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

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jerk chicken so good it will blow your mind

The clerk at the counter was surprised when I told her we wanted to feature her Scarborough restaurant for our food blog. “You want to write about this place?” she asked.

I can see her point: with its peeling paint, shoddy wood panelling and holes in the floor boards, Fahmee Bakery (119 Montezuma Trail) looks more like an aging rec room converted into an illegal basement suite rather than a fine restaurant. It’s located on 119 Montezuma Trail, a name that conjures unpleasant images Montezuma’s revenge, a tropical travellers illness brought about by unhygienic foods.

But in reality, Fahmee Bakery serves some of the finest Jamaican food in the city. Don't be surprised to see a lineup of people of all ages and ethnicities waiting in line to buy Jamaican patties by the dozen.

The beef patties are freshly baked in the back and are filled with a smooth, spicy meat paste. One patty (beef, chicken or veggie) will set you back $1.35 ($13 for a dozen).

But it was the jerk chicken that blew my mind. For just $3 you can get a jerk chicken sandwich served on cocobread, a tender bread made with coconut milk. The chicken is top quality and super tasty. We had to order a couple more to go and eat at home later. 

Fahmee has been in this location for 30 years. It’s current owner Michael Lue, a member of Jamaica’s storied Chinese community, took over the place 21 years ago. “We have many customers who came here when they were very small, and now they're grown up and they still come,” explains the clerk. There’s even a “Fahmee Bakery Lifers” page on Facebook devoted to the restaurant.
Also on the menu: jerk pork, curry goat and red snapper, all served with rice and peas for $9. Drinks include coconut water and pineapple Island Soda.

Fahmee Bakery is located at 119 Montezuma Trail. Open every day 9am to 6:30pm. Tel: 416754-2126.
Photos in this post courtesy of Dana Lacey. Thanks to Audrey for the tip.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Who has the best roti in Toronto? Spice City conducted a taste test to find out

The legendary Gandhi's Indian Cuisine (554 Queen Street West) has long been considered to be the best place for roti in Toronto. I've been addicted to its intensely spiced Indian curry concoctions for years, and I used to visit the restaurant on my trips through to town before I lived here. While traditional Caribbean roti has a huge following in town, I've never tried one that can compete with Gandhi.

But in recent years, the situation has become murkier. Gandhi owner Avtar Singh opened a second restaurant, Mother India in Parkdale (1456 Queen Street West). They serve rotis that are virtually identical to Gandhi's, although some have said that the quality fails to match that of the original. Another spin off restaurant, the lesser known Roti Time, was opened by Gandhi's former accountant at 2542 St. Clair Ave. W. near Runnymede Ave. 

How do these sibling restaurants compare with Gandhi? Is Gandhi still the best? I assembled a panel of self-confessed roti-holics to find out. 

The Spice City panel of judges was made up of critical foodies with two centuries of cumulative roti eating experience. Judges with Trini, Indian and South African roots boasted about their curry credentials. Another judge works in an office where 90 people have opted into an email list to order from Gandhi each week. This was a blind taste test, so the judges didn't know where each roti was from when they judged.

The first category they judged was the butter chicken (medium spicy). Mother India's butter chicken wasn't spicy enough, the judges said, and the skin was doughy. Gandhi's butter chicken was much, much spicier, and had a creamy texture. "It's like spicy baby food," said judge Mary Luz Mejia. The judges felt Gandhi's roti had too much potato and not enough chicken.

It was unanimous that Roti Time had the best shell. Even though the judges thought the filling was too sweet, they voted this one the best overall. "The chicken was tender and plentiful and the dough was the best," said Lea Zelserman.

Congratulations to Roti Time for having the best butter chicken roti. (It scored 3.33 out of 5). The runner up in this category was Mother India (2.89 out of 5), and Gandhi came in dead last (2.61 out of 5).

In between rounds, the judges entertained themselves by looking at classic movie posters rejigged in the theme of Gandhi Roti.

Next up was the saag paneer (medium spicy). Again, the judges felt that Mother India's roti was too mild. "It's doughy and they were chintzy on the paneer," complained Christine Coopspeak. This recipe had tomato sauce it in, which is unusual for saag paneer.

Gandhi was the clear favourite in this category. "Nice and spinachy, and very spicy," enthused Dave C. "This is the best, as there is much more spinach flavour," said iamvickytam. Roti Time still got praise for having the best shell, but judges didn't like the sweetness and said the roti tasted a little burnt.

So Gandhi dominated this category, with a 3.2 out of 5; Mother India came in second, with 2.55 out of 5 and Roti Time came in last here, with 2.3 out of 5.

So who is the overall winner? When you add the scores up for both rotis, Gandhi comes up as having the best roti, with an overall score of 5.81 out of 10. But Roti Time is nipping at its older sibling's heels, coming in close behind with 5.63 out of 10. Mother India, despite scoring in the middle of the pack in both rounds, had the lowest overall score, with 5.44 out of 10. 

Photos by Dana Lacey. Thanks to the judges and event helpers @thismason@iamvickytam, Mary Luz Mejia, Gilbert, Mario Stojanac, Christine Coopspeak, @Bev_W, @eskay8, Sandy Avvari, Matt, Dave C, Christine and Lea Zeltserman.

What is your favourite roti in Toronto? I'd love to hear your comments below or on Twitter using the hashtag #rotitasting.

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

If Ronald McDonald was Pakistani, he'd be serving up these spicy burgers

Curious about the "desi burger" signs I'd seen in Little India, I went to the Pakistani restaurant Desi Burger House at 1344 Gerrard Street East.

"White people like the beef burger," said Desi Burger House's Imran when I asked for a recommendation on what to try. "It's like a hamburger." 

"Ummm, what do Pakistani people order?" I asked. 

Imran, who told me that God is the owner of Desi Burger House, and he is just his servant, said he sells aloo burgers, made of potato, as well as an aloo and chicken version. 

I ordered the aloo chicken burger with egg ($3.99), which Imran's coworker Imdiaz fried up on a small grill behind the counter. The tasty burger (below) consists of a mashed potato patty with red onion, slathered with ketchup, mayo and hot sauce and covered with scrambled egg.

This isn't fine dining folks, and Imran bills this as a fast food alternative to the bustling Lahore Tikka House across the street. "You might spend $30 or $40 at Lahore Tikka House," says Imran. "Here our food is $3 or $4."

Next door, the Lahori Taste & Burger House (1346 Gerrard Street East) serves up similar fare. Like Desi Burger House, it's been here for around four years. I ordered the shami burger with with egg ($3.49).  The result is a messy mix of yogurt, green chili sauce and masala spice mixture on a chick pea patty, which is quite enjoyable to eat.

The term 'desi burger' seems to be a fairly general term, as desi just means people from the Indian subcontinent. These burgers are known as "vada pav" in India. One or two other places in Little India serve another variant, called "bun kebab," which is grilled kebab meat served on a bun.

Bombay Chowpatty, an eclectic fast-food joint at 1386 Gerrard Street East, serves up its own subcontinental burgers. This paneer burger (below) is a probably the best of the bunch: it's a slab of fried potato served with white slices of Indian cheese and slathered with tamarind sauce and chick peas. Spice City Toronto will be back with more on Bombay Chowpatty in a future post.

Desi Burger House (Lahore Chaat & Desi Burger) is located at 1344 Gerrard Street East; Tel: 416 466 9261. Lahori Taste & Burger House (Lahori Chaska & Paan House) is at 1346 Gerrard Street East; Tel: 647-349-6530. Bombay Chowpatty is at 1386 Gerrard Street East; Tel: 416 405-8080. 

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Friday, July 1, 2011

A new food market is born on Dundas

Contain yourself! A new market has opened up at Dundas and Bathurst (707 Dundas Street West) made up of businesses operating inside refurbished shipping containers. The market has promise as a place of interest for foodies and lovers of creative cheap eats.

The Scadding Court Community Centre first launched the Live Local Marketplace last fall with hopes of revitalizing this sombre corner, which is dominated by Toronto Western Hospital. They brought in surplus shipping containers from China that have been subdivided into tiny shops.

With the rent at just $350 a month, the containers have been quickly filling up with a wide variety of merchants hawking everything from handmade crafts to long distance calling cards. In the weeks to come, all the containers will likely be open for business. 

Tony Sabherwal (above), the founder and owner of the organic pizza place Magic Oven, noticed the booths recently when he was driving by. "I saw the booths and they spoke to me somehow," he says. "I parked and walked in and said I'll take one."

For $3, he sells "sloppy bunjo," a dish he describes as a vegan version of a sloppy joe. It's a bun filled with masala yellow peas cooked with tamarind sauce. "This is street food from the town I grew up in, in northeast India," he says. "There it's called 'bun mutter.'" He also serves samosas, corn on the cob and Japanese genmaicha ice tea made with brown rice and mint. 

Tony says his wife takes care of the day-to-day operations of Magic Oven, allowing him to have a little holiday running the Scadding Court stall. "I'm doing it for fun and to feel connected to people who live in city," he says. "It's fun because on the street, people come from all over and ask all kinds of questions."

Montforte Dairy, a Guelph-based business that is a staple of local farmer's markets, also has a booth here. You can pick up tasty treats such as goat gouda and Swiss-style cheddar. "It's a bit of an experiment, working out of a metal box at a community centre, but we're really excited about it," says Monteforte's Ben Szoller (above).

Ben will serve you a grilled cheese sandwich with the cheese of your choice for $5. It's made with homemade butter and served on bread baked at the community centre. You can also get some top quality ice cream made from water buffalo milk. 

A few stalls down Leon serves fruit shakes and bubble tea at his stall, The Original One. Leon has rented a second stall and plans to expand into dim sum soon. Other new businesses that are set to open include a bakery and a deli selling Montreal-style smoked and cured meats. There's even talk of bringing a proper farmer's market to the site next year. Check back at Spice City Toronto for further developments.

The hours for each business vary, but they are generally are open Tuesday to Friday 11am—6pm, Saturday noon—6pm. In the summer, the market is open on Friday until 10pm.

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