what’s in my pot and it will bother me if it’s the wrong ingredient. It’s the difference between ‘This is good’ and ‘This tastes just like my grandmother’s.’”
Ingredients: $2.86. Comal y Canela’s carnitas Michoacanas are cooked in a traditional copper cazo (a wide-mouth pot) from Santa Clara del Cobre. A selection of pig ears, snout, shoulder, leg, side rib, maw and tongue are confited for about four hours, seasoned with a variety of citrus juices, Mexican Coca-Cola, evaporated milk and herbs. Each taco is filled with about 120 grams of pork ($2.01). For the tortillas ($0.50), corn is soaked in slaked lime (a process called nixtamalization), then rinsed the following morning and ground on a lava-stone mill. It’s then kneaded. The resulting masa is fed into the tortilla machine roller, cut and placed on the griddle to cook. Each taco is served with diced white onion, cilantro, lime wedges and salsa ($0.35). They’ll typically serve one or two of the four house-made salsas. But if someone asks, they’ll bring all of them to the table, which cuts into the already-thin profit margin.
Labour: $1.11. For such a small space, there are lots of people running around: a dishwasher, a server, cooks, kitchen helpers, a general manager and buyers, who make daily drives to small distributors across the city in search of rare ingredients. De Leon insists on avoiding the substitutions so often used in commercial Mexican kitchens. “Untold hours are spent every day to ensure our dishes are made and garnished with real queso fresco as opposed to feta cheese, or crema fresca instead of sour cream, or Ceylon cinnamon instead of Cassia cinnamon.”
Overhead: $0.58. This includes rent ($38,400 a year), banking fees, interest, gas, water, building fees, repairs, stolen cutlery, broken plates, three per cent credit card fees, equipment depreciation and grease trap cleaning ($2,000 a year).
Profit: $0.32. It seems like insanity to produce a taco with this degree of scratch cooking and sell it for under $6, including HST. But the prices, like the restaurant’s 6 a.m. opening time, are about serving affordable food to workers at the nearby airport and factories. “I sell it for $5.50 because I have a mission, a dream and a goal: a plate full of authentic Mexican flavours produced with quality, fresh, whole, unprocessed ingredients,” De Leon says. “I want to provide these meals at a price that is accessible to everyone. I believe that it is possible for a restaurant to provide a dish made with quality, unprocessed ingredients, made with from-scratch processes that do not involve the use of a microwave, and still turn a profit.”