In a city overflowing with Mexican restaurants, Wilbur Mexicana seeks to do something a little different. Located on King Street West, the fast-casual restaurant takes a look at the science behind the tacos, replacing sombreros and sugar skulls with a sleek subway tile and chemist notes scrawled on the walls.

It’s named after Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist, chemist, and the mind behind the Scoville scale; an attempt to measure and define the heat of chili peppers. The restaurant features the tastes of the hot peppers that bring Mexican street food to life. From the pickled jalapenos that line the back wall to the countless elixirs on the self-serve hot sauce bar that frames the open kitchen, Wilbur manages to shed a new light on the city’s Mexican food scene.

Designed by Toronto agency’s Reflect Architecture and Jacknife Design, the 60-seat restaurant is coloured in shades of black and white, looking like a contemporary laboratory. Inverted beaker lighting hangs down over high and low wood tables: the former paired with metal stools; the latter with scuffed yellow, industrial chairs.

The menus hang at the front door like clipboards for on-duty doctors, ready for customers to peruse and order at the front desk. Mosaic and wood flooring leads you to the back wall—a floor-to-ceiling display with a rolling ladder providing access to stacked crates of peppers and meticulously aligned jars of pickled red onion and jalapenos. If Victor Frankenstein collected artisanal peppers and had a healthy appreciation for Martha Stewart, this is what his lab would have looked like.

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Their “Canadian downtown take” on Mexican street food includes a short menu of burritos, quesadillas, fajitas, tacos, salads, and starters. For $6.50, you’ll get a platter of crispy chips, with chunky made in-house guacamole and a creamy queso fundido dip. But if you have to choose just one appetizer, the Mexican street corn stole the show. Served in a miniature cast-iron pan, charred corn on the cob is covered in chipotle crema, a very thick layer of crumbly cotija cheese, and a final douse of guajillo chili powder for kick ($3.50). Drizzle with lime juice and, well… I’d go back to Wilbur for the corn alone.

At $3.75 each, Wilbur offers several unique flavour combinations in their tacos. Surprisingly, the highlight for me was the vegetarian option. Each is made with a monstrous slice of avocado, grilled and topped with pineapple salsa, then drizzled with chipotle crèma and a couple pinches of cotija cheese, before being lovingly nestled in a flour tortilla.

The taco that most caught my eye was also a little disappointing—the bulgogi with cabbage, pear, sesame seeds, and sriracha crema. Although the meat was spectacular and full of flavour, the pear was almost non-existent—just a couple measly strips—and any other flavours were masked by the overflowing portion of cabbage. If they committed to the pear and sesame, I think this taco could be the best on the menu.

Their stand-out feature, the hot sauce station, has over 60 bottled sauces in every variety of heat. They also have eight self-serve condiments, like their pico de gallo or pineapple salsa, or their ghost pepper sauce made with the famous bhut jolokia peppers. In case the illustration of Wilbur’s ‘x-eyed’ face isn’t warning enough, tasters beware—ghost peppers are no joke.

Wilbur’s is a fresh take on a cuisine that has been done and overdone. The minimalist décor and charming clash between the chemistry and the culinary sets it apart in a good way, though it’s the quick service and sublime grilled corn that will have me visiting again. More drink options and later hours would make it a Toronto King West eatery that’s here to stay.

*Originally written by Erika Simon for JamieSarner.com

Author Erika Simon

Freelancer from Toronto, creator of carryonkitchen.com. Working as a writer, graphic designer, and communications specialist with several Canadian companies and publications. Much love for travel, living naturally, and outside-the-box thinkers.

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