Chef’s Table: A good year for Mexican food

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Almost the first thing that hits you upon walking into Cerdo Tacos and Tequila is the gentle aromas of spiced meat sizzling on a grill in the nearly visible kitchen.

Soft Latin music radiates throughout and there are enough Mexican sombreros hanging over the bar to outfit a mariachi band.

One wall is covered with a skull mural of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Another is plastered with trendy retro Mexican movie posters and a mural of a luchador, a professional Mexican wrestler.

Scattered on shelves throughout the restaurant are brightly coloured cultural knick-knacks including the odd pig. Cerdo in Spanish means swine and the honoured pig is featured in numerous ways on the menu and in decorative trinkets.

It is 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, normally a quiet time for most restaurants. Instead, the taqueria is half filled with patrons of every age sitting at the brightly painted communal high-top tables enjoying their private fiestas.

St. Albert foodies have definitely embraced Cerdo’s relaxed, friendly ambiance and genuine Mexican cuisine, a world apart from the clichĂ©d taco and burrito fare of most fast food joints. Not only is the food comforting, the price point fits a wide spectrum of budgets.

With a continually growing clientele, much of the restaurant’s success is due to owners Jen (Pulham) Le and her two partners Nathan Pratap and hubby Tu Le, the owner-operator of Jack’s Burger Shack.

Jen (Pulham) Le and Pratap are the restaurant’s major drivers forming a compatible relationship she describes as “like a brother-sister. We get along very well.”

While Pratap’s family is from Fiji, Jen Le was born in the mill town of Prince George, moving to Burnaby at age three.

Raised in a typical working class family, Le’s father Steven Pulham was a businessman who designed skylights while her mother compiled payroll at a local community college.

“I got to see what it was like to work for everything you needed and what it was like to have friends handed things to them,” said Le.

A bit of a lone wolf with an athletic bent, the five-foot one-inch teen dived into ice hockey, street hockey and soccer.

“I was playing hockey before ice hockey was a thing for girls. I played in a league with 40-year-old women. It was the only league around. It was a little intense when you’re only 15, but I guess it toughens you up.”

Not one for the academic program, Le opted instead to take every home economics class available including mentoring Grade 8 students interested in culinary arts.

The kitchen was the Pulham family’s focal point, and baking, especially at Christmas, was an annual ritual.

“At Christmas we’d bake hundreds of dozens of cookies – I’m not kidding – box them up and mail them to all our aunts and uncles.”

That culinary interest translated in a 10-month pastry arts course at Vancouver Community College in 2003 after graduation.

“I made wedding cakes for family and friends and ran a small business out of our house. But I had just turned 19 and I needed cash flow and I didn’t want to get up in the morning at 2 a.m.”

Next she studied several levels of wine sommelier courses before managing a small bakery learning the ropes as a businesswoman.

“I’ve had a lot of jobs because I like to do everything 80 per cent and then I quit.” Yet interestingly every step in hospitality would lead her to Cerdo.

One of the biggest changes occurred in 2009 after Jen Le was hired to work at Shaker’s, a sports bar in Vancouver. Her future husband Tu Le had moved to Vancouver to open a new location and Pratap was the bouncer-bartender.

Together the trio developed a shared friendship born from their love of food and respect for hard work. When Jen and Tu Le moved to Slave Lake in 2012 to open the original Jack’s Burger Shack, Pratap soon followed.

During the restaurant’s downtime, one of their employees, a Mexican line cook taught the trio how to cook authentic Spanish dishes from scratch – everything from Al Pastor chicken and carnitas to tortillas and tacos.

By 2014, slow business had forced the closure of Slave Lake’s Jack’s Burger Shack and the trio moved to St. Albert to try their luck at their present site on Perron St.

Jack’s was a hit and when a neighbour in the same building decided to give up her lease, she asked the Le’s if they would like to take it.

Tu Le and Pratap always dreamt of owning a sports bar. Taking the bull by the horns, the trio opened Feast and Lounge, a sports bar with a small rotating seasonal menu.

Unfortunately, it didn’t catch on.

“It was rough. It was me and Nate running the day-to-day operation. It was disheartening to come in and it was so slow. You were the first to walk in the kitchen in the morning, and the last to get paid, and you do the most work from mopping floors to cleaning urinals. It’s so-o-o very glamorous,” laughs Jen Le.

During a weekend in March 2016, the restaurant closed on Saturday night as Feast and Lounge and reopened the next Tuesday morning as Cerdo Tacos and Tequila. Amidst a two-day flurry of activity, they painted walls, and decorated the space giving it a Mexican-southwestern vibe.

“Nate and I were not confident we’d succeed, but Tu really pushed us. And it turns out we are really good at cooking Mexican food,” said Jen Le.

She explains that Cerdo uses traditional recipes, but alters them according to the ingredients available and what Canadians find palate pleasing.

For instance, Mexicans enjoy culinary specialties cultivated from organ meat. Canadians shy away from those choices and as a result, organ meat dishes are off the menu.

Instead appetizer choices range from basic street corn and nachos to the more succulent chicken tinga salad of greens, tomatoes, guacamole, crushed corn, chips salsa roja and chicken al pastor.

The menu also features three different huevo (egg) bowls and eight varying tacos that vary from chorizo, tomato and guacamole to the Yucatan Pescado, a blend of achiote rubbed fish, tomatoes and jalapeños.

“We like to use fresh, local ingredients. It’s very flavourful, but not necessarily spicy. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in the food. And the atmosphere we’ve tried to create is one of a community feel.

Judging by customer response, it’s working.

“I like to make things that taste good that I like to eat. There’s nothing fancy here. I’m not a fancy chef. I like to stick to the basics. And I make a mean biscuit.”

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About Author

Anna Borowiecki

Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.