Taco, taco man

Dave Sidhu, the man be­hind the Playa Ca­bana em­pire, on his road to the top

Richmond Hill Post - - Food Profile - by Jon Sufrin

hip, It was the spring of 2011, a time that Toronto food types could re­fer to as the pre–Grand Elec­tric era. Back then, tacos had not yet be­come the city’s col­lec­tive ob­ses­sion, and go­ing out for Mex­i­can food usu­ally meant eat­ing medi­ocre Tex-Mex or hang­ing out at some too-au­then­tic mom-and­pop shop.

Toronto en­tre­pre­neur Dave Sidhu — 34 years old at the time — had just pulled out as a co-owner of Chimichang­a, a now-de­funct chain of Mex­i­can restau­rants. Fi­nan­cially, he was a wreck. His only as­set was his condo, which he man­aged to re­fi­nance to gain $20,000. That pal­try sum was his last chance at mak­ing a name for him­self.

Sidhu had pre­vi­ously spent time liv­ing in New York City, where he worked at a cou­ple of lively Mex­i­can restau­rants: Mex­i­can Ra­dio and the orig­i­nal Dos Camino on Park Av­enue. He knew that Toronto needed some­thing sim­i­lar. Though Chimichang­a served mostly un­re­mark­able TexMex, Sidhu had a vi­sion for a more au­then­tic taque­ria (corn tor­tillas, made-from-scratch food) com­bined with a rau­cous at­mos­phere.

He scoured Toronto for lo­ca­tions to build a new restau­rant, fi­nally se­cur­ing the for­mer site of Ra­jput’s Bistro on Dupont near Daven­port. On paper, his odds for suc­cess were not high. His ex­pe­ri­ence with gen­eral con­struc­tion work: zero. His ex­pe­ri­ence with elec­tri­cal: zero. His for­mal kitchen train­ing: zero. His only hope: a blind am­bi­tion to suc­ceed. So he bought some tools, along with an in­struc­tional book, and went into con­struc­tion mode.

“There wasn’t even time to be ner­vous,” Sidhu says. “I was so de­ter­mined to do it on my own terms and to con­trol my own des­tiny.”

Sidhu spent his en­tire $20,000 on the new con­cept. He filled the space with what is now a cookie-cut­ter restau­rant set-up: re­claimed wood, an­tiques, ex­posed brick, chalk­board menus. He ar­ranged a pay-back­later deal with his land­lord and, un­able to af­ford an apart­ment for him­self, he took up res­i­dence in the bur­geon­ing restau­rant’s base­ment (where he would end up liv­ing for a to­tal of 13 months). In five fren­zied weeks, he built a restau­rant. You may have heard of it: Playa Ca­bana.

In those early days, Sidhu manned the kitchen him­self. He tossed to­gether a staff of three other peo­ple — a bar­tender and two servers — whom he asked to work for free for two weeks, promis­ing a trip to Mex­ico at the end of the year (a prom­ise that he kept).

He served beer-bat­tered fish tacos stuffed with cab­bage, gua­camole and chili-in­fused tar­tar sauce; buck­ets of sautéed shrimp tossed in black­ened ar­bol chilis; mole-braised short rib tacos with Oax­a­can cheese. He branded the place as an au­then­tic Mex­i­can restau­rant where ev­ery­thing — ev­ery­thing — was made from scratch us­ing fresh, lo­cal and sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents. The mu­sic was loud, and the te­quila list was long. It was an in­stant hit.

“It was wild,” says Sidhu, who took no salary for the first year and worked nearly non-stop. “I re­mem­ber not even feel­ing tired.”

The tim­ing could not have been bet­ter. Playa Ca­bana opened its doors right at the cusp of a Mex­i­can food rev­o­lu­tion in Toronto, spear­headed by the likes of Grand Elec­tric, La Car­nita and, of course, Playa Ca­bana.

A lit­tle over two years later, Playa Ca­bana is a ver­i­ta­ble em­pire. In mid-November, Sidhu opened his fourth lo­ca­tion: Bar­rio Core­ano, an Korean-in­flu­enced ver­sion of Playa Ca­bana in Kore­atown where tacos come with gochu­jang-mar­i­nated beef or Korean fried chicken. Be­fore that, he opened the siz­able Playa Ca­bana Ha­cienda at Av­enue and Dupont, and be­fore that, Playa Ca­bana Cantina in the Junc­tion.

Sidhu now em­ploys around 250 peo­ple, and his restau­rants bring in mil­lions of dol­lars in sales per year. He’s not plan­ning on slow­ing down any time soon.

“Toronto will get bored of any­thing,” he says, “but it will never get bored of fun and ex­cit­ing places.”

Sidhu’s twin brother, Don, says Playa Ca­bana’s ex­plo­sive suc­cess is sur­pris­ing, but it makes sense con­sid­er­ing his sib­ling’s char­ac­ter.

“He’s kind of crazy,” says Don, younger by three min­utes. “If you tell him he can’t do some­thing, he won’t be­lieve you. He’s one of those guys who will sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing for the end goal.”

The two broth­ers were born in Mi­ami to a Filipino mother and an In­dian father. When they were four months old, their father aban­doned

Toronto will never get bored of fun and ex­cit­ing places.”

them (he’s only been in touch once, when they were 18, speak­ing briefly on the phone). Shortly af­ter that, their sin­gle mother took the boys and their older sis­ter to Toronto. They were raised near the An­nex.

Grow­ing up, the el­der Sidhu was a bit of a trou­ble­maker, but he was also a tal­ented bas­ket­ball player (point guard). He demon­strated an en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit at a young age, sell­ing comic books at the age of 12. In his 20s, he was an as­pir­ing film­maker, orig­i­nally head­ing to NYC to en­ter that world while work­ing odd serv­ing jobs on the side to pay his bills.

De­spite his cur­rent suc­cesses, Sidhu’s time at the top hasn’t been de­void of con­tro­versy. In May of this year, the Globe and Mail gave the Playa Ca­bana restau­rants a scathing re­view, wherein critic Chris Nut­tall-Smith said he was “mys­ti­fied by their pop­u­lar­ity.” The tacos, he said, “are fine, if you’ve never eaten great tacos.”

Nut­tall-Smith’s big­gest qualm was with Playa Ca­bana’s claims of sourc­ing its in­gre­di­ents on a lo­cal, sea­sonal ba­sis. In re­view­ing Playa Ca­bana Cantina, he ob­served a de­liv­ery per­son from Sysco haul­ing in boxed ox­tail, frozen oc­to­pus and other sup­plies. (Sysco is a mas­sive food dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany that is about as far from ar­ti­sanal as a restau­rant sup­plier can get.)

“It was prob­a­bly my all-time low,” Sidhu says of the re­view. “Ev­ery point that he made was right.”

In re­sponse, Sidhu says he’s made changes: “Our or­der­ing from Sysco has come down; we’re deal­ing with spe­cialty butcher shops” he says, “but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Still, if the crowds and the mini chain’s con­tin­ued ex­pan­sion are any in­di­ca­tion, Playa Ca­bana is strong enough to with­stand a bit of bad press. The restau­rants are a rag­ing party nearly ev­ery night of the week, but Sidhu’s try­ing to not let it go to his head.

Dave Sidhu pin­pointed Toronto’s culi­nary Zeit­geist when he opened up Playa Ca­bana back in 2011

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