Hunter's Vegan Eats

I had one of the best meals of my life at La Bartola, and everything was vegan

The restaurant's story is one of family, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and believing in your dreams. Today, La Bartola is on the Michelin Guide and it's the best vegan restaurant in Toronto.

We never know when our lives are about to change. Ten years ago, Mexico City native Iván Castro is having a day like any other. He's at a restaurant — dressed smartly, presumably — and tells the server he'd like a steak. It arrives at his table; I imagine it's cooked to medium rare, and seasoned to perfection. As he's slicing away at the beef, Castro checks his phone. A video from PETA pops up on his feed about the cruelties of the milk industry. Instead of scrolling away, Castro watches the whole thing. Something clicks in his head. "This is a piece of dead cow on my plate," he recalls thinking. "I love animals — so why am I eating them?"

That was the beginning of his journey from a carnivore to one of the most awarded vegan chefs in Toronto. Today, Castro is the owner and head chef at La Bartola, a plant-based Mexican restaurant in Little Italy that's earned its spot not only as one of the best vegan restaurants in Toronto, but also as one of the best restaurants in the city

Chef Iván Castro of La Bartola in Toronto

Castro credits his grandmother Mamá Clarita, and mom Irma for his love of cooking. Some of his earliest memories are with them in the kitchen. "Every Sunday, we used to make tortillas from scratch with corn dough. Or, fresh salsa with a stone mortar, a molcajete. Or even making mole from scratch — it took the whole day," he smiles. I detect more than a hint of nostalgia in his eyes.

La Bartola calls itself female-inspired. The restaurant is a love letter to the important women in Castro's life, along with the generations of Mexican mothers and grandmothers who are the real pioneers of the cuisine. "I wanted to pay homage to Mexican women, and women in general. Part of our values as a restaurant is to be more inclusive and to have more women in the kitchen and the back of the house. Because it's a hard industry for women," Castro waxes.

Best restaurants Toronto | The exterior of La Bartola
Best restaurants Toronto | An art installation of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz inside La Bartola

There are portraits of Frida Kahlo on the walls. A curious, life-sized poster of Judy Garland as Dorothy wearing a traditional Oaxacan dress greets you as you walk in. "She's a gay icon," he explains about the decor choice. "We are an inclusive space, an LGBTQ-owned business. I'm proud to be gay; I'm proud to be Mexican. So, she will be at the entrance!"

Castro initially began his career as a realtor. He started to believe his dream of owning a restaurant might come true after the glowing reception of a few secret dinners he held in his apartment. That led to him soft-launching La Bartola as a taco shop pop-up at a Vegandale festival, then opening his restaurant's doors on College West in 2020. He's frank about the toll the pandemic took on his fledgling eaterie. "We suffered. Mentally, physically, emotionally. It was exhausting," he remembers.

His efforts paid off, though. In 2022 and 2023, La Bartola was awarded a Bib Gourmand by the Michelin Guide — a distinction that recognizes exceptional cooking at a reasonable price. It's the only vegan restaurant on Toronto's Michelin Guide.

La Bartola: What's the vibe

I stop by La Bartola for a meal, and am sat at the chef's table near the back. The walls here are bathed in a relaxing blueish-green paint. Cactus leather enrobes cushioned benches, art pieces depicting Mexico hang on exposed brick and a bright "TACOS" sign dangles above the bar. There are dozens of Mexican trinkets arranged on shelves, and a volcanic stone metate that's been in Castro's family for more than 100 years is proudly set out on display.

The vibe is upbeat, yet relaxed. It's a great date night spot.

The neon TACOS sign inside La Bartola in Toronto

La Bartola: What's on the menu

If I was to pick one word to describe chef Castro's cooking, it would be creative. He credits his humble beginnings in Mexico with forging his imaginative approach to plant-based cooking. "When I was a kid, I didn't grow up in a rich family. Eating meat was not an everyday thing," he admits. "When you're in the absence of something, you push yourself to figure out how to replace it. That's not because of the flavour [of meat] — it's because you have to eat."

"I want to erase the misconception that vegan food is boring, that it lacks flavour."

His creed is one of hard work and inventiveness. You won't find mock meats on the menu here. "If I'm offering you a piece of vegan steak, you probably have a memory of a steak. You're expecting that flavour. Of course, it's not going to be the same. It's going to be very disappointing if I offer you food that already exists but with a different flavour profile," he explains.

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Castro unabashedly wields his Mexican heritage and authentic, hard-to-find Oaxacan ingredients, and brazenly wallops your taste buds with big flavours for each course. "I want to erase the misconception that vegan food is boring, that it lacks flavour," he tells me. When I try his food, I'm blown away.

First up are the memelas oaxaqueñas: a trio of jet-black, house-made masa cakes smeared with refried beans, then adorned with a dollop of three types of salsa and a meaty maitake mushroom chunk. The crunchy cake grips my attention first as the fresh masa flavour warms up my taste buds. (Castro has continued his family matriarch's tradition of making masa tortillas, tostadas and tamal by hand.) Then, some spice arrives, but the heat level stays pretty mild. The salsa hoja santo is my favourite — I'd never tasted the Mexican herb before. The refried beans are a smokey backdrop to it all.

The mains haven't even reached the table yet, and it's already hard to imagine this meal getting better.

I'm a proud soup pessimist, but I order the Oaxacan birria consommé anyway. When it arrives, neatly presented in a gleaming white bowl, it cures me of my skepticism. I sprinkle raw onion and herb strips atop as garnish, then slurp back delectable spoonful after spoonful. Between chews of melt-in-your-mouth jackfruit, I detect a hint of mint, which I learn to be from a traditional Oaxacan herb, poleo. 

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The mains haven't even reached the table yet, and it's already hard to imagine this meal getting better. Still, it does, the moment I dip a chewy tamal into a pasilla mixe pepper and toasted peanut sauce, garnished with drops of aromatic oil. Pasilla mixe pepper is rare to find on menus this far north, and its flavour has more layers than La Palma's lasagna. It's an endless well of smokiness, sweetened with whispers of cacao and dried fruits. It's not like anything I've ever tasted. My dining partner and I duel over who gets to mop up the last drops.

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For dessert, I dig away at a nicuatole. An adorable egg-shaped spoonful of Mexican coffee ice cream wobbles atop a berry compote and a mound of sweetened popcorn bits that resembles a snow bank. It's a final wand-wave of whimsy to complete a 10/10 meal.

La Bartola: What's on the drink menu

While my refreshments don't quite hit the same heights as the plates they accompany, La Bartola's drinks are still balanced and delicious. The vuela del chaman is served inside a BarChef-esque ring of tiny bushes, rocks and sticks. It's sweet, refreshing and vegetal, thanks to a mint-cucumber syrup.

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The Pachita is a creamy concoction made with popcorn milk (yes, you read that right) and corn rum. There’s a small selection of mezcals to sip, and about 15 tequilas, too.

La Bartola: What else

While chef Castro is the captain of the ship, it's obvious the whole team at La Bartola is proud to be a part of the restaurant. The staff are knowledgeable, friendly and more than willing to explain some of the ingredients on the menu.

It hasn't been an easy road for the vegan eaterie, but to date, I think they're handily the best plant-based restaurant in the city. Castro tells me his mom and sister travelled from Mexico to Toronto to witness him realizing his dream. "My mom cried," he smiles. "They both cried. Especially my sister — she was my best friend when I was a kid. She realized that this was a dream for me. It was her first time seeing me in a chef's coat, in a professional restaurant environment. It was very emotional for her, for both of us."

Dinner and drinks for two: about $100 before tax and tip.