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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Tamil strip mall: Get six amazing dishes served on a banana leaf for $6

Update as of March 2015: The Steeles/Markham Road location of Amma is now closed. They had another location at 723 Kennedy Road, which is also closed. The Steeles/Markham Road plaza still has a ton of great Sri Lankan eats, including Poorani Vilaas and New Spiceland Restaurant and Grocery. 

Tamil cuisine is some of the tastiest food in the world. Lucky for Toronto, we have a large Tamil population from Sri Lanka and South India, so this food is available if you know where to find it. Tamil food is notable for its high spice levels, and it has a different combination of flavours and spices than Indian food. 

A shiny new strip mall—or rather, series of strip malls—at the Markham/Scarborough border is a great place to try authentic Tamil food. The Market East complex at the south east corner of Steeles Ave. East and Markham Rd., which opened up about two years ago, houses a grocery store, money transfer agency, dental office, jewellery shop and a newspaper that cater to the nearby Tamil community. 

There are two Sri Lankan take-out only restaurants that offer a mind-blowing variety of food for super low prices. Amma's Take Out & Catering (3351 Markham Road Unit A126, Tel: 416-754-1211) is a busy place where customers line up to get their orders. And no wonder.

They serve kothu roti, a wonderful dish made of chopped up roti bread cooked with meat. Also on the menu is string hoppers, a rice noodle dish served with curry, and pittu, a rolled cylinder of rice with coconut. 

I'd recommend trying one of the rice and curry meals served on a banana leaf, which is the traditional way of eating Tamil food. The meat version is $7.50 while the vegetarian one is just $6.00 (on special for $5.00 on Fridays). Below you can see the fish and veggie versions being served up.

The vegetarian meal was made up of wonderful variety of tasty dishes: an okra and tomato stew, a spicy salad with tomatoes, a mixture of ground banana flowers, a curry made of long beans and potatoes, shredded beets, dahl, and a generous portion of rice. Plus, it came with pappadam, a cup of soup and a dessert made of tapioca. 

One banana leaf meal is easily enough food to share between two or even three people. The photo below is of the meal, along with a mutton roll, some buns stuffed with various curried meats and vadai (chick pea fritters). Total bill: $12.

Similar fare is available at Poorani Vilaas take-out restaurant, in one of the other plazas in the complex (6055 Steeles Ave. East, unit 104, tel: 416-355-7775.) 

The friendly owner, Saroginidevy Ratnavel, was keen to show off her tasty "short eats," which are fried or baked street foods. Some are empanada-like pastries stuffed with tasty fish and potato curries, while others are timbitesque sweets you can enjoy after your meal...if you are not completely stuffed. 

Thanks to Vicky Tam for the tip and Jennifer Hollett for the photo assistance.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A great new patio in Kensington Market serves up the best in Latin American cuisine

El Gordo restaurant has been an essential stop in Kensington Market for years, thanks to its tasty Chilean-style empanadas. Recently, El Gordo (214 Augusta Ave., see map below) got even better, as it became the site of half a dozen stalls selling food from Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador. But the latest development takes the cake: El Gordo just opened a wonderful patio for customers out back. It's the perfect place to enjoy some great food and relax on a sunny afternoon in Kensington. 

New stalls inside the restaurant meant there was less space for customers to eat their empanadas. Now they can enjoy them on the patio.
The patio was previously a parking lot.

The owner Alfonso (centre) with his wife and son. His wife, who is Korean, created the shop's kimchi empanadas.
El Gordo's owner, the Chilean native Alfonso Segovia, says he and his family (his brother Leo runs Segovia's next door) were waiting to get a better lease before subleasing stalls to other merchants inside the building. "Latin food wasn't emphasized much in the city, except for tacos and burritos and the regular commercial crap," says Alfonso. "We wanted to create something where food was made fresh."

He says the reaction has been amazing. "Our customers are never bored because they can come in every day and try something new from a different country." The patio adds to the mix by giving customers a place to enjoy their food away from the bustle of the city. "It's like another world back here," says Alfonso. "In the summer, I plant roses and sunflowers here."

Agave & Aguacate is a Mexican food stall that's been getting rave reviews from foodies.
Arepas, a corn flour sandwiches popular in Venezuela, are now available. 
The original attraction: empanadas.
Alfonso plans to make the most of the sprawling backyard by expanding the patio, putting a cooking school in the garage and having bands play at the back. In fact, on Pedestrian Sunday (this Sunday, May 29, 2011), a Latin jazz DJ will be playing from 12pm to 7pm. It's a great opportunity to check out what will likely become one of your favourite spots in the market.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

After five years of renovations, Lahore Tikka House shows off its new digs this weekend

Lahore Tikka House is legendary in Toronto for two things: mouth-watering Pakistani food and being in a permanent state of renovation. 

For at least five years, this former KFC at 1365 Gerrard Street East has been under construction. The main dining space has been a series of trailers cobbled together, and in the summer, a pitched tent in the parking lot was used for outdoor dining. 

But in the last few weeks, the trailers were removed and the dining space and front entrance are now in the main building. This is the building where the bathrooms are, and it's been used as a dining hall in recent years when the restaurant is busy. Starting this weekend, Lahore Tikka House will serve food in a tent on the site of the old trailers. 
The latest incarnation of the Tikka house, with a tent where the trailers were. 
A new rickshaw was shipped in from Bangladesh.
While the new digs are definitely classier, some patrons felt sad to see the trailer go. Owner Alnoor Sayani, a Ugandan immigrant of Pakistani descent, tells the story of a elderly female customer who had tears in eyes when she saw the trailers were gone: she used to come to the restaurant with her husband, who has since passed away, and she would often come back and sit at their favourite table. 

Another family that comes in several times a week came to the new space with their four year old daughter. But she wasn't fooled. "I wanna go to Lahore Tikka House," she told her father. But when she tried the food and realized it was the same, she relaxed.  

The manager Yasar Mirza with owner Alnoor Sayani
While the bigger space lacks the intimacy of the old trailers, its colourful decor gives it a festive atmosphere. Manager Yasar Mirza, who has worked at Lahore Tikka House for ten years, says the space was designed to look like tents that are commonly pitched along the street in Pakistan to accomodate large weddings. "We want people to feel like they're in Pakistan when they walk in," he says. "I don't really miss Pakistan since I moved to Canada because I'm always here."

Yasar inside the new tent.
So how does he feel now that the renovations are finally over? "We're still working on it actually," explains Yasar. "We'll be done by the end of the summer hopefully." 

Next on the to-do-list is to get the second floor dining space ready and to knock out the narrow hallway between two parts of the kitchen so diners can see all the food being prepared. "I'm not tired of the renovations," says Alnoor. "It keeps things exciting. It's good to have the restaurant constantly changing, as long as the food isn't changing."
The kitchen, where several thousand naan bread are prepared daily, is visible from the dining hall.
Mmmm, spicy lentils.
Lahore Tikka's magical butter chicken.
Indeed, the food was marvelous as always. These perfectly spiced dishes are best enjoyed on plastic plates and followed with a pistachio kulfi ice cream popsicle. 

Photos in this post by Dana Lacey.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Eat your way across Latin America at North York's Plaza Latina

A bleak stretch of semi-industrial land in North York is home to a bustling Latino mall with an amazing food court. On a Sunday afternoon, it's almost impossible to get a parking spot at the Plaza Latina at 9 Milvan Drive near West Finch (see map below).

There are Latin American grocery stores, a barber shop and a temporary labour office in the plaza, but the main attraction is the food court. It's packed with young families and an overwhelming selection of Central and South American food.

The Chilean restaurant and bakery, Auténica (above), specializes in sandwiches, such as the Chilean classic pork sandwich lomito ($5.50). I sampled a tasty churrasco Italiano sandwich on freshly made bread with strips of grilled beef and mashed avocado. 

Auténica has a wide selection of large empandas: beef, chicken, chorizo, seafood, cheese, ham & cheese, spinach & feta. They also serve humitas, a dish made of corn dough and wrapped in corn husk, and pastel del choclo, a casserole made with ground corn. For dessert, they have alfajors (a type of South American cookie), flan and strudel.

Chilango Tacos is a Mexican food joint that serves some wonderful looking tacos el pastor, as well as quesadillas and soups. La Costenita Colombiana offers seafood, fried fish and grilled beef dishes served with rice, beans, egg and plantain. They also have paella and oxtail soup. 

Pupuseria El Buen Sabor serves the cuisine that has literally shaped the people of El Salvador. (I've been to the country and couldn't help but make a connection between the popularity of the lard-based tortillas and the pear-shaped figures of country's women.) The tiny restaurant serves pupusas stuffed with cheese, beans, zucchini or loroco, a type of flower bud used in Central American cooking.

La Cubanita (below) serves a large range of dishes from Cuba, including soups, chicken stew, shrimp dishes and pork sandwiches.

There are two Ecuadorian places in the plaza. La Fuente del Puro Sabor (above) is a juice bar where they make fresh juice from papaya, melon, orange, soursop and other fruits. Comedor Popular Ecuatoriano (below) serves fried beef empanadas and sopas de gallina, or hen soup. This wonderfully salty concoction has big chunks of chicken breast as well as carrot, potato, noodles and cilantro.

A hearty meal in the food court sells for $5 to $12. Wash it all down with the Peruvian soft drink Inca Cola.

Thanks to Gilbert, Coopspeak and PanCanCooks for the tip.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sample the food and culture of Haiti at this Scarborough bakery

Every now and then I stumble across a place in my quest for unusual restaurants that is so removed from my day to day realities in downtown Toronto that I feel like I've travelled to some far-flung country. If you want a wonderful cultural experience, save yourself a plane ticket and head up to the St. Clair Bakery & La Belle Jacmelienne at 3545 St. Clair Ave. East at Kennedy in Scarborough (map below).
It turns out there's another bakery in Toronto called St. Clair Bakery near Old Weston Road. I haven't been there but I can guarantee you that it's nothing like the Scarborough place. Founded in 1957, the bakery specializes in Greek and Macedonian breads and pastries.

In 2009, Lukas Cineus Jr and Marie Claire, a native of Jacmel, Haiti, took over the shop. "We still make the same desserts and bread as before, but we've added a creole and Caribbean flavour," says Lukas.

On his business cards it says "Sakpasé, nou palé Kréol tou wi!" which is creole for "What's happening, we speak creole here also, yes!" (En français, "Qu'est-ce qui se passe, nous parlons créole aussi, oui.")

Some Greeks and Bulgarians come in looking for European coffee and pastries, but the main clientele are Haitians who come for take-out food. One Haitian customer picks up some baklava to go with his Haitian food. Compa, a sweet, mid-tempo Haitian musical style, plays through the speakers. 

There are no tables, but people sit by the windowsill chatting and eating bouillon kabrit—goat soup. This tasty soup is an usual mix of flavours—goat broth, large chunks of yellow yam, dumplings, carrots, watercress, parley, shallots. It's a nice comfort food with a spicy kick.

Bouillon kabrit is a tasty goat soup

The menu varies depending on when you come in, but if you're lucky, you might get to try a Haitian patty, which is made of flakey pastry and filled with chicken, beef or salt fish. Other specialties include rice made with djon djon, a type of mushroom native to Haiti.

Lukas shows off the fried fish
Rice and beans, plantain, grio and tassot

I got a order of grio (fried pork) and tassot (fried beef) to go. The pork was pure fat but the beef was nicely marinated. The plantain tasted quite different from plantain I've had before, as the Haitians cook it when it is still green, so it isn't sweet at all. It's a huge amount of food and it sells for around $8.

The bakery is open from 9am til 9pm, except for Sundays, when it closes around 6. But if you want Haitian food, don't come too early—2pm or later is your best bet. Don't come by if you're in a rush: It's more the kind of place where you hang out for a while, chatting with staff and customers while you wait for your food.

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St. Clair Bakery & La Belle Jacmelienne on Urbanspoon