Martín Vargas has a vision for Vancouver that looks a lot like Los Angeles. The chef thinks that Western Canada resembles Southern California 20 years ago, that it sits on the precipice of becoming “this small Latin mecca for food.” And his new Granville Island restaurant and market, Alimentaria Mexicana, will help cement that reputation.
Raised in Tijuana, Vargas trained in Mexico City before coming to Canada; he then partnered with Vancouver restaurateur Ernesto Gomez, who had already started the city’s Chancho Tortilleria. When Vargas first envisioned Alimentaria two years ago, he wasn’t sure if diners, familiar only with Tex-Mex-style dishes—“westernized,” he calls them—would go for the distinct flavors that truly represent his home cuisine. But when the restaurant opened in the palatial center of walkable, touristy Granville Island, it quickly began serving as many as 600 diners a day.
“We’re as close to our roots as we can be,” says Vargas. Consider the varieties of salsa on the menu, including sikil paak made from pumpkin seeds; the Mayan-born blend has a delayed kick. In other words, this ain’t Chipotle.
The sizable outdoor patio faces the cobblestone streets of Granville, the sky partially blocked by the eight-lane Granville Bridge that soars above. Inside, the dining room recalls the sprawl of a chain restaurant, giving way to a bar and then a mercado selling fresh ingredients. This neighborhood has long been a tourist hub, a collection of art galleries and indie gift shops, plus one utterly charming handmade broom store. A built-in shop makes sense.
Grilled halloumi comes coated in a tomatillo and cactus salsa verde, the squeak of the cheese still evident after it has been softened by the grill heat. Tortillas are handmade using Oaxacan corn, fried and snapped into housemade chips for the guacamole.
“People are more open-minded and are ready to be more adventurous” after the pandemic, says Vargas. What’s more, he expects to see increased immigration from the south in his adopted Canadian home, further bringing his heritage to a new audience. He sees room for Mexican fare of all sizes.
In downtown Vancouver, a new popup called Chupito also opened in the summer of 2021, a swinging late-night outdoor cantina accessed through a legitimately gritty back alley. There the cocktails run circles around the tired margarita; one concoction blends mole negro with cold-brew coffee, balanced by the sweetness of Licor 43. Even within smelling distance of dumpsters, strings of lights illuminate an outdoor party into the night, rain or shine.
Lines form outside Alimentaria even for a weekday lunch; Chupito proved so popular that the owners stretched a tent over the outdoor scene to continue the festivities into winter. Vargas’s dream of an LA-like Latin food scene isn’t so far-fetched, even if this Mexican fare is served somewhere a little colder.
Ugly Is the New Pretty
The Museum of Vancouver takes a different perspective.
The Museum of Vancouver isn’t exactly on Granville Island—wedged between Kitsilano Beach and Vanier Park, it sits a few thousand feet northwest—but it shares that neighborhood’s in-between vibe. Next to but not quite in downtown, the 1968 building feels decidedly more dated than the rest of Vancouver’s sleek skyline. (Whether the building is meant to resemble a flying saucer or a Moroccan tagine pot, it could be part of a matched set with our own Space Needle.)
But with a retro home and a collection that began in the nineteenth century, the Museum of Vancouver puts on surprisingly quirky and current exhibits. Its front hallway explores the history being written by Covid, enshrining a roll of toilet paper in a glass display case next to an interactive sculpture of notable Covid memories; more than one person has added a note saluting Tiger King. In the next room, A Seat at the Table traces how Chinese immigration shaped British Columbia food culture.
Neon Vancouver / Ugly Vancouver recalls a time when the city boasted more flickering signage than Las Vegas. Of course calling such a collection “ugly” is purely in the eye of the beholder, but the mix of colors, typography, and unapologetic commercialism creates something alluring. Like the giant crab statue that stands guard outside the museum’s iconic building, you don’t have to like it for it to demand your attention.