Tacos Without Borders

Sugar Skull Cantina opens its doors in historic downtown Charlottetown, offers Central American flavours along with vacation-like experience

When chef Jane Crawford was five years old, her parents would take her to a pizza restaurant and she’d ask for escargot as a topping. Whoever was waiting on the table would ask, “For real? It’s not a joke?”

“My parents were super impressed and probably scared when I was really little,” said Crawford, about her love for food as a child.

The first thing she learned to make, at six years old, was a dijon vinaigrette. Most of her friends were only learning to boil water for Kraft DinnerTM, which is still pretty impressive for six. Dijon vinaigrette!? Some of my adult friends can still barely boil water. By now, you can see the direction things were going for Crawford.

She earned her first culinary degree in Denver, Colorado. Shortly thereafter she made the jump overseas to study in Italy, earning a degree from the Italian Culinary Institute in Asti. She then studied in Provence, France, where she worked with master chef René Bérard, earning a diploma from him.

Fast forward to May 2017, and chef Crawford, along with business partners Mike Ross and Brett Hogan, is getting ready to open Sugar Skull Cantina in the building that formerly housed Sirenella Ristorante on Water St in Charlottetown.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever done,” said Crawford.

Chef Jane Crawford (pictured), along with Mike Ross and Brett Hogan, make up the trio behind Sugar Skull Cantina. Photo Credit: Evan Ceretti

Sugar Skull’s focus is on “tacos without borders” and hand-crafted margaritas. The trio’s goal is to replicate an authentic, laid-back Central American atmosphere, where people can feel like they’re on vacation without having to leave downtown Charlottetown.

The overall restaurant vibe will be Mexican, but it will showcase Central American dishes, including Nicaraguan fare. It will also feature Asian influences and other world-renowned flavours. “We love the whole world,” Crawford said, by way of explaining the “tacos without borders” reference.

None of this would be happening if Crawford hadn’t teamed up with Ross and Hogan. A couple of years ago, when Crawford was working as executive chef at Redwater Rustic Grille, she unexpectedly received a private message on Twitter from Ross asking about her career.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be doing this. They’re a huge part of my world.”

Needless to say, she met up with the two, who already had HopYard in the cooker, and everything kind of fell into place.

“HopYard was their thing. I was just going to be sort of a piece to the puzzle that would fit in from the culinary side of things. It really bloomed.”

That puzzle piece fit perfectly. HopYard opened just over a year ago and has become a go-to spot for food junkies, craft beer lovers, and vinyl enthusiasts alike. The rotating menu features a smorgasbord of flavours to dive into, catering to anyone and everyone.
Sugar Skull, on the other hand, has a fixed menu, but will feature daily specials based on seasonal Island crops and daily catches.

The former parking lot in front of the restaurant has been converted into an outdoor patio. There are two sliding garage doors to create an open-air feeling, complementing the easygoing energy. Coolers have been replaced with older white fridges, which are fully stocked with bottles of Modelo and Corona. There is no draught beer to be had, because–well, how often do you seek out craft beer bars while on the beach in Cozumel? The walls are covered in bright, welcoming murals painted by local artists.

Photo Credit: Evan Ceretti

“We want people to feel like it’s totally unique… there will be lots of crazy flavours. Lots of really cool local shellfish, seafood, and locally-sourced pork and beef. We’ll have some really cool options for tequila. And we’ll have a lot of handcrafted margaritas that will have really different flavours to them that you don’t find anywhere else. Everything will be smoked in-house. The tortillas are going to be authentic white corn tortillas.”

One of the culinary highlights will be the al pastor machine. ‘Tacos al pastor’ is marinated meat grilled on a spit, which is popular throughout Mexico. The Sugar Skull tacos al pastor consists of spit-roasted chicken with mole and coffee mayo, poblano slaw, and fresh scallion on a corn tortilla. Hungry yet?

Another draw will be the street corn, adding to the non-posh, relaxed atmosphere. The corn isn’t actually served on the street, as the name suggests. “We’ll have it in the kitchen. We’ll boil it, season it, and butter it, and cheese it, and drizzle it,” said Crawford. Everything will be served on eco-friendly cardboard boats.

Vegetarians and vegans will not be disappointed. A veg taco on the menu consists of candied yam, habanero guacamole, pickled cauliflower salsa, black bean sour cream, cilantro dressing, and crispy garbanzo beans. (Writing this is making me disturbingly hungry.)

“I feel if you’re vegetarian, vegan, whatever you are, however you decide to eat, whatever works for you, I feel like everybody should have the best of everything.” She doesn’t want vegetarian dishes to be afterthoughts, as they so commonly are at many restaurants.

“We’re very, very adamant about making sure that we have the best possible ingredients to showcase, and that [every dish] is a beautiful dish – it always should be.”

Photo credit: Evan Ceretti

For those wanting to get their lips wet, don’t worry. Sugar Skull will offer a margarita program. The program features nine unique virgin margaritas, and it’s up to the guest to decide what type of tequila they want. Some will be sweet, some will be smoky, some high-end, some not so much. Micheladas, which are to Central America what Caesars are to Canada, will also be served.

The crew teamed up with Maritime Madness to come up with a unique Sugar Skull hot sauce. Three of Maritime Madness’ staple brands with also be available for those looking to spice things up a notch or two.

The sugar skulls themselves are a symbol of the Mexican holiday El Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). “It’s not something sinister, or dark,” said Crawford. Mexicans celebrate the passing of loved ones by eating the colourful, sugary, skull-shaped candies while sharing stories of lost loves.

“I think the three of us, we make such a cool, motley crew. We all have really different strengths. We’ll definitely do something else. I can’t say what it is right now, but it’s just going to come to us. You throw a couple [ideas] out, and suddenly you’re standing in and renovating the Sugar Skull Cantina.”

The restaurant is set to open in late May, so by the time you’re reading this, you may have already had the pleasure of going on your own hometown vacation to Central America, Water St-style.

About Evan Ceretti

Evan is a vegetarian foodie and freelancer based in Charlottetown. His two greatest loves are food and travel, which just so happen to be the perfect pairing. A graduate of Holland College’s journalism program, and of UPEI’s print journalism program, Evan enjoys writing about the local food scene as well as writing about gastronomic journeys from the other side of the world. He’s had to luxury of visiting 30 countries and traveling for more than 1,000 days. In Charlottetown, you’ll either see him riding his bicycle, eating curry, taking photos, or playing ultimate frisbee. Follow him on IG @Evanontheroad, and on Facebook at Evan on the Road.

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