CLOSED: Estrella Taqueria (Toronto)

Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: 4899 Yonge Street

Type of Meal: Dinner

Estrella Taqueria isn’t located on Dundas, Queen or King West but rather in North York at Yonge and Sheppard. Taking over the former Smokey Joe’s, it’s a big restaurant occupying over 4,000 square feet and seats 280 inside and another 130 on their rooftop patio. Unfortunately, we visited in the winter so we couldn’t see the patio, but will be interesting to see how this outdoor oasis is updated next year.

From the moment we entered, the staff was friendly and efficient. Frederik, our waiter was great - very friendly, attentive and generally smiles at all times. Service was definitely not an issue at Estrella as everything came as ordered and we were in and out in less than 40 minutes. What they were lacking was good food, the most important part of any restaurant. In reading the few reviews available, people noted the guacamole was plain and in general the appetizers a disappointing, so we decided to play it safe and ordered six tacos to share. 

Of the bunch, the short rib taco ($5.50) was the best.  The beef was a decent size, pretty tender from being braised in cola and fairly flavourful. The addition of chimichurri and chipotle aioli provided a good balance of heat and freshness.  Topping the taco were slivers of yukka chips, which would have been even better if they were crispy to add some contrasting textures.

Even the elote de tortitas ($4.95) had some promise. Being the sole vegetarian option, it consisted of a big corn fritter flavoured with black bean puree, pico de gallo and chipotle aioli.  If only the fritter was shaped evenly, cylinder rather than football, it would have allowed the fritter to cook uniformly.  Unfortunately, the middle of our fritter was underdone so you could taste raw batter, whereas the sides were cooked well and enjoyable.

Sadly, anything that’s worth eating stops there.  The oyster taco ($5.50) was dismal and made from such small oysters that they could have been clams for all I know - the cornmeal batter was more plentiful than any actual seafood.  Overall, it was rather tasteless despite it having a miso/celeriac remoulade; the sauce simply has to be stronger (or at least saltier). The thought of pairing it with green tomatoes is commendable since if the oysters were big enough this condiment would let them retain dominance while still adding some freshness to the taco.  

The taco de panza’s ($4.95) pork belly, although described as being slow braised, was pretty tough and should be classified as boiled at best.  The fat wasn’t rendered enough so that it was still white and hard which made it inedible.  Despite the menu noting the taco containing guajillo sauce, cilantro and queso panella, nothing really stood out except for the large portion of cabbage (also quite bland) on top.  I actually had to resort to squeezing the lime on it hoping to add some taste. 

On the other hand, the baja fish taco ($4.95) was extremely spicy (likely on account of the pickled chilis mixed with chipotle aioli).  This would have been nice if the deep fried snapper wasn’t so small and dried out. There was no flakiness at all and appeared to be frozen based on the crumbly consistency and slight fishiness. Sorry for the somewhat dim picture quality, but should give you an idea of how small the fish is. Usually, most competing tacos I’ve had the fillet is longer than the shell; at Estrella you could hardly see it under the slaw.  Let’s be honest, snapper is a pretty inexpensive variety of fish, with a $5.50 price tag they could easily offer a larger piece using fresh fish and still make a profit.

The last taco I tried, duck confit ($5.50), ended the meal on a low.  Normally, I expect duck confit to be tender and flavourful on account of slow cooking duck in its fat.  Estrella’s version was shredded and dry so it’s almost like eating rehydrated duck jerky mixed into coleslaw.  The flavours were also pretty lacklustre and needs something (maybe a sweet and spicy bean paste) to wake it up.  Estrella should consider slicing the duck rather than shredding to help retain some moistness and allow the customer to actually taste the duck’s essence.  

In general all the tacos were pretty small and about the size of a cd or dvd (readers younger than 20, you’ll likely have no idea what these are so please refer to google images for a photo and description). Thankfully, they do use corn tortillas, rather than the softer wheat ones, but when the taco didn’t have enough sauce on the base they ended up cracking and falling apart – especially the taco de panza. Usually, other taquerias would use two layers and more sauce to prevent this from happening, so this is something Estrella should consider.

For the quality and size, the tacos were significantly over-priced so really you’re paying for the surroundings more than food.  I’ll admit, the atmosphere is nice and an improvement from the former tenant. There’s a large bar on the bottom floor and a section with two ping pong tables in the back (no one actually playing on our Saturday visit). Conceivably, all this space that is non- revenue generating would need to be subsidized by food and drink sales; so, the tacos are a poor value if you’re only going to eat.  

In the end, Estrella is only a superficial improvement from Smokey Joes. It’s disappointing as I frequent the area and was hoping for a good non-chain restaurant. Who knows, maybe I’ll return for drinks in the summer and check out their rooftop patio.  But, it’s doubtful that food would ever be a big draw to visit again.

Overall mark - 4 out of 10

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!