The Many Miracles of Tacos El Asador

Koreatown’s integral Latin American food mecca was built on big leaps and bigger blessings

October 10, 2017

Since what seems like forever, we’ve sworn by Tacos El Asador. Most of you probably have too. The unassuming eatery at the corner of Clinton and Bloor has long been counted on for authentic tortilla’d treats and a welcoming family vibe. All those years, we had no idea about the extraordinary history of the actual family providing all the good times and delicious dishes. Until now…

“In our neighbourhood, where we were at, they came in and just bombed. The whole neighbourhood, you know? If you were still there (afterwards), you were lucky.”

René Gonzalez describes life in 1980s civil war-torn El Salvador with earnest regard, now seated at a back table inside his landmark restaurant, far beyond but never disconnected from his precarious origins. It was December of 1989 when René’s family had the great fortune of escaping the horrors of the Central American crisis, the personal details of which still haunt the Gonzalez clan.

“The U.S. Army got involved in the whole situation, because we were being murdered. There was so much murder. If the guerillas saw you, they’d kill you. They would use you as human shields,” René recounts chillingly. His mother Elena – who worked as a maid for Channel 2 Television in San Salvador – received word one day that fall about a potential lifeline, a way out of the carnage and on to a better existence. Skeptical as she was, she filled out an immigration form on behalf of her family and prayed it would reach the right people. Miraculously, her prayers were answered.

René & Alberto Gonzalez

A call came instructing the family to pack what they could carry for departure within 48 hours. Suddenly – Elena, her husband Salvador, plus René and his older brother Alberto – were set on a course that would transform them forever. Having witnessed firsthand the brutality of the Salvadoran government forces – who had fired at protestors during peaceful demonstrations – and the wanton destruction of their entire neighbourhood at the hands of the merciless guerilla fighters, the Gonzalez family was ready to face its biggest test.

They would have to escape under cover of night, avoiding the embedded guerilla groups for fear of being caught, possibly even killed. The rendezvous point was a local bus terminal, where a school bus picked them up for a dangerous ride to the American consulate, and eventually on to the airport. Other families – equally confused and afraid, yet also excited – shared their clandestine journey. As dawn approached, each family was given a choice that would define the rest of their lives.

Elena, Salvador & Alberto Gonzalez

At the airport, there were three lines: one for the United States, one for Australia, and one for Canada. With serendipity on her side and a scant awareness of the climate awaiting them, Elena chose Canada. Looking back today at the single decision that most impacted her family’s future, the demure Gonzalez matriarch chalks it up to destiny. “We didn’t know where to go. We hardly knew where Australia was. We just chose Canada,” Alberto translates for his mother. Through faith, courage and a whole lot of luck, they were spared a bleak existence and propelled toward ever more miracles in their new home.

It wasn’t even clear at first that Toronto would be their specific landing ground. But once the shock of the journey had subsided and the newly-arrived Gonzalez family assessed their situation, it was clear that fate had delivered them a promising fresh start. Elena soon found work at the modest taqueria that would shape her family’s fortunes, then owned by a man named Patrick and already emblazoned with the now-legendary name: Tacos El Asador.

In proving herself to be a model employee and her family worthy of a benevolent hand, Elena inspired a truly incredible act when Patrick packed up and moved to Mexico. The restaurant’s founder sold Tacos El Asador to the Gonzalez family, deferring their cost until they were prepared to pay, which they did dutifully in increments upon Patrick’s sporadic visits back to Toronto. René marvels: “He took the chance on us. Because, who would do that, right? Nobody gets opportunities like that. Not much anyways.“

The improbability of Patrick’s generous offer compelled Elena to give restaurant ownership her all, so she and Salvador set to work establishing a dependable style that would keep people coming back to their humble canteen. “The first day, after signing the papers with Patrick, I sold only fifty dollars. The whole day,” Salvador tells us of their rocky start. But by incorporating Elena’s home recipes and improving upon the existing Mexican offerings, things gradually turned for the better.

Alberto was a big help on that front, sprucing up the menu with Salvadoran stalwarts like pupusas and hearty soups, and flying to Mexico to bring back spices for each dish. “My brother would travel with a big suitcase,” René recounts as Alberto interjects: “But no clothes. Only spices!” They laugh happily at the memory. The authenticity of the flavours on offer at El Asador, coupled with the welcoming warmth of service, helped build the restaurant into the institution Torontonian taco aficionados know and love to this day. As the Bloor and Christie corridor moved from more Latin roots to it current Korean saturation, the Gonzalez family earned a firm foothold within the community and a reputation for fantastic food.

Reflecting on the risky and unlikely history behind his passage to Toronto, Salvador is awed. “Many miracles,” he admits graciously of the forces at play. Now retired along with Elena, the restaurant passed on to their sons, he basks in the legacy of an honest life’s work, never forgetting the blessings bestowed upon them or the fluky nature of their Canadian deliverance.

Step inside Tacos El Asador today – housed in a bigger space now owned by the family, and still smack dab at the corner of Clinton and Bloor – and you’ll find Alberto running the kitchen and René behind the counter (along with their cousin Smokey – whose own thrilling origin story deserves an article unto itself – and a tight-knit support staff). Elena and Salvador drop in from time to time, serving the longtime customers that call the place home and enjoying the bustle that only a thriving business can bring. The pride they feel is beyond well deserved. Here’s hoping the place never closes.

Alberto, Salvador, Elena, Smokey & René