Maria Marcela Ramirez recalls telling her four children she would give into their desire for Fruit Loops or any other boxed cereal, just so long as they first did a Google search for each ingredient on the side of the box. The children did as told and as a result of their research there was never any sugary cereals in Ramirez’s home. It was clever and nurturing, and also empowering for the children to learn the value of nutrition for themselves.
After trying Ramirez’s cuisine at Cacao, I suspect that anecdote is only one of many ways the chef from Monterrey used food to not only show right and wrong, but demonstrate love.
Cacao, which is run by Ramirez and her business partner Jefferson Alvarez, exudes warmth and care. In its cuisine is a high level of culinary skill — both Ramirez and Alvarez have worked in some of the world’s top kitchens — and down-to-earth charm.
If you consider graciousness as a hallmark of an outstanding restaurant then Cacao should be among your Vancouver favourites.
Since April, the restaurant has turned the kitchen over to Ramirez every Thursday for “Marcela’s Dinner” — a four-course tour of authentic Mexican cuisine that, at $50 per person, is the best culinary value in Vancouver at the moment.
There’s also a bonus that might be the highlight of the meal: a housemade dulche de leche truffle flavoured with chilli spice.
At the heart of all the dishes is Ramirez’s passion for her country’s cuisine and a desire to change how it is perceived in Canada. Before relocating to Vancouver, she was a host on a cooking program in Mexico and among that nation’s influential food advocates. Along with the Thursday night dinners at Cacao, she also produces a line of organic salsas, which she makes with her daughters. As the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo approaches, diners will seek out the cuisine of Ramirez’s homeland. Her hope is that Vancouverites and visitors to the city choose to explore beyond the usual.
“Mexican food is so much more than tacos. It is lots of flavours, lots of ingredients but people don’t know that. They know tacos, which are really more Tex-Mex than Mexican. Once they try authentic Mexican food they start to understand what it really is,” Ramirez says.
Among the dishes she serves that showcase her culinary ethos is Esquites en Rajas, a toasted blend of white and yellow corn with a poblano chilli cream, that is paired with Aztec soup, made with two batches of ancho chillies, one half dried and the other smoked. It’s one of those items that Ramirez has clearly made hundreds, if not thousands, of times. She has perfected the balance of heat from the chillies and the savory flavours of the soup, demonstrating the depth and multitude of textures in Mexican food.
Likewise, the Pudin de elote y coco, a corn and coconut dessert pudding, seems like a classic family recipe that has been elevated to culinary heights thanks to the panache of a professional.
When Ramirez isn’t cooking, Cacao is focused on Alvarez’s Nuevo Latin menu with inspirations from Peru and Spain. He formerly worked at Arzak — the family-run institution in San Sebastián that has ranked as high as No. 2 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List — and has cooked alongside Virgilio Martinez, whose Central in Lima has been a global wonder since it debuted in 2008. Cacao takes a nod from those high-calibre restaurants but goes light on the gastronomic techniques, making it accessible for any diner, whether a connoisseur or aspiring foodie.
A humble establishment located in a small space in the Kitsilano neighbourhood, Cacao is a restaurant that manages to balance the ambition of its menu with an inviting ambience that’s filled with tenderness and heart.
MORE ABOUT CACAO
Location: 1898 West 1st Avenue, Vancouver, BC (see map below)
Menu Price Range: Marcela’s Dinner on Thursdays costs $50 per person for four courses of Mexican cuisine; the regular tasting menu by Jefferson Alvarez costs $85 per person for eight courses. A la carte options include beef tongue taco ($14), marinated octopus ($18), and shareable large items like whole roasted branzino ($45) and one-pound of Argentinian-style grilled beef ($55).
Mexican-Inspired Flavours in Vancouver
TACOFINO — The city’s favourite taco franchise is celebrating Cinco de Mayo with new happy hour specials and drink deals at its locations in Gastown (15 West Cordova Street) and Mount Pleasant (East 5th Avenue). Mariachi bands will perform on March 5 and diners can sample new menu items like Pacific cod croquetas ($5), bean-and-cheese empanadas ($5), and chili-roasted chickpeas ($3). Tacofino will keep pints of Good Company Lager on sale for $4 from May 6-12. The brand’s regional executive chef, Stefan Hartmann, is one of Vancouver’s leading culinary talents, having worked at top restaurants in Europe before moving to Canada. He joined Tacofino in 2018 with the opening of its Ocho restaurant in Mount Pleasant. His skills have added a level of creativity to an already excellent enterprise.