Journalist Sarah Efron explores strip malls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in search of the city's best ethnic food

Monday, February 28, 2011

Brazil's national dish is now available in Kensington Market

Kensington Market, a long time hotspot for all kinds of Latino foods, has now added Brazilian foods to the mix.

Segovia's at 218 Augusta Avenue is a little shop that sells Latin American sausages. It's run by Leonardo, a Chilean who moved to Toronto when he was four years old. Recently Leonardo's wife, who came to Canada from Brazil six years ago, started adding items from her home country to the shop, such as Brazilian bonbons.

Leo says the increasing number of Brazilian customers who came in for the goods started asking for Brazil's national dish, a type of stew called feijoada. In October, Segovia's started offering it on Saturday, as that's the day it's traditionally served in Brazil. "Then people started coming in on Fridays and asking if we had feijoada, and then on Thursdays, so now we serve it every day," says Leonardo. "It's Brazilian comfort food." A take-out container of the stew costs $8 plus tax.

Looks like a TV dinner, but tastes way better.
The dish is absolutely wonderful. It consists of black beans cooked with tender chunks of pork, smoked bacon and chorizo. It's served with rice, collard greens, toasted cassava flour, tomato salsa and orange slices. Each bite tastes different because of the combination of so many flavours.

It's worth noting that Segovia's also sells Chilean empanadas, and in fact, the better-known empanada joint next door, El Gordo, is an off-shoot of Segovia's and is owned by Leonardo's brother. Leonardo says his own empanadas are more traditional, "just like my grandma's." They contain wedges of boiled egg and olives.

El Gordo's empanadas, he says, are more commercial. In fact, El Gordo's empanadas are another product of a multicultural marriage—his brother's Korean wife created their kimchi empanada, one of the dozens of varieties that they sell.
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Friday, February 25, 2011

New York Subway's faithful burrito maker laments the closing down of the restaurant

***Update: New York Subway has now reopened.

I was alarmed to read on Eye Weekly's website that New York Subway, a truly wonderful burrito joint that I wrote about previously, was shutting down. Eye speculated that the building was being demolished.

I went down there to see what the situation is and Dino, the longtime burrito maker, said that indeed, this is New York Subway's last weekend...for a while. He said it will be closing down for four months for renovations to the shop to give it more space in the back, and also to coordinate with renovations going on at Olympic Fruit Market next door. Eye has updated their story with the same information confirmed by the owner, who is also the owner of Mother India in Parkdale.

"I'm 98% certain we will reopen," Dino said. He's well known in the neighbourhood as always being at New York Subway day or night. He often looks very serious and gloomy as he labours away in the restaurant so I was surprised when he said I should take a photo of the shop for him as a momento.

 "I've been working here for 14 and a half years, 13 hours a day," he said. "It's my body. It's a part of me."

Dino says during the renovations, he'll likely work at Mother India or the other wonderful restaurant that shares the same owners, Gandhi's Indian Cuisine.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

This classic greasy spoon diner is located inside a King West convenience store

If you're on trendy King West—home of a growing number of spas, doggie daycares and, um, doggie spas—just head to the UFO restaurant for a refreshingly unpretentious dining experience.

This place is an old-school diner tucked inside the Three Star convenience store at 241 Niagara Street at Adelaide. There's a flimsy plywood wall separating the restaurant tables from the rows of Glad garbage bags, cat food and Easy-Off.

This place is a family-friendly, and it's also popular with police and construction workers, who come in the back door for breakfast.

The UFO has a classic greasy spoon menu. A full breakfast is $4.95 ($5.50 after 11am) and a giant burger with bacon and cheese is $5.75. You can also get liver and onions, a hot hamburger sandwich and fish and chips.

The UFO and Three Star were opened up in 1982 by a local Greek family—hence the souvlaki on the menu and the old tourist posters of Greece on the wall. The place is currently run by a Vietnamese family. And why is it called the UFO? "I have no idea," the chef says.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

See naan being baked in a coal burning tandoori oven, just behind City Hall

Indian Biriyani House at 181 Dundas Street West between University and Bay looks a bit dingy from the outside, but it's worth checking out. This fast food Indian/Pakistani place has an old-style tandoori oven right behind the counter. If you order some naan you can see them baking it right before your eyes.

A tandoori oven is a cylindrical clay oven. According to the owner Ohidur Zaman, this is one of only a handful of tandoori ovens heated with coals and not gas in the city. When someone orders naan, Ohidur takes a ball of dough, stretches it out and sticks it directly on the interior wall of the oven. After a couple of minutes, he pierces it with a metal stick and pulls it out of the oven.

Here's the naan stuck to the side of the oven above the glowing coals.
The finished product: a wonderful, super fresh naan bread.
And as for the rest of the food, the meals are quite good for a fast-food, steam-tray type operation. The goat curry was intensely flavourful and the chicken korma was nicely spiced.

With the signs on the storefront saying the food was Indian-Pakistani and halal, I assumed the owners would be from Pakistan, but it turned out not to be the case. Ohidur and his family are actually from Bangladesh, but they serve Indian food because of its broader appeal.

On their website, the restaurant describes its food as "Indian Mughalai," meaning it comes from the Punjab region shared between India and Pakistan. Turns out many Indian restaurants are actually run by Bangladeshis. This New York Times article says that 95% of Indian restaurants in New York City are actually owned by Bangladeshis.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Peek Freans factory outlet: The land of misfit cookies

***update: The Peek Freans factory outlet has a new entrance and street address. It's now located at 5 Bermondsey Road. Tel 416 751 7120.  Read the new post here.

If you want to feel like a kid in a candy store head down to the Peek Freans factory outlet at 1250 O' Connor Drive at Bermondsey. It's attached to the Kraft Peek Freans factory.

All photos in this post by Jennifer Hollett
You can get massive bags containing hundreds of butter cookies, graham crackers or Ritz crackers for $2 to $7. Packages of Oreos are a $1.50, while a large box of Chips Ahoy cookies is just $6.50. Kids run around the store with excitement as their parents stock up on a winter's worth of snacks.

"This is the land of misfit cookies," a clerk explains. "These are cookies that are rejected because of minor imperfections--they're overweight or underweight, or they have too much creme." Sounds like perfection to me!

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Inside an Afghan bread factory in Scarborough

If you're from Afghanistan and living in Toronto and you need something, you'll likely end up at Saleem Caravan Farm at 565 Markham Road in Scarborough. They sell halal pizza and woven carpets; you can get your passport photo taken and exchange money; you can get your computer fixed and buy into a new apartment complex in Kabul. But the best reason to come here is the wonderful Afghani bread.
All photos on this post by Jennifer Hollett
We asked to take a peek inside the kitchen in the back where they bake the bread, and the friendly manager Tariq was happy to oblige. The bread is called naan, but it's bigger than Indian naan, explains Tariq, so it can be shared amongst the very large Afghan families.

The various varieties of bread are rolled out and put into a giant oven that cooks 50 loaves of bread at once. The oven is 560 degrees, says Tariq, so the bread only takes five or six minutes to cook. 

Yummy warm blankets of bread emerge from the oven. There are whole wheat and buttered varieties with sesame and black seed. The bolani is a flat bread stuff with leeks, potato and veggies--it makes a wonderful meal all by itself. 

Saleem Caravan makes around 500 loaves of bread a day during the week and close to 1,000 on the weekends and it's all sold right here in the shop. They sell for just $1.25 or $2.00.

The also have a food counter that they start filling up in the early afternoon. We had a type of pilaf rice with carrots and raisins and some wonderfully tender beef, plus spinach, dahl made with tomatoes and a flat type of samosa stuffed with meat and onion. For drinks, there's a carbonated yogurt soda--the bottle says to shake before drinking, with somewhat explosive results.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is the best new poutine place in Toronto closing down already?

Note: Post updated below

Poutine Plus, a new restaurant that opened a few months ago on 657 Queen Street West at Bathurst, is now temporarily closed under mysterious circumstances.  Spice City Toronto wrote out this kitschy place a few months ago in the post My French Canadian boyfriend says this is the best poutine in Toronto

I heard reports a few days ago that the place was closed. I went by and saw this rather cryptic sign on the door. 

The sign says "Poutine Plus Ltd. is closed due to structural problems within and around our premise. Poutine Plus Ltd. has been closed several days due to these problems which are in no way as a result of how we intended to conduct our business. Please accept our apologies to our New and Regular Guests...."

Huh? It was rather cryptic so I sent an email. Poutine Plus responded: "We have had some problems with the plumbing...We hope to have it done soon."

We hope so too! 

Update on March 14, 2011: The place has a for lease sign in the window and it's empty inside, so doesn't look it will open again at this location. Previously there was a for rent sign for the apartment upstairs, but this new sign is definitely for the business space. 

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Want to drop $1,000 on a package of saffron? Head to this wonderful Persian superstore

Imagine a bulk barn of quality Persian delights and you'll get the rough idea of Tavazo, located at 7345 Yonge Street north of Steeles.

I was tipped off about this place by Alex, the friendly owner Memories of Africa, a South African store on Eglinton East. Tavazo is packed with high quality nuts and dried fruits and other oddities. The claim to fame here is the tasty pistachios, which come from Iran and California.

All photos in this post by Dana Lacey

Tavazo has been in Toronto for eight years, says the owner, Nathan Tavazo. It has been a family business in Iran for decades. There's also another location at 10309 Yonge St in Richmond Hill.

The pistachios don't disappoint, and there's also a wonderful selection of dates. Each barrel is labelled with the name of the city in Iran where the dates were grown.

Mr. Tavazo
The lovely clerks Tara and Sama
There were a bunch of strange items that I had to try. Roasted watermelon seeds with oregano (kind of sour), jujube fruit (a prune-like dried fruit), and mulberries (tasted a bit like strawberry marshmallow candy). There was also saffron candy, a rock hard type of sugar candy.
Saffron candy
Dried kiwi
Turkish delight
The most spectacular item was the package of saffron that is kept under this counter for safe keeping. Saffron is a spice that is made out of the parts of a crocus and is used to make the wonderfully fluffy Persian rice. It sells at $5,000 a kilo, so this package of 200 grams will set you back $1,000. This saffron is purchased by Iranian and Italian restaurants.


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