Over the past eight years, Jason Carr has witnessed the changing face of Main Street. The head chef at El Camino’s (3250 Main Street) moved to Vancouver from Tofino in 2005 and has spent his career in Mount Pleasant kitchens, starting at the now-closed Habit restaurant.
“When I first worked at Habit, it almost seemed like that was the only new kind of place back then,” Carr tells the Georgia Straight during a recent interview. “But it’s definitely changed over the years. It took a while, but we’ve got a really cool neighbourhood vibe here.”
El Camino’s is a casual Latin American eatery run by the Cascade Company, which owns East Van restaurants the Cascade Room, Charlie’s Little Italian, and the Union. Carr, who has never travelled further south than the Baja peninsula, says that as a chef, he isn’t concerned about authenticity.
“People get really hung up on what’s authentic, but I think if you really go the authentic recipe route, a lot of times it’s really not that exciting,” he says, adding that the restaurant takes its influences from across the Americas. “If you’ve got a bit of Spanish or Latin or something like that going on, then you’re fair game.”
The type of food Carr cooks these days is unlike the food he ate growing up in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. His grandmother did most of the cooking, and he says she stuck to “East Coast–style” dishes such as fish and chips, hot dogs, and fried baloney.
“Even nowadays, people [living in the Maritimes] still want what they’ve been eating for the past 80 years. They still just want fish and chips and a big hamburger or a hot turkey sandwich,” Carr explains. “There are nicer restaurants for sure, but you don’t get the variety you get out here. There are no dosa places, no taco shops.”
When Carr is cooking at home in East Van, he favours simple, comfort-food dishes that are packed with flavour, such as German-style meatballs. His recipe, which came from his girlfriend’s father, is unusual in that it uses capers instead of herbs. The meatballs are first seared and then simmered in a creamy tomato sauce. Carr likes to serve them over a bed of roughly mashed potatoes, paired with a German beer.
Jason Carr's caper meatballs and smashed potatoes
1 lb (454 g) lean ground beef
1 lb (454 g) lean ground pork
¼ cup (60 mL) bread crumbs
⅓ cup (90 mL) capers, rinsed and roughly chopped, divided
¼ cup (60 mL) milk
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
1 tsp (5 mL) pepper
1 cup (250 mL) all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp (30 mL) olive oil
1 white onion, diced
¼ cup (60 mL) butter
2 Tbsp (30 mL) tomato paste
4 cups (1 L) beef stock
½ cup (125 mL) heavy cream
Smashed potatoes (see recipe below)
- In a large bowl, mix together beef, pork, eggs, bread crumbs, ¼ cup (60 mL) of the capers, zest from lemon, milk, salt, and pepper using hands. Form golf ball–sized meatballs and set aside on a plate.
- Place flour in a small bowl and coat each meatball by rolling it in flour.
- In a frying pan over medium heat, heat oil and brown meatballs on all sides, working in batches. Do not crowd the pan, and add more oil if pan becomes dry. Remove meatballs as they brown and place on a plate.
- In a large pot, sauté onion in butter until translucent. Add tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes. Add remaining 2 Tbsp (30 mL) of capers, stock, juice from zested lemon, and heavy cream. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Add the meatballs and simmer uncovered for 1 hour, or until meatballs are cooked through and tender.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove meatballs from sauce onto a clean plate and keep warm by covering with aluminum foil. Simmer sauce uncovered for 10 more minutes to thicken, and then season with salt and pepper to taste.
- To serve, place meatballs and smashed potatoes on a plate and ladle sauce over top.
2.2 lbs (1 kg) Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed
8 cups (2 L) water
1 Tbsp (15 mL) salt
- Place potatoes, water, and salt in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes, or until potatoes are fork-tender.
- Drain water and roughly mash potatoes using a fork, potato masher, or mallet.
Yield: four servings.
Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.