The past has come back to life in North Vancouver as a longtime favourite Edgemont Village family restaurant has been reborn.
Cantina Norte is set to open its doors in the Village as early as this March, but in the meantime you can taste the classic Mexican flavours right now as the restaurant is offering takeout orders as part of the Dine Out Vancouver Festival running Feb. 5 to March 7. Cantina Norte is the offspring of Café Norte, a beloved establishment that thrived in Edgemont Village in the late-'80s and '90s.
The original Café Norte was operated by the husband and wife team of Philip and Linda Mitchell, with much help from their four children. In the mid-1990s the family attempted to open up a second location in North Vancouver but ultimately had to close both restaurants after racking up massive legal bills while encountering what they tactfully refer to as “a series of unfortunate events.” It was a heartbreaking turn of events for the family.
Now, more than 20 years after Café Norte closed, Cantina Norte is up and running with the two elder Mitchell children, Jeremy and Katie, taking the reins.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Jeremy says about getting the chance to reboot the family business. “When we lost the restaurants years and years ago it was an incredible struggle, and we’ve spoken for years about having the opportunity to try to reopen another restaurant and kind of recreate and reimagine it.”
That long-simmering dream is now finally becoming a reality. The kids are in charge this time around, but the family matriarch and patriarch are still very much involved. Linda is painting a mural in the new dining room, while Philip is the executive chef of the new restaurant, with his Mexican recipes from the old establishments providing the foundation for new flavours.
“My father was on the line last night, tasting sauces and making sure that they were at the calibre he expected them to be as they went out the door,” said Jeremy. “We've made sure that the smells, the sounds, the flavours that people will remember from the original restaurants are exactly what you're going to smell when you walk through the door or open your bag of takeout.”
Jeremy says about two-thirds of the items on the new menu are versions of old favourites that have been updated to match the dietary tastes and allergy considerations of modern-day dining. The old and the new are on display in the restaurant’s offerings for the Dine Out festival. One main dish is a new offering called Shrimp and Cream Cheese Chile Rellenos, consisting of a roasted chile stuffed with OceanWise shrimp and cream cheese, baked in ranchero sauce and finished with queso fresco. Another option is the classic Pollo Enchilladas that the family has been serving since Day 1.
“That was literally my childhood favourite,” says Jeremy. “It's what I ate every time I was sitting at the bar when I was five years old, back in the original family restaurant.”
There will be many Mexican classics on the menu, but there is one ubiquitous offering you won’t get at Cantina Norte, outside of the occasional daily special.
“There’s no tacos on the menu,” Jeremy said with a laugh, adding that in traditional Mexican cuisine there is a distinction between tacos offered as quick street food and other more complex dishes offered at sit-down restaurants.
“There are incredible tacos shops in Vancouver, but there are very few full-blown Mexican restaurants with proper Mexican menus,” he said. “Our food is really a much wider range of classic Mexican sauces and fresh salsas and entrees that are not tacos, the rest of the entire Mexican portfolio that people don't get exposed to as often in Vancouver.”
North Shore diners have already shown they have big appetites for the food on offer when Cantina Norte officially opens. The chefs, working in an off-site commissary kitchen, have been run off their feet ever since the restaurant started takeout earlier this week.
“We’re doing hundreds of takeout orders a night out of this commissary kitchen this week, and we’ve done almost no advertising,” said Jeremy. “It’s like thousands of dollars of takeout every night, more than I thought was going to be possible before we even advertised anything.”
There’s a charitable component to their Dine Out offerings as well, with $5 from every order going to Feed the Hungry San Miguel, a charity committed to improving the health and well-being of children in and around San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. It’s a relationship that will continue when the restaurant is fully open, Jeremy says, adding that his family has very strong ties to Mexico.
“We spend a lot of time down there and wanted to really be able to give back to the culture and the people that are really making what we're doing possible,” he said. “As a restaurant, we actually have essentially adopted one of the schools and committed that we will cover and raise the funds to basically feed every student in that school, every day.”
When the restaurant does open – mid-March is the current target, Jeremy says – they’re excited to join an apparent Edgemont dining revival that includes other establishments Bufala, Bjornbar, and Nicli Antica, all of which arrived long after Café Norte closed its doors.
“I really do think people will start to think of Edgemont a lot more as a dining destination,” said Jeremy. “We've got some really great restaurant neighbours, and just the overall calibre of the area I think is going to start drawing more people into eating in the Village.”