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At Dovercourt: El Almacen



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The preparation and celebration of mate remains job one, but El Almacen is also a café where customers may choose from an array of coffee-based concoctions.

OAKLAND ROSS/TORONTO STAR

Oakland Ross Feature Writer

They say it boosts the body's immune system, slows aging, returns hair to its original hue, enriches creativity, reduces fatigue, thwarts insomnia, eases stress, topples Middle Eastern dictators and lowers your unpaid credit-card balance . . .

Okay — the last two we made up.

But all these other benefits — and many more besides — are routinely attributed to an evergreen plant that is native to parts of South America and whose crushed leaves can be transformed into a drinkable infusion. Just add water. Ideal temperature: about 75 C.

The plant is called yerba mate (pronounced MA-tay) and it is, to the good people of Argentina, what tap water is to other earthlings — not just a beverage but a necessity.

The same goes for most Uruguayans, some Paraguayans and even a few Brazilians.

"Uruguayans drink more mate than we do," concedes Silvio Rodriguez, joint proprietor of El Almacen, a moody little pocket of vintage Buenos Aires on West Queen St. West, steps from Dovercourt Rd. "I've heard stories of people in Uruguay riding on motorcycles with mate in hand."

Mate is one attraction, but a visit to El Almacen — which means "the store" — also includes the pleasure of beaming yourself back into the stylish, prelapsarian world of the Argentine Republic circa 1925, when that sprawling, golden land of gauchos, wheat fields and beef cattle briefly counted itself among the 10 wealthiest countries on the planet.

At El Almacen, it is 1925 forever.

Born amid the vineyards of Mendoza province, Rodriguez moved to Toronto with his family when he was just six. His first job, at age 15, was in the restaurant business, and he has dreamed of launching a place like El Almacen ever since.

Two years ago, along with his Mexican-born wife, Estela Velasco-Cortes, he did.

"Canadians have opened up to more ethnic places," he says.

The preparation and celebration of mate remains job one, but El Almacen is also a café where customers may choose from an array of coffee-based concoctions.

"People say we have the best Americano on the block," says Rodriguez, now 38.

Immediately, his wife corrects him. "A lot of people say, ‘The best in the city.' "

The bar is dominated by a large silver Elektra coffee machine that's fashioned in Belle Époque style and sets the antique tone of the room, with its natural wood floors, tin-plated ceiling and casual grace.

The signage at the entrance is lettered in a flamboyant design known as fileteado porteno, a decorative script that's as redolent of Buenos Aires as a formally dressed couple dancing a tango on a spot-lit stage.

"We try to use this Buenos Aires style, without being too in-your-face," says Rodriguez. "We're selling a particular culture and tradition."

The Argentine menu has Mexican overtones and includes fare that ranges from spicy, Mendoza-style empanadas to jalapeno tuna sandwiches.

As for El Almacen's customers, Rodriguez says Canadians tend to be fairly knowledgeable about the country of his birth, familiar with many of its most famous sons and daughters — everyone from writer Jose Luis Borges to folk singer Mercedes Sosa, from fallen revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara to rock group Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.

"And, then," he says, "there's tango, of course."

Of course.

 

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Mate is also a great social experience. The culture of Buenos Aires is all about socializing with both friends and family while sharing drinks and food.

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