by Janet Davies
Listen to the Podcast Interview by Kelsey Reid, part of a partnership series.
“We are a trio of amigos!” laughs Samantha Valdivia who, with her partner Rizal Adam and their friend Matthew Gilsenan, runs the new, authentic Mexican restaurant at 298 Main Street, Wellington. “It’s a big change for us all, running our own place, but when you love what you do it doesn’t feel so much like work, right?” She’s filled with energy and enthusiasm and thrilled with the warm reception La Condesa has received.
They opened in March 2019 in the space that was formerly The Courage, and before that the Tall Poppy. “Now it’s us!” she says with gusto. “Hopefully for a long time.” La Condesa is not simply Mexican-themed, it’s Full-On-Mexican, foodwise, cocktailwise and colourwise. “We went a little crazy, with the colours,” she says cheerfully. “It’s like an explosion of colour, but it was mostly white before, and we love it like this.” Open just for weekends until the busy season, they are already thriving. “We said we’d open slowly, no publicity, just open the doors and see what happens and that first day we were full by 12:01! It’s almost all local people, probably 95% local, and the amount of love they’re showing us is awesome.”
It’s a good sign for the three amigos who want to be open year round. “Even if it’s only open a couple of days a week in very quiet times,” says Sam. “We want to be here for everyone and see familiar faces come in year round.”
THE ROAD TO WELLINGTON
Samantha lived in Mexico for 20 years, in Toronto for 7 and has been in The County for 2 years. She was cooking at Parsons Brewery when this opportunity arose. “A lot of entrepreneurs start out humbly here, in back kitchens or whatever,” she says. “I truly feel you can dream here and things come true.” She laughs, “You want to be a clown? There’s a market for that! Whatever you want to do, people will accept it and give it a chance.” She knew very little about The County before being invited to a Thanksgiving dinner with friends who worked at the brewery. “I loved it. I didn’t want to leave, and when they offered me a job I didn’t have to.” To a girl from Mexico, she says, The County felt like the real Canada. “The city is all flashing lights and beautiful, but The County with its big open spaces was what I thought of as Canada, It was winter when I started to come regularly, everything so white and lovely. I was like a typical tourist, taking pictures, I felt like I was in a movie. People who live here maybe take it for granted, but for me, every day is different and wonderful. Today we woke up to fog, so mysterious and beautiful.”
Rizal’s background is in finance. When Sam left the city, they dated long distance for a short while before saying No Longer. He missed her, and followed her to The County, helping out at Parsons until the restaurant opportunity came up. “We knew we’d both have to be in the kitchen, so we called Matthew and persuaded him to leave his nice stable job to come and join us as front of house,” laughs Sam. Matthew was doing nicely in Toronto, an alcohol rep, part of the Toronto Bar Institute, a talented bartender, but he has no regrets. “His partner Morgan came with him,” says Sam. “She is in fashion and very creative, she did all the stuff the rest of us can’t, the design and menus and Instagram which is important these days.”
Sam and Rizal knew the owners of The Courage, but were not close. They weren’t actively looking for their own place, but when the owners wanted to sell the restaurant they saw their chance. “We took on a fully operational restaurant with all the POS’s in place, all the little things that would take so long to organize if you start from scratch,” says Sam. “The universe works in crazy ways, eh? The place is beautiful, too with, with tin ceilings from the 19th century. We got lucky.”
The menu consists of things Sam likes to eat, things she misses. “Mexican food has evolved in many ways, good and bad,” she says. “The U.S. created Tex Mex, which to me is not Mexican food. I want to serve what Mexican people enjoy at home and when they go out to eat.” They make their own tortillas with corn imported from Mexico using the ancient process the Mayans used. “Even in Mexico most places use instant flour,” she says. “But we are stepping it back. And of course we’re gluten-free. Mexico was gluten-free for 2,000 years you know. Right up to the Spanish conquest!”
So call it pre-Spanish, with heritage grains and “real” corn, it’s also inspired by the cuisine of Central Mexico and Mexico City. “It’s food you find on street stalls there, and in homey restaurants. La Condesa is an area in Mexico City that is very hip and beautiful, lots of trees, so you almost forget you’re in a massive city. We want our place to make you feel like that, like you are somewhere else. Mexico!”
She insists their labour intensive methods are actually simple, and that simplicity lets you taste all the ingredients, with everything in balance. “Some people overdress their food. It looks beautiful in pictures but doesn’t always taste so great. When people say ‘Sam, make them Instagram-able, get good photos.’ I say I make tacos. Very good ones. If you like them you like them. Anyway, you can’t really dress up a taco, they’re supposed to be a bit messy and interactive. You’re meant to enjoy them, have fun. But the drinks? Oh, the drinks are pretty!” she laughs.
The amigos felt The County needed more good cocktails. “We do classic cocktails, well executed and with a little Tequila twist,” she says. “Matthew does an amazing job and we sell so many! We don’t push them, but people love them, and they love watching the bartenders. We have Matthew and now Gabe Ramirez, too. He is the son of Edgar Ramirez, the other famous Mexican in The County! When Gabe dyed his hair blonde I said you’re killing the look! He is a designer really, but he learned his bartending skills in just one month and now he looks like a pro. He’s a natural. People think we brought a pro from Mexico for authenticity, but he was right here in The County. Everything has happened so organically and naturally. Maybe it is just our time, I don’t know why we have been so lucky.”
La Condesa is open weekends until the busy season starts, and even then they don’t want to burn out. “We will probably open five or six days, because if we do seven days and Adam and I cover each other we will never get a day off together. It’s all about finding and training good people. Nearly everyone who works here came to us with their resume in hand. We did not recruit online, which is unusual, we did it the old fashioned way. We gave people a chance if they came to us and it has worked out well. I guess there was a buzz about us and frontline staff like to be involved with a new place, new owners, new energy. The trick will be holding onto them! Parsons is a great employer. We want to be, too. You have to be involved with employees and care about them, they’re not robots.”
La Condesa cocktails are divided into Tequilas, Mezcals and a couple of sours, although Matthew and Gabe will make anything you request, but they’ve kept the house cocktails super simple. Tequila and Mezcal are natural partners for tacos. They serve County wines, too, three reds, three whites and particularly love serving The Red from The Grange. “It almost tastes like hibiscus, like Mexican wine, here in The County,” she says, and everybody grabs the pink sangria. “So refreshing, it’s all you need.”
Of course there is guacamole as an appetizer, and they make our own chips which are amazing but only last 12 hours, then they have to make more. “It’s about making small batches of everything and doing it lots of times,” she says. “But it’s totally doable. Many of the ingredients are used in multiple dishes so you prep a whole bunch of tomatoes, a lot of onions to be used in many different dishes with many different tastes.”
SOMETHING REALLY DIFFERENT
For something very different to a taco, but authentic Mexican, Sam recommends something with huitelacoche, a corn fungus indigenous to Mexico. “I believe there is a guy here in The County trying to make it,” she says shaking her head. “Which is kind of nuts but I love it. Huitlacoche grows on rotting corn, they shave it off and it tastes like truffles. Seriously! We put it in a little dough bed and serve with beans so it is vegan – unless you want it with cheese. You won’t have tasted this before, not even in Mexico. It’s a pretty unique dish,” she laughs.
A lot of their menu is vegetarian, but so hearty you might not notice. For non-alcoholic drinks they offer hibiscus water, also known as Agua de Jamaica, and put the leftover flowers into other dishes. Hibiscus in your quesadilla may not be classic, but it’s pure and tasty and part of Sam’s drive for zero waste which comes from the heart, and from her years in Mexico where you don’t waste much. “We forget that a vegetable takes a long time to grow and when it’s in our kitchen we might say, oh just throw it away. It’s a whole life! You must be organized with food and respect it.
Sam worked with Fiddlehead Farms at Parsons and still does. “We pre-order vegetables for the whole year and they devote a whole section to growing what we need so we can turn it into beautiful tacos. It’s amazing. Want some habanero peppers? You can have them, and tomatillos are being grown here now which also blows my mind. I can make authentic Mexican food with local County ingredients. Obviously we bring in avacados and stuff like that, but it’s great to be cultivating these new things, and having close relationships with suppliers.” Samantha doesn’t even have an account with Sysco. “Who needs it?” she says. “We go to Prinzens for chicken, to McColl for lamb, Hanover Farms for pork. I think I’m their best customer! Everything has some sort of County flavour. If they can grow it we will take it. Beef comes from Prinzen’s cousin. You just have to ask Who does this? and you will find someone.”
LIVING IN WELLINGTON – They live upstairs which is a bonus. “We lease the building and people say we could easily rent out the apartment, but it works well to live right here. We can just go up and down. I can walk my dog any time. I love Wellington. I wake up everyday loving it. I walk to the water, and it’s different every day. What a life. Eat a taco, walk to the beach, sit on a bench. At Parsons we got to know people on that side of Picton,now we know people on this side of The County. We went to a little party at The Legion because a friend was playing there and Rizal played pool with a 70-year old man who later came in to try a taco. You connect with people at a real level, here, and we love it.”
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