Exploring strip malls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in search of the city's best international food

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The best and worst of Spice City in 2011

I've had a blast exploring all corners of the city in search of great ethnic food in 2011. In addition to enjoying countless great meals, I've had a chance to chat with fascinating people at restaurants and on Twitter and Facebook. Special thanks to Torontoist and AutoShare for their support.

Here's a round up of some of the best, worst and strangest things I've encountered on my food adventures this year.

Best hang out: You can easy end up spending an afternoon chatting with the friendly folks at the Haitian restaurant St. Clair Bakery & La Belle Jacmeliene in Scarborough.

Most memorable dessert: Gourmet Garden serves up a crazy crushed ice dish called ais kacang. The ice is sweetened with syrup and comes with strings of jelly, salted peanuts, creamed corn, red beans and sweet basil seeds.

Worst meal: I was excited to find this little Nigerian restaurant, Planet Nollywood, in the India-Africa mall, but we were served chunks of lukewarm, burned chunks of meat by a sullen waitress. Barely edible.

Best renovation: It's been amazing to see the transformation of El Gordo's empanada shop in Kensington into a full on hub of Latin cuisine, complete with a tranquil back patio.

Craziest burger: Novo Horozonte's Brazilian "sheesh burger" comes with a baggie around it to keep the ridiculous amount of toppings on it: it comes loaded with chicken, bacon, a fried egg, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pieces of corn and thin-cut french fries.

The spiciest food: When I ate the dumplings in chili sauce at Ding Tai Fung in Markham my throat literally constricted and I had trouble breathing for two or three minutes.

Best community effort: I'm constantly impressed by the enthusiasm of the rag-tag bunch of vendors serving food out of old containers at Scadding Court.

Worst service: A staff member at MJ's BBQ & Suya screamed at me and threatened to call the police if I didn't delete my photos, even though I had asked another staff member for permission. I threw my money on the table and left before my meal arrived.

Best restaurant run by a cult: Green Earth serves vegetarian food and follows the teachings of the Supreme Master.

Strangest dish: The charming Motherhome Myanmar Cuisine serves the traditional Burmese dish of fermented tea leaves, an incredibly bitter meal that I think you need to grow up with in order to appreciate.

Most surprising foodie find: I was amazed to discover an excellent ethnic food court inside the flea market by Downsview Airport.

Best part of the GTA for food: This may surprise you downtown dwellers, but Scarborough can't be beat if you love cheap ethnic eats.

Spice City Toronto will be back in the new year. Have a great holiday and keep sending in restaurant tips.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Awesome Toronto street food: grilling jerk chicken on the sidewalk at 4 in the morning

There's been endless handwringing about Toronto's lack of street food options, but if you know where to go, you'll find some world-class street eats here. You've got to feel a blush of pride in our city when you watch jerk chicken being grilled over coal fires on the sidewalks of Eglinton West.

Three rival Jamaican restaurants, Spence's Bakery, Rap's and Hot Pot Restaurant (at 1539, 1541, 1545 Eglinton West) pull out oil drums that have been converted into barbecues nightly around 7pm and start grilling jerk chicken. The tradition was started in the 1990s by Spence's, and the years of smoke have left the restaurant's main awning completely charred. Rap's has had the same man grilling it's chicken, Horace Francis, for twenty years. 

"When we first started doing this, I wasn't sure if it would take off," says Horace Rose, the owner of Rap's, "For sure, I didn't think it would work during the winter." 

Not only does the barbecuing take place year-round, it goes until 6 in the morning on the weekends, and until 5am on other nights. "People go party at the clubs and everybody comes here to eat after," says Roy, the jerk pork specialist at Hot Pot (pictured below).  

For all three restaurants, the chicken is marinated and partially cooked inside, then transported to the grill to be finished off. Grilling specialists douse the grill with water from plastic pop bottles. You purchase a $5, $7 or $10 container inside the restaurant and bring it out to be filled up at the grill. 

The chicken has a delightfully smokey flavour. It's a bit on the dry side, but this can be remedied by dousing the meat with the sweet, tangy hot sauce. Hot Pot's jerk pork was even better: juicy and much spicier than the chicken. 

For the Eglinton West's sizeable Jamaican community, the steel drums are the taste of home. "I started eating at drums back in the 1970s in Jamaica, " Horace Rose says. "In the evening, people put out drums on the street and you can go and buy a whole chicken. Ever since this time it's been something special for me." 

Thanks to Andrew D. for the tip. 

Spence's Bakery is at 1539 Eglinton West; Rap's is at 1541 Eglinton West and Hot Pot Restaurant is at 1545 Eglinton West. They are just a few blocks away from Eglinton West subway station. The restaurants start grilling most nights around 6:30 or 7pm and go until 5 or 6 am.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Mongrel Chinese cooking with an Indian kick

What do you get when you take a group of culinary minded Chinese people to India, home of many of the world's greatest spices, and have them refine their cooking for local tastes for several generations? You end up creating Indian-style Hakka Chinese food, such as the fare served at Danforth Dragon at 861 Danforth Ave. 

Danforth Dragon owner Anthony Lin is hakka, meaning he speaks the hakka dialect of Chinese. His grandfather took a two-month boat ride to flee China for India to avoid political instability and violence. Anthony was born and raised in Calcutta.

"Hakka people are like gypsies," says Anthony (pictured below). "They travel everywhere." Anthony says as the third generation of his family to live in India, he doesn't know much about China, but he still speaks hakka at home and cooks hakka food. However, Hakka cooking evolved considerably in India over the years. "Our food has an Indian twist," he says. "It is Chinese food for Indian taste buds, so it's spicier."

The Danforth Dragon's jeera beef dish ($9.50) is a good example of the hybrid techniques. It's marinated in a Chinese style, using soy and potato starch to make it tender. It's also infused with a strong dose of cumin seed and garlic, giving it punchy flavour that resembles a Pakistani lamb skewer.

Chili paneer with Chinese greens (below; $8.99) is another great dish, featuring flavourful Indian cheese and Chinese cabbage stir fried with onion and soy. Many of the dishes are peppered with bits of green chili, which pack a fiery punch. It's also worth paying 99 cents for the hakka-style special hot sauce—a slightly sweet concoction made with chilis and garlic.
The spicy egg roll is better than expected, with minced pork, fresh green peas, and a bit of curry flavour. Hakka style fried rice ($7.99) is a spicier version of the Chinese classic.

The evolution of hakka food hasn't stopped since its arrival in Canada: Anthony also serves what he calls "North American Chinese" food such as chicken balls, chop suey, General Tso's chicken and lemon chicken, to cater to his mostly Canadian-born clientele.

Danforth Dragon is one of the only Indian-style hakka place in Toronto proper, but Scarborough is chock full of hakka places, some Indian-style and some with more traditional fare. Scarborough is also home to many Jamaican restaurants that are run by Chinese—turns out that most of the Chinese population in Jamaica is also of Hakka origin.

Thanks to Neeraj Singh for the tip. 

Danforth Dragon is at 861 Danforth Ave. between Pape and Donlands. Tel: 416 461-9238. Hours: open Monday to Friday, 11:30am to 10:00 pm; Saturday 4pm to 10pm; Closed on Sunday and holidays. Delivery in the local area starting at 1pm daily.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

The best ethnic restaurants in Toronto, displayed on Google Maps

By popular demand, I've created a Google Map of all the restaurants I've visited while writing this blog. Lovers of cheap ethnic food can quickly see which places are located near each other when planning expeditions to new parts of town, and they can look to see if there's any spots they should visit in their own neighbourhoods.

View Spice City Toronto GTA Map in a larger map

This is a companion map to the Spice City Toronto World Food Map, which shows the same restaurants on a map of the world based on the food's country of origin.

Happy travels and please keep me updated on your Toronto food adventures. —Sarah

Twitter: @spicecityto
Facebook: www.facebook.com/SpiceCityToronto
Email: spicecityto at gmail dot com

Thanks to Valerie, Shawn and Ian for the suggestion.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A visit to Toronto's Persian Plaza

Food lovers be warned: A first walk through North York's Persian Plaza is overwhelming. Every shop is brimming with familiar and not-so-familiar Iranian hot food, baked goods and meats.

The Persian Plaza is located at Yonge Street in North York, just south of Steeles. It was originally a multi-ethnic plaza, but in the mid-1990s, it morphed into what it is today: one stop shopping for members of the nearby Persian community who want to make use of tailors, video shops, travel agencies and money transfer services run by their compatriots.

The Iranian businesses are not contained to this one strip mall. Both sides of the street of the surrounding blocks are dotted with Middle Eastern speciality stores.

All the food shops sell similar fare, and competition amongst them keeps quality high. Super Zamani (above), a meat shop across from the plaza at 6120 Yonge Street, is a refreshingly clean and organized shop with Iranian groceries, breads an a take-out counter serving kebabs. 

In Persian Plaza, Arzon Food Market (below) is a maze of tiny aisles packed with giant tubs of silky Persian-style feta, and jars of cedrate jam (a citrus fruit) and carrot jam (yep, Iranians eat this on toast apparently). Arzon has a take-out counter where kebabs are grilled over charcoal. The juicy, salty taste of the beef kebab ($6.99) did not disappoint. It was served on a bed or rice that was punctuated with lentils and tiny raisins. 

Pars Food, also in the plaza, is a family business run by Pouria Khoshkhou (below), who is originally from Tehran. His shop sells dozens of kinds of picture-perfect Persian sweets—delicate sugary pastries made with saffron, pistachios and walnuts.

The store also has a wide selection of Persian breads, most of which are made at Pars Food's other location at 365 John Street in Thornhill. "Our breads are all hand made, with no chemicals or preservatives," says Pouria. "They're made of flour, salt and yeast—that's all."

My favourite of the breads is sangak, a whole wheat sour dough topped with sesame seeds. It has a tangy tart taste and is wonderfully chewy and stretchy. The shop also has lavash (a super thin bread) and barbari (a thick, textured flat bread), as well as sweet breads made with fresh dates, walnuts, cinnamon and vanilla. 

The hot food counter in the back serves a wide selection of Persian stews made with eggplant, spinach, lentils, and coriander. They are served with rice flavoured with dill, parsley and fava beans. However, the koobideh kebab seems to be the most coveted menu item by the clientele: it's a marinated meat kebab that sells for just $3.99 with rice. 
You won't go wrong with a kebab in the Persian Plaza, but if you're in the mood for risk, there's no shortage of novel products to try. Hookahs for smoking tobacco and herbal mixtures are on display, as well as herb waters, such as cumin water, that are supposed to help you with a stomach ache, kidney pain or to lose or gain weight. The Persian ice cream (faloodeh, below) is another oddity for Western palates: it's a seemingly alien concoction made of saffron, rosewater, pistachio and thin vermicelli noodles. 

Thanks to Ruth of the Toronto Multicultural Calendar blog for the tip. 

Pars Food is located at 6089 Yonge Street;  telephone 416-223-0020. Super Arzon is located at 6103 Yonge Street, telephone 416 222 4726. Super Zamani is located 6120 Yonge Street, telephone 416 250-7314. 

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stellar patties and reggae tunes in Toronto's Little Jamaica

Want to try some wonderful Jamaican patties and buy suspiciously cheap reggae CDs in one stop? Head to Randy's Take-Out, a classic Caribbean joint at 1569 Eglinton Ave. West in Toronto's Little Jamaica neighbourhood. 

"We've been on this block since 1978," explains Jennifer, one of the shop's owners, in her soft Jamaican lilt. She's part of a Chinese-Jamaican family that runs the restaurant.

Customers line up to get piping hot patties for $1.33 each. Each patty has a delicate, flakey crust. We quickly inhale the beef patty, which is filled with a spicy paste, and the chicken patty, made with hot peppers and curry spices.

The vegetable patty is surprisingly tasty, and includes callaloo, a Caribbean leaf vegetable. The ackee and saltfish patty isn't on the menu, but it's worth asking for: the smooth taste of the ackee fruit and lip-smacking saltiness of the codfish make Jamaica's national dish a wonderful combination. 

At the counter, make sure you clarify if you want one single patty or one box of patties—many of the customers here buy them by the box. Fresh patties are $13.50 a dozen or $13 frozen. In addition to the patties, curry goat and oxtail are also on the menu. 

If the island food gets you in the mood to hear some great reggae tunes, you're in luck. During our visit, vendors speaking in thick Jamaican patois were peddling compilations of Jamaican tunes right inside the shop. At $3 a CD, you can't go wrong.

Randy's is located at 1569 Eglinton Ave. West at Oakwood. Hours of operation are Monday to Thursday 11am to 8pm; Friday 11am to 9pm; Saturday 11am to 6:30pm, Sunday closed. Randy's is cash-only and there's no seating. 

Thanks to Tonya from What's on my plate for the tip. 

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Excellent halal grilled meat across from the Danforth mosque

In the shadow of the beautiful Madina Masjid mosque at Danforth and Donlands, there's a solid block of  of halal restaurants. Makkah restaurant, located in the middle of the block at 1020 Danforth, is known in the neighbourhood for its top notch Pakistani and Indian eats. Makkah is the formal name of the city of Mecca, which is depicted in a large photo in the restaurant's dining room. 

Grilled meats are one of the specialities here. On my first visit, I had a plate of piping hot spiced beef kebabs for just $5. It came with salad and naan bread, which is baked in clay oven in the front window of the shop (see photo above). The plate came with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce that was so tasty I had to eat the very last drop.

On a subsequent visit, I tried the tandoori chicken (below). This tender pink chicken is marinated in spices and yogurt and broiled over charcoal, giving the edges an authentic barbecue flavour.

I also sampled some food from the steam tray. If you're expecting the lukewarm, bland, overcooked fare you normally get from Indian steam tray restaurants, you're in for a pleasant surprise. I ordered the meat thali for $6.99. I got chili chicken--big chunks of good quality boneless chicken coated with an intense layer of spices. It came with piping hot dahl with telltale red chilis sticking out to warn you of its fieriness. The plate also came with perfectly cooked mixed veggies and an entire plate of pilau rice.

The restaurant was established 18 years ago by two owners from Bangladeshi, although some staff, like the charming man above, come from India. The customers come from a wide range of backgrounds and neighbourhoods.

"I live downtown but I come here because I love spicy food," enthuses one client, Farhad. "I'm from Pakistan originally. My mom was too tired to cook today, so I came here. This place feels like home." He ordered two whole tandoori chickens ($15.95 each) to go.

There are some other interesting items on offer here: you can get tandoori quail, complete with salad and rice or naan, for $7.99, and foot-long kebab sandwiches for $4.49. On Tuesdays, they offer their spicy chicken biryani for a eyebrow-raising price of just $3.49.

Thanks to Miguel and Neeraj for the tip. 
Makkah restaurant is located at 1020 Danforth Avenue at Donlands. Tel: 416 406-2500. Delivery from 3pm til 11pm with $15 minimum order. Makkah has a second location at 2980 Danforth Ave at Victoria Park. Tel 416 693 2222. 

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Slushed ice soup and other tasty Korean specialities

"You've got to try Korean cold noodle soup," enthused my friend Hannah. "The broth is made of slushed ice."

Slushie soup sounded pretty terrible, I thought, but figured that Hannah, a Korean-Canadian writer who had explored the subject in a Toronto Star story, was worth listening to. We went to Tofu Village at 681 Bloor Street West to try the dish. 

While listening to sickly sweet K-pop music, we ordered up a sizeable feast. Tofu Village is known for its soon tofu (above). Pronounced "soon doo boo," it's a soft, creamy tofu served in a stone pot. You're given a raw egg, which you crack into the piping hot dish when it arrives at your table.

We ordered two kinds of slushed ice soup: the mul naengmyeon (above, $8.95) is made of cold buckwheat noodles in broth. Hannah explained that food trends are huge in Korea, and this dish has become popular in Korean restaurants around the world recently.

The noodles feel strangely cold in your throat, but the slushy texture of the broth is pleasing. The dish's punchy flavour, provided by the daikon, sesame seeds and spicy pepper paste, quickly won me over. The bibim naengmyeon (below; $8.95) had very little broth, but also featured cold buckwheat noodles.

More and more great dishes kept rolling out from the kitchen. The seafood and tofu pancakes were fried delight, and I was thrilled to see the stir fried spicy rice cake arrive at the table. I tried these alien-like bright orange sticks on the street of Seoul during a brief stopover a few years back. The chewy, spicy combo makes this memorable dish.

The Korean BBQ beef ribs, called galbi, were also excellent. Marinated in a sweet soy sauce, this meat is incredibly tender.

Following Korean tradition, the waitress gave us the pot the rice was cooked in with some hot water added to it. Hannah explained that historically, impoverished Koreans would eat the rice stuck to the pot's edges this way to avoid wasting any rice.

Tofu Village is at 681 Bloor Street West, Toronto. Tel: 647-345-3836. There is another location at 8362 Kennedy Rod, A06, Markham, Ontario; tel: 905 415-0077. Hours 7 days a week, 11am to 10:30pm. 

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