Restaurant: El Caracol Mexican Cafe
Cuisine: Salvadorean/Mexican/Latin American
Last visited: August 16, 2011
Location: Vancouver, BC (Kensington)
Address: 5190 Victoria Dr
Price Range: $10 or less, $10-20
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: Tres Excellent!!
- Family owned/operated
- Authentic El Salvadorean
- Home made/Homestyle
- Latin breakfasts available
- Popular to Latin Americans
- Hole in the wall
- Hidden gem
- Vegetarian options
- Cheap eats/Budget friendly
- Family friendly
- Limited seating
- Eat In/Take Out
- Cash only
- Mon-Sun 12pm-11pm
- Fri-Sat 12pm-12am
**Recommendations: Pork Pupusas, Cheese Pupusas, Nachos, Sopa de Mariscos. I’d ask if you order a pork AND cheese pupusas.
This is a tricky cuisine for me. Mexican-Hondurian and Salvadorian food. I know as much about it as the amount of restaurants offering this type of cuisine in the city. That’s not a whole lot. Being that I’ve only been to Mexico and have yet to make my way down to South America, my knowledge is limited in this category. To make it even more challenging El Caracol specializes in 3 types of cuisine, so it’s hard to look at it from any “authentic” perspective.
All I can go by is how it tasted, whether or not the meats were cooked correctly, and mostly did I enjoy it. Therefore I’m going to use the words “authentic” and “traditional” lightly, because all I can really compare it to are other restaurants of this style in Vancouver. Of course food in Latin America is likely better than this, but in the context of Vancouver, you take what you can get, and this is good!
El Caracol Mexican Cafe is a hidden gem and total hole in the wall located in Vancouver, BC. I’ve driven by it on a few occasions and have always been curious to check it out. Originally I was supposed to go to Dona Cata, but then realized it was closed on Monday, so this was plan B. It wasn’t a bad plan B either!
There was “El Caracolito Mexican Food” and then two stores over was “El Caracol Mexican Cafe”, I was quite confused as to where I made my reservations, but realized it was at El Caracol Mexican Cafe. They were both just as busy and I’m sure they’re the same owners, but the menus are different and El Caracolito Mexican Food seems a lot more Mexican, whereas El Caracol Mexican Cafe is more Latin American.
This photo was taken at the end of the night, but during dinner hours El Caracol Mexican Cafe was busy with lots of Latin American locals from the neighbourhood. That’s the best feeling for a foodie – going into an ethnic restaurant, whose cuisine you’re not quite familiar with, and discovering that everyone in there is of that nationality. It’s just extra convincing that you’ve found an authentic restaurant for Latin food.
The menu wasn’t too tricky to decipher because there’s Spanish, English and some photos. However I pulled my classic “foodie” move. I picked out the table that looked like regulars and asked them for recommendations. They advised me to stick to the Salvadorean menu items because that was the specialty here, not Mexican food, despite the name of the restaurant. So I more or less did as I was told. (I did however also take recommendations from the owner, who suggested a lot of Mexican dishes)
El Caracol Mexican Cafe is a home style restaurant and the food seemed to be quite authentic and different than most “Mexican” restaurants. The food was generally very good and I did enjoy my experience. Being that this type of cuisine is already limited in Vancouver, I’d say this is one of the better choices for traditional Salvadorean and Mexican food, although it wouldn’t be my first choice for it. The style may be new for many and everything is home made, but I didn’t find everything amazing either. It’s very affordable so there’s not much to lose just by trying it, and I would still recommend it and consider it a hidden gem that we’re lucky to have.
On the table:
- A milky mixture of cocoa, seeds, and spices $2
- I actually really love horchata and this one was quite good except the amount of cocoa powder kind of threw me off.
- It tasted a bit like cinnamon chocolate almond milk, but not as sweet or chocolaty as chocolate milk.
- It’s served room temperature with ice cubes, and cold would have been better.
- The texture was a bit powdery and it’s made from boiled down rice, nut, and sesame seed water and milk.
- Those ingredients are all strained out so it is a smooth drink, but not creamy or thick either.
- The only spices I could taste was cinnamon, which was evident, but not too strong or spicy.
- It was a bit sweet and I could have used a notch less cocoa powder, but I still enjoyed it as a starter or dessert drink.
- This was more like a mango smoothie than a mango milkshake and there was no ice cream in it, but I still liked it.
- I think it’s made with whole milk rather than yogurt, because it wasn’t tangy, and just naturally sweet, light and frothy.
- It was a bit pulpy and somewhat creamy, but not thick or icy and it was obviously made with fresh mangoes that I could taste immediately.
- It could have been colder, but I didn’t mind it the way it was.
- Corn chips and avocado smothered with lots of melted cheese, salsa, beans, sour cream, tomatoes, jalapenos, and onions $6.75
- To me, nachos sound so typical and unadventurous so I wouldn’t have ordered them unless the table beside me recommended them.
- These were definitely authentic nachos, and different than what most of us are probably used to.
- It looked pretty weak and almost pricey for the size, but it tasted much better than it looked and I liked them!
- The chips are house fried real corn tortilla chips so they were thick and extra crunchy.
- It was topped with warm refried beans, fresh wedges of ripe avocado, tomatoes, freshly grated salty Mexican Cotija cheese and sour cream, but they took out the jalapenos, which I missed.
- It was an even layer with fresh ingredients and these are less greasy compared to the Americanized version of nachos.
- Avocado blended with onion and cilantro. Includes chips. $4
- It was a small portion so I found it a bit pricey, but it was incredibly fresh.
- It was very simple with chopped ripe avocado, lots of fresh lime juice and fresh lime zest.
- It was very bright, but I did miss some tomatoes in there.
- You could easily make it at home, but it was still good here and served with their fresh and home made corn tortilla chips.
- Fish marinated in lime with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro. Includes chips. $8
- It looked like a small bowl, but it was deep and ended up being quite a bit. It was served with fresh home made corn tortilla chips.
- The flavour was very good, but it was barely a ceviche and all the seafood was cooked shrimp instead of the listed “fish”, so that was disappointing. However the take out menu said “prawns”, but it would be better with fish regardless.
- There was tons of chopped shrimp, but they were almost overcooked from the marinade and a bit too chewy and tough.
- It was very intense with lots of fresh lime juice and a nice bright acidity from added tomatoes.
- It was very tangy with a zip and a kick, slightly smoky, not spicy, and also a bit sweet from some sugar.
- There was definitely the strongest presence from lime and a good amount of Worcestershire sauce.
- I prefer the ceviche from El Inka Deli – see here, or Mochikas Peruvian Cafe – see here.
- This was for the kiddos! Not my kids! But for once, I was with kids.
- This was an authentic Mexican Quesadilla.
- The kids ate it, but it would be different than the typical Taco Bell or chain restaurant quesadilla.
- It was pretty big, warm, but not crispy and very simple with few ingredients.
- Forget about the Americanized grilled chicken strips and ooey gooey melted mozzarella and cheddar cheese combo, this was made with their house made shredded chicken and Mexican cheese!
- It was well stuffed with salty semi-hard Mexican Cotija cheese which was as salty as feta cheese, with a similar texture. It was semi-melted and when it hardened it tasted like salty Mozzarella sticks.
- The chicken was plentiful, decently moist and well marinated, but not spicy and it was topped with sour cream.
- Some tomatoes would have been nice, but this was the bare basics.
- Seasoned ground, fresh corn cooked in corn husks until firm. Served with sour cream. Order of 2 for $5. Chicken Tamale $3.
- These are home made and very traditional and they’re eaten as an entree, but we had them as appetizers.
- They’re very similar to “Zongzi” or “Zong” which is the traditional Chinese sticky rice. It’s not the sticky rice you get at dim sum, which is the Cantonese version, this was closer to the Mandarin style sticky rice. It wasn’t rice though, but cornmeal!
- This one seemed like it was made of corn meal rather than fresh corn though despite the description.
- They’re filling and I wouldn’t want a whole one to myself, and it was good to try, but I wouldn’t really care to re-order it.
- They were okay tamales and pretty good for what they are, but the cornmeal dough itself was better at El Inka Deli – see Tamale.
- I ordered them with chicken, but I feel like this was their vegetarian version because one had no chicken.
- Tamales can be considered naturally a bit drier though considering the ingredients.
- The cornmeal dough was tender and quite moist, but the ends had dried out a bit. The middle was moist and creamy though.
- The cornmeal had a slight tanginess from perhaps lime, but the tamale is savoury.
- It has mealy texture, but it wasn’t as moist or tender as polenta, and it’s a bit crumbly.
- They were stuffed with chick peas made from their dry state, cassava root (starchier tasting potato), and green peppers.
- I like them with more spice and flavour with added olives and eggs, but these were still not bad.
- Cornmeal dough stuffed with chicken then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed $3
- The chicken was better! It obviously had more flavour but the chicken was dry on occasion.
- I would prefer more chicken, but it was also stuffed with green peppers and cassava root or potato.
- Again I prefer added olives and eggs or even dates, which they sometimes add to tamales. This is a very home style version of a tamale though.
- I just like my tamale stuffing to be more of a saucy mixture with ingredients sauteed in natural chicken juices so that it’s super moist and flavourful.
- The cornmeal dough was moist at times and dry at others if you got the end pieces again.
- Just like the one above, the dough had a slight tang to it and seemed seasoned with a bit of lime.
- Corn flour pockets filled with cheese, black beans or pork. Served with cole slaw and home made salsa. A favourite Salvadorian ethnic dish. Order of 3 for $9
- Order additional pupusas at the same time for $3. Single pupusa queso (cheese) $3 Single pupusa pollo (chicken) $3.50
- Pupusas are the specialty here and what they’re most known for. It’s a must try, however I heard they’re definitely better at La Conquistadora in Whalley Surrey, BC.
- I give them a 4/6 because I know there’s better, but it was my favourite thing I ordered here.
- You can chose one of each, but I recommend 2 pork and 1 cheese, or all pork.
- The pork was the best one, and not because I like meat, it just had the most flavour.
- I ended up getting 4. One of each and an extra pork for an additional $3, which came to $12.
- The corn flour pocket was a very thin, tender and moist, yet flaky and crispy corn flour dough made from scratch.
- It’s not like a crepe or pancake and it’s not buttery, sweet, dense or chewy. It’s closer to polenta, but more doughy and not bready.
- Corn flour pockets filled with cheese, black beans or pork.
- This was my favourite item of the night! It was delicious and I’d come back just for these!
- It was well stuffed with a very soft and moist pork that tasted almost a bit like Chinese suckling roast pork but mashed up.
- The texture was of pulled pork or even tuna, because it was so mashed and almost creamed.
- It wasn’t dry at all and you could taste the little crispy bits of deep fried crackling they minced right into it. It was fantastic! I bet it was from the chichurron (deep fried pork skin/rind) appetizer they also offer.
- It was perfectly seasoned and nice and savoury with bacon flavours and just incredibly tender with the home made corn flour pastry.
- There wasn’t much acidity or sweetness and it wasn’t spicy, but just savoury. I loved them!
- Corn flour pockets filled with cheese, black beans or pork.
- Out of the three I wasn’t crazy about the bean one which I found to be dry.
- The beans were their creamy refried beans they serve with many of their mains, and not the black beans as listed.
- It was good refried beans though, and they were nice and savoury, but I enjoyed it better alone because it dried out in the pupusa.
- It was just a bit too starchy overall for my liking.
- Corn flour pockets filled with cheese, black beans or pork.
- I’d rather have this than their quesadilla. This was enjoyable hot and it’s better then “melted cheese in a tortilla shell”.
- Even better would be to ask to get the pork and cheese together in one pupusa!
- The cheese version sounded so boring, but it was surprisingly good!
- It’s because they used salty Mexican Cotija cheese, which again tastes like salty Feta cheese. When it hardens it tasted like salty mozzarella cheese sticks though.
- I’d order it again but it is rich and quite heavy since the cheese is a decent amount.
- It all just melted together with the tender homemade corn flour pocket.
- Crunchy corn flautas or tacos filled with chicken, served with cabbage and home made salsa. Order of 3 $8.25.
- There was an option of chicken of beef, but the owner kept recommending chicken without hesitation so I kept ordered everything with chicken.
- This wasn’t particularly a specialty here, but they were still good.
- They used basic corn tortilla shells, stuffed them with home made shredded white meat chicken and deep fried them until crunchy.
- They were stuffed with lots of chicken which was very good, fresh, moist and well marinated.
- It was just like a crunchy chicken taco with only chicken in the filling and then a nice tangy freshness from the pickled cabbage slaw and fresh tomatoes.
- The salsa was just tomatoes, onion, cilantro and lime juice and I did miss more of a spice to it.
- I like Flautas served with guacamole like they do at El Barrio, but this was the more authentic homestyle version of Flautas.
- Totally different, but when it comes to something crunchy topped with meat, I strongly recommend trying the Tostada Carnitas from El Barrio.
- Medium $12 Large $15
- This is apparently the thing to order here along with their papusas. All the Latin American customers had a bowl of it on their table.
- I know it’s not really fair to compare it to Thai food, but it was very similar to Thai coconut milk based soups, but less flavourful.
- Latin American cuisine is a fusion of a lot of cultures, including Asian, so I wasn’t caught off guard with this Thai tasting dish.
- It’s still very flavourful, but compared to Thai soups, it’s considered very mild, because it’s not spicy and has no fish sauce or Thai basil leaves or noticeable lemongrass etc.
- The rice here is very good and it’s moist and cooked in chicken broth so there’s a ton of flavour and it’s almost like a pilaf.
- Totally different styles of Latin soups, but for a hearty seafood chowder I personally prefer Mochikas Peruvian Cafe’s Chupe de Mariscos.
- It came loaded with at least 10 shrimps, but all of them were overcooked.
- There was also a piece of likely frozen boneless and skinless salmon fillet, but that was dry and overcooked as well.
- There was a mussel and clam in there too so the amount of seafood they gave you made it worth it.
- The other ingredients included spinach leaves, which I thought should have been an herb, and then fresh chunks of tomato, onions and green peppers.
- The crab leg was a nice surprise, but most the seafood was overcooked.
- It was very coconut milk heavy, but still light and not as tangy as I thought it was going to be.
- There was some lime, but I’d say it was more coconut heavy and aromatic.
- The broth didn’t taste like seafood broth at all, but it tasted like chicken broth.
- It could be a combination of fresh and GFS chicken broth, but there was no chicken, and it tasted store bought to me.
- Despite the execution, it was still very good and I would recommend trying it since it is what the Latin American locals flock too.
- Personally I think it would be more appreciated if you were maybe from that culture.
- A soft corn tortilla stuffed with cheese and meat with our own mild chili sauce and more cheese $8.99
- This is one of the most popular items, but I also feel like it was the “Westerners’ Choice”.
- This was very good, but it was the most “Americanized” tasting item I had. I mean it is an Enchilada, so it’s as good as it sounds.
- It was the most familiar in flavours and seemed like the typical Mexican food I could find anywhere else, which I probably could, but still good!
- The owner kept recommending chicken over beef, so I ordered it with chicken again.
- It was a very saucy and soupy dish, but very fair for the price and I can’t really complain too much.
- The corn tortilla shells got really soggy under the “mild chili sauce”, which taste just like plain canned tomato sauce with perhaps some dried herbs.
- It wasn’t spicy or anything and it just tasted like tomato sauce for pasta.
- The enchiladas were very well stuffed with lots of tender well seasoned white meat shredded chicken, and it was very fresh and tasted like roast chicken.
- It was white meat chicken, so it was a bit drier, but I didn’t mind and there was enough sauce that it was fine.
- The chicken was well marinated and flavourful on its own and that was the highlight of the dish for me.
- I don’t order enchiladas often so I don’t know how bad or good they can get. All I know was that I enjoyed this one, but it wasn’t that different.
- The rice is moist and cooked in chicken broth for additional flavour. I like the rice here!
- Grilled marinated beef $10
- I enjoyed this, although I have had better Mexican versions of it in tacos.
- The steak seemed sauteed rather than grilled and I didn’t get that smokiness or charred flavour.
- It’s not the greatest cut of steak, but there’s a decent amount for the price.
- The beef was pretty good, but the only thing was that the pieces were inconsistent.
- Some were really tough, dry, and chewy, and other pieces were incredibly tender, moist, and required very little chewing.
- The pieces were different shapes and sizes, and it was fully cooked and not a saucy dish, so it really depends on the marinade and cooking time.
- It wasn’t that garlicky, but it was well marinated and I could taste a slight tang and aromatic flavours of lime juice, or orange juice, and perhaps some vinegar.
- It wasn’t sour though, but the acid just helped tenderize the meat and give it some flavour.
- It wasn’t spicy or smoky and I would have liked more spice.
- I did want more onions and wished they were sauteed for longer, because they were a bit raw.
- The rice was moist and cooked in chicken stock again.
- Some places would serve it with guacamole instead of the wedge of avocado too.
- Fried ripe plantain slices, served with sour cream $3.50
- This was new for me.
- The plantains weren’t as crispy as I prefer, but they were certainly oily, but warm throughout.
- I would have liked thinner round slices of crispy banana over these wedges though.
- Plantains taste like starchy bananas and they’re not as sweet and a bit firmer. There weren’t any additional sweeteners or syrups on these plantains.
- The sour cream gave the slightly sweet plantains a tangy contrast and it almost made it a bit lighter and more cooling since it was deep fried.
- I would have never came up with the combination, but this is an authentic dessert. It might be acquired, but I didn’t find it hard to accept, it was just different.
- Traditionally it’s served with some pureed beans seasoned with maybe coffee and chocolate, but that may have been too “exotic” for our Canadian taste buds. I’d love to try it though!
- My fusion “gourmet” side wanted to recreate this at home as caramelized plantains with a sour cream ice cream.
- For good savoury plantains I recommend El Barrio’s plantains.
- Salvadorian style rice pudding. Served hot with lots of milk. $3.50
- This was a pretty big bowl (size of large soup bowl) and it reminded us of getting the bowl of red bean soup at the end of a Chinese dinner… except personally I found this way better.
- It smelled like Chai and it even tasted like it, but without the tea leaves and just the spices and scent of cinnamon and no cardamom.
- It was warm, comforting and aromatic.
- This one had no raisins, lemon or orange peel, heavy spices, vanilla bean seeds, or alcohol, so it was quite a basic home style version.
- It was creamy and sweet and it tasted like creme brulee custard when it’s still hot on the stove waiting to thicken before it sets.
- It’s sweeter than hot Asian dessert soups, not as sweet as most Latin desserts, and was more of a milky custard, but it wasn’t too rich either.
- I do like rice pudding, but I probably wouldn’t order this again although it was nice to try and it tasted pretty good.