A Cooperative Harvest

Denman potato co-op effort reaping the benefits of community teamwork.

Metz credits the success of the restaurant, then and now, to the holistic approach she has always taken to preparing and cooking food. Prior to living in Courtenay, she and her family resided on Maurelle Island, a boat-access only island northeast of Quadra, for 12 years.

“I have a very strong and unconventional foods background from there because we were growing all our own foods. We had our own flock of dairy sheep and were making all our own cheeses and doing all our own meat processing, sausages and hams. There’s practically nothing I haven’t made from scratch.”

“Because of growing my own food for years, that has always been my vision for this place—to have a real sense of being connected to the land. That’s why it’s in a house and that’s why we have the garden.”

And what a garden! Squash blossoms abound, hiding their secret bounty; tomatoes overflow onto pathways as kiwi, fig, apple, pear and cherry trees elbow each other out, all vying for their place in the sun.

According to Metz, they used to grow a lot of vegetables on site, but that is getting more difficult because the fruit trees have gotten so large over the years.

“We put all the trees in ourselves and we use the fruit in our margaritas and desserts. Now that’s the way that lots of people are approaching food with the whole slow food, organic and local food thing, but for us it’s always been that way. That’s my relationship to food and I just wanted to give people that experience.”

And she also wanted to give them a taste of Latin American cooking. She knew before they started that the restaurant would have to be Mexican, having done a lot of travelling down south.

“I’ve probably spent a year there altogether, and I really like the food when it’s good.

People will say, ‘Oh this is much better than what I have had there.’ But, of course, I am emulating the best Mexican food that I have had, like the one in 20 meals where you say, ‘Oh my God, this is so wonderful!’

“What I really I love is the complexity of the cooking and the cultural blending of both the Aztec and the Spanish,” adds Metz. “So I am really comfortable with the food. Also, we didn’t have anything at all in Courtenay in terms of Mexican and it is one of the major types that people like to eat. So it made sense for us on a couple different levels.”

When the restaurant first opened they featured a seasonal menu—spring, summer, fall, winter—but that made it very difficult for Metz to ever get away. Because there is always a certain amount of staff turnover in the restaurant business, it meant she was doing training every three months. Now they have a standard menu with a daily fresh sheet, which allows them to take advantage of the various seasonal foods.

Metz says they have good relationships with many local farmers and fishermen, so they feel they truly have access to the freshest, highest quality ingredients available. They also use organic products whenever possible, particularly for the staple items like beans and tortillas.

A quick look at their menu and you can almost feel the heat of the roasted poblano chiles just waiting to be quenched by the sweet tang of an icy blackberry margarita. Even though their appetizers featuring various authentic dips and tortillas as well as local seafood and shellfish with piquant sauces beckon, it’s the traditional dinners that really get the taste buds going. And it’s their Molé con Pollo for which they are famous.

According to their menu, “molés are the soul of fiestas and celebrations… a masterpiece of kitchen alchemy.” The sauce for their signature chicken dish features a blend of four different chiles, nuts, seeds, onions and chocolate. While none of the other dinners feature chocolate, they all have their own unique flavor combinations, including a couple of award-winning vegetarian dishes. For those of us who have trouble narrowing down the options, they also have a nice selection of tapas to sample, including taquitos, tamales, quesadillas and chimichangas, which can be shared on a platter or eaten alone with a couple side dishes.

Obviously, one should plan on saving room for at least one of the spectacular Mexican desserts. While the traditional flan and fresh fruit meringues are always crowd pleasers, the batter-fried banana with caramel sauce and the ancho chile chocolate ganache truly are rare treats to be savored slowly, preferably with an organic Mexican coffee.

Of course, if you just can’t squeeze in a dessert, you may just have to finish the meal off with one of the 25 varieties of tequila they have on hand. Just one more reason (or maybe 25 more reasons) why they have garnered an appreciative clientele over the years.

But it’s not just customers who are drawn to Tita’s, they are also known for being a great place to work. Just ask Heather Standish. She started as a server more than seven years ago, eventually became the manager, recently bought into the business and is now the other owner.

Both parties are excited about the new partnership. While Lisa and Martin are hoping to have a little more freedom to pursue overseas volunteer activities, Standish is happy about being a bigger part of a business that makes a difference in the community.

“It’s a fun place to work. You feel like part of a family, not just a cog in the wheel, and it’s a worthwhile place to be,” says Standish, “and I think the customers really pick up on that, too. Plus, I get to have fun experimenting with new margarita flavors, so that’s a real perk!”

Even though there is now another owner on the scene, there are no plans to make any big changes. “We’ll be carrying on as is because it’s a formula that is working,” says Standish. “We will just keep putting an emphasis on fresh, healthy and local food.”

One thing they are hoping to start this fall is tequila tastings. Standish says that tequilas should be treated like fine wines. With their distinctive aging and fermentation processes, there are many flavors and subtleties that people can learn to really appreciate.

“We are working with a tequila rep right now to arrange a dinner where there would be different tequilas to go with different tapas. So hopefully that will come together soon.”

With or without the tequila, spend some time in the warm embrace of Tita’s and you are sure to feel the magical enchantment of food made with passion and love.

Located at 536 – 6th Street in Courtenay, Tita’s Mexican Restaurant is open daily from 4:00 to 9:00 pm, and 10:00 pm Fridays and Saturdays.

For more information call 250-334-8033 or visit their website at www.tita.ca.
ooking, more about
like dance or music, dosage
is a form of expression that truly shines when infused with creativity and love. And like so many artistic pursuits, it is also best when shared.

Lisa and Martin Metz, founding owners of Tita’s Mexican Restaurant, have been sharing their passion for food with local residents since their business opened in the spring of 2000. They didn’t know what to expect when they first hatched the idea of bringing a taste of Mexico to the Comox Valley, but they should have had some inkling when they decided to name the place after the main character from the Mexican novel and movie Like Water for Chocolate.

“Tita is the youngest daughter, so she has to do all the cooking for her family. She falls in love with a man but isn’t allowed to be with him, so he ends up marrying her sister just to be near her,” says Lisa Metz. “So Tita uses her cooking as an outlet, and that is how she conveys her love for him and the whole range of her emotions in this horrible situation.”

In a classic example of Mexican literature’s magic realism, Tita’s quail in rose petal sauce fills her sister with such passion that she has to leave the dinner table to have a cold shower and the shower ends up bursting into flames.

You might not find rose petal sauce on the menu at Tita’s Restaurant, but you may just feel a little bit of magic when you spend an evening sampling their authentic Mexican fare. Then again, maybe it was the tequila… but I digress.

So, just how did a small, stucco Sixth Street house transform into a brilliant yellow Latin jewel surrounded by fruit trees and a lush patio garden, busy every night of the week with an ever-growing and constantly contented clientele? What’s the story behind this Tita?

Lisa Metz spent her teenage years in Courtenay and had family here when she returned to the Valley in 1999. “I came back because my mother had cancer and was dying, and this was my last chance to spend some time with her,” Metz says. “Then she started to get better and, of course, we wanted to believe she would continue to get better, so I had to get busy—I couldn’t just sit around doing nothing. So we decided to open the restaurant, which was a rather large thing to take on. She did eventually pass on, but here I am still doing this.”

“Rather large thing” is a bit of an understatement. It took eight months to turn the house into a fully functioning restaurant, nevertheless when they opened the doors people were literally standing in line to get in and have a meal.

“It was a little overwhelming at first. Right from the beginning we were outrageously, painfully busy—we had line-ups out on the sidewalk. And we were serving people very slowly because we didn’t know how to do things that fast,” Metz remembers with a laugh. “So that was the first thing that changed. We had to come up with very efficient systems to feed people more quickly.”

With Lisa working in the kitchen and Martin handling the bar and dining area, it was all hands on deck as they worked to catch their breath. After being open for just two years, they decided to add an addition to the east side of the house and expand the dining area—two very busy and successful years, obviously.