With friendly service, affordable food, and a sweet space, Roku seems to be destined for greatness
Taqueria La Bonita 1079 Wellington St. W., 613-798-9292 I used to look down my nose at Tex-Mex. In the late 1980s, I cooked at a Mexican restaurant that served the typical — enchiladas and such, your choice of filling. Growing tired of the menu, I researched and found recipes for thick handmade tortillas of masa harina (corn dough). But back then, Ottawa was not ready for any maravillosas ideas.
Eventually, though, North America’s taste buds would wake up, and that change is underway in Ottawa — the proof is in the many Tex-Mex restaurants throughout the city, in particular the opening of a second location of Taqueria La Bonita.
The owners of four-year-old Taqueria La Bonita off Ogilvie Road opened a new location early this year, acquiring a Hintonburg space vacated by La Cocina Loca.
Looking to Oaxaca and Michoacán for its ideas, this taqueria isn’t strictly Tex-Mex (or even Cal-Mex), but any restaurant serving nachos isn’t purely Mexican either. Don’t expect the sharing plates found at the original La Bonita: the Hintonburg menu is pared down, offering many smalls. Spicy? Benign is the word, although homemade salsas appear on the side. Start with deep-flavoured sopa Azteca, a tomato tortilla soup with pasilla chilies.
Do try the mole. There are myriad variations: green, yellow, and red, for instance. But it’s the well-known mole poblano with chocolate that owner Araceli Ortega and her team make, using chicken. The sweet flavours work well in quesadillas.
Or try a sope, which is actually not a soup — it’s that masa harina, shaped into a saucer and fried. It is then lined with a base layer of refried black beans, which can be topped with any filling: picadillo (ground beef with guajillo chilies) has rich character, especially good with feta and sour cream.
The complex cochinita pibil, pork Yucatán-style with citrus juices and cinnamon, works in a softshell taco. Unfortunately, barbecued beef tastes bland, all the juices wrung out, while the cigarshaped tacos dorados aren’t deep-fried properly (they’re hard, not crispy). However, La Corona — a cocktail with tequila, mango juice, and ginger ale — is certainly a treat. For dessert, try the postre de limón, or lime cream — it’s sublime.
Snacks and mains $5.75–$23. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Roku Bar + Bites 610 Somerset St. W., 613-656-1638 You won’t find dumplings at the fast-food chain with the golden arches, but you will find them at Roku Bar + Bites, whose Big Mak gyoza is described as “a Big Mac … in a dumpling.”
Roku, which opened at the end of 2017, is a welcome addition to the casual-dining scene. Brothers-in-law Robert Sayaphet and Peter Mak (who lent his name to the aforementioned dumpling) had done pop-up events prior to opening their spot in Chinatown and have now expanded their offerings beyond dumplings. With a focus on their families’ Cambodian and Laotian heritage, Roku serves Asian-inspired food that incorporates flavours from all over the world.
Everything is snackable and affordable: there’s nothing on the food menu over $15. In addition to the aforementioned Big Mak gyoza, there are pork, seafood, and veggie dumpling options. A big basket of kimchi fries with wasabi mayo was deliciously addictive: the fries are seasoned and topped with kimchi, Japanese barbecue sauce, wasabi mayonnaise, and sesame seeds. The Roku Noodle Bowl was a bright and fresh option with lemongrass beef, pork meatballs, and a deep-fried dumpling.
The larb tofu is a vegetarian take on a classic Laotian dish. It’s served with fresh vegetables, herbs, spices, and roasted ground rice, which makes for an interesting mixture of textures. There are weekly specials, but the fish in the crispy bao was underwhelming as it lacked proper seasoning.
There’s a small but decent list of local craft beers and a longer list of creative cocktails. The space offers a casual but inviting vibe, and the beautiful mural is worth admiring in the light of day — which is doable on Sundays, when Roku serves brunch.
The small brunch menu features a savoury steamed-dumpling bowl, as well as a simple combination of grilled cheese with coconut cream tomato soup. For sweeter options, there’s Falung toast (perhaps a nod to the Thai slang falung, meaning “foreigner”), which is basically French toast stuffed with peanut butter and banana. Or try the coconut pandan pancakes — the pandan leaves lend a shocking green colour, the coconut a subtle flavour. All of it goes nicely with a strong Viet coffee.
It doesn’t seem as if many folks know about Roku’s brunch yet, so there won’t be a long line. With friendly service, affordable food, and a sweet space, Roku seems to be destined for greatness. Sides $5–$8, small plates $10–$15. Open Wednesday to Saturday for dinner and Sunday for brunch.