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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hidden behind a derelict North York strip mall, you'll find some of the best jerk chicken in Toronto

Update as of Aug 2014: Allwyn's has moved and is now located at 81 Underhill Drive. Read new post here.

Many of Toronto's Jamaican restaurants are in a sorry state. All too often you get a bland mountain of rice obscuring some fossilized bits of jerk chicken. But North York/West Scarborough locals know that for the juiciest, freshest jerk chicken, you need to head over to Allwyn's.


This is one of the more obscure locations I've come across in my Toronto food travels. Allwyn's is behind Parkwoods Village Centre, an aging strip mall located at 1277 York Mills Road, between the Don Valley Parkway and Victoria Park Ave. Go behind the strip mall and walk through a dark, covered alley and you'll find the place.

A tiny room really, this bare-bones restaurant has been serving take-out food from this location for 19 years. Allwyn's is not listed on the mall's sign, and don't bother phoning ahead either—the owner hasn't kept up with the phone bills, so the number is out of service. There used to be a website, but it doesn't seem to be up any more. 


Staffer Donald Simpson, a native of Jamaica, has worked here off and on since the beginning. He also works at the legendary Fahmee bakery, which supplies Allwyn's baked goods. "A lot of people come here through word of mouth and say it's one of the best places," explains Donald. "It's the way we season the chicken."


Customers of all ages and backgrounds stand in line, waiting for their favourites. Some have been coming for decades, after being lured in during their grade school days by the super cheap prices: a jerk chicken sandwich served on a cocobun topped with crisp coleslaw is just $3.70. If you're not going to eat the sandwich right away, Donald carefully packs the components separately so the coleslaw doesn't make the sandwich soggy. 

"The pricing is reasonable and the food is good quality," says Crystal, who drove here with two coworkers on their lunch break. "We always debate what we're going to get but at the end we always get the jerk sandwich."


The boneless jerk chicken doesn't disappoint: it's moist and glistening, coated with a warm blend of spices. The curry goat is also excellent—the potent, spicy flavour is balanced by the meat's tenderness. The Jamaican patties are also top notch. Thick and bready, with a flaky yellow skin, they are filled with a moist, punchy meat paste. 

Overall, you're sure to be impressed: not only is this one of the truly excellent places for Caribbean food in Toronto, it's also one of the great food secrets of the city. 

Photos courtesy of H. Thanks to Ken from In Your Mouth Toronto for the tip.

Allwyn's is located behind the Parkwoods Village Centre at 1277 York Mills Road, between the Don Valley Parkway and Victoria Park Ave. No telephone. Cash only. 

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Roti perfection, Malaysian-style

Malaysian food is one of the world's great cuisines, so I was excited to check out Restoran Malaysia, in Richmond Hill (815 Major Mackenzie Drive East at Bayview). The bustling, sprawling restaurant is one of only a handful of places in the GTA that serve Malaysian food. But when the first dish arrived at my table, I was disappointed. 

The mutton and beef skewers were tough and chewy. They were coated with an overly sweet marinade, and the accompanying satay sauce was sugary, like a dessert.
The nasi goreng was also a let down. Normally this is a wonderful Southeast Asian fried rice dish is packed with all kinds of great meat and veggies, held together with a syrupy version of soy sauce. But Restoran Malaysia's version tasted like your standard take-out Chinese fried rice with flavourless pieces of chicken, shrimp and frozen vegetables. But soon some items appeared at the table that more than made up for the meal's mediocre beginnings.

It was the roti. Oh, the roti. This exquisite flat bread is called roti canai or roti prata in Malaysia, and it has roots in Indian cuisine. The thin chewy bread is slightly crisp and toasty on the outside. Served with a bowl of intense, rich curry sauce, I could eat endless amounts of the stuff.  

"People come here from Malaysia and say the roti here is better here than at home," boasts chef and owner Howard Chew. "We made 35,000 pieces of roti here in the last six months." 
It's made in the restaurant kitchen on a griddle, and consists of just flour, milk, sugar, salt and ghee (clarified butter). "You have to it eat right away," says Howard. "It's crisp on the outside, but if you take home, it becomes all soft."

While Indian curries are flavoured mainly with ground spices, Malaysian ones get their flavour from fresh ingredients such as ginger, shallots, chili pepper and garlic. "Malaysian food uses fresh ingredients like Thai food, but the cooking style is similar to Indian food," explains Howard.

The Singapore Laksa (below) is also excellent. It's a bowl of chewy noodles, fried tofu, chicken and saucers of fish cake, doused in an intensely flavourful bright orange liquid. "It's made with galangal, dry shrimp, chili, shallots, coconut milk and lemongrass," explains Howard.

While the menu certainly has some misses, the roti and laksa make a meal at Restoran Malaysia well worth the trip. 

Restoran Malaysia is at 815 Major Mackenzie Drive East,  Richmond Hill, Ont. Tel 905 508 1432. Its hours are Monday closed; Tuesday 11:30 am to 10pm; 
Wednesday & Thursday 11am to 10pm; Friday & Saturday 11am to 11pm;
Sunday noon to 10pm.  The food is halal. 

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Sizzling dishes from Central Asia


Former U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain lampooned his lack of familiarity with the central Asian country of Uzbekistan. "If someone asks me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say I don't know," he quipped during his short-lived run for office. 

However, if Cain makes it to Toronto, he'll have a chance to educate himself on the culture and food of Uzbekistan by visiting North York's Tashkent restaurant near Keele and Steeles. Tashkent, named after the Uzbek capital city, is tucked into a strip mall in an industrial area between an adult video store and a licensed massage parlour. 


The restaurant is a central meeting place for Toronto's Uzbek community, which is based in Thornhill.  Interesting fact: Uzbekistan is a rare doubly landlocked country, meaning that it doesn't have access to the ocean, and neither do any of its neighbours. 

I started out with an order of manti, the classic Uzbek steamed lamb dumplings (below). They're big and stretchy, and a patron implores me to abandon my clumsy attempt to eat them with a knife and fork in favour of my hands. "This type of food you eat with your fingers," she tells me. 

Next up is samsa (above), a steaming baked pastry filled with lamb meat. The crust is delicate and flakey, but it's the tangy tomato herb sauce makes this memorable. 

Dgiz-biz (below) is a meat-heavy entree of lamb and beef meat, fat and bone, slow cooked until wonderfully tender in its own juices. It's served inside a bowl made of crisp Uzbek bread, which somehow resembles a taco salad bowl. Eating the dill-infused hot chunks of flesh is very satisfying.

It's not uncommon to have many lamb dishes in one sitting. "A typical meal might be eight courses of lamb," explains the server Vlada. "There will even be lamb in the salad. There's a lot of fried food and everything's made from scratch."

Vlada (below) is originally from Kazakhstan (which borders on Uzbekistan) and she was delighted to discover Tashkent when she recently moved to Toronto from Hamilton. "I was so happy to find the taste of home."

Tashkent Restaurant, 800 Petrolia Road, Toronto. Tel: 416 667 0737. Hours are Monday noon to 10pm; Tuesday closed; Wed & Thurs, noon to 10pm; Friday & Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday noon til 11pm. 

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Try the pastel, Brazil's answer to the empanada

Posters recently appeared along Dundas Street West, the centre of Toronto's Portuguese-speaking community, advertising the "Festival do Pastel." Starting a few weeks ago, the local restaurant Brazilian Star (1242 Dundas St. W. just east of Dovercourt) began serving pastels, a street food akin to an empanada, every Thursday.

The restaurant previously had only a Portuguese version of the pastel, and the predominately Brazilian clientele often asked for their own country's version of the fried snack. Brazilian Star hired someone to make the pastels on Thursdays, and according to server Bruna Lima (below left) it's one of the only places in town that sells them. The flat, doughy snacks are available with different fillings: meat, cheese, pizza, chicken, and guava/cheese. 
The carne pastel ($3.98) is filled with tasty spiced beef, while the cheese one is stuffed with an oozing, mild white cheese. The shell is a dimpled, oily dough reminiscent of Chinese egg roll pastry or a deep fried wonton. Bruna says the pastel may have an Asian origin, as they are frequently sold by Chinese vendors in Brazilian markets. It's one of the many examples of cultural fusion on this intensely diverse South American country. 
The guava and cheese pastel is a surprise: sweet rather than savoury, the mild cheese fuses with the rich, carmel flavour of the guava. Be sure to wash it down Brazil's national cocktail, the caipirinha, the perfect blend of lime, ice and sugar cane rum. 

Festival do Pastel takes place Thursdays at Brazilian Star, 1242 Dundas St. W.; tel: 416-588-2967.

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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Tasty Jewish meals served inside the sukkah

The Jewish festival of Sukkot is currently taking place, and it's a great time to sample some excellent food and get a glimpse into ancient traditions. Every year, religious Jews build a sukkah—an outdoor structure that resembles a hut or a booth—to remember the ancient Israelis' fragile shelter when they wandered through the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt. 

During the festival, Jews are supposed to eat their meals inside the sukkah, and many families build the structures in their yards or on their balconies. Several North York restaurants catering to the Jewish community also build their own sukkahs. 

Located in the middle of a desolate industrial park near Steeles and Dufferin, Dr. Laffa Restaurant (401 Magnetic Drive) is brimming with life. A crowd is lined up to buy the restaurant's Iraqi Jewish food, and out in the parking lot, the plywood sukkah is packed with diners. "We live in a condo, and we have a sukkah there, but it's not very convenient to carry food up and down," explains Hadassah Bernstein (above). "We prefer to come here." 

The mostly Orthodox diners are happy to explain the traditions of the holiday: one shows us how to do the traditional blessing, using the etrog— a type of citrus fruit — and luvav— a palm frond blended with willow and myrtle (below). 

It would be impossible to remain hungry for long inside this sukkah. Dr. Laffa is named after an Iraqi pita bread laffa. It's baked in a similar way to Indian naan, by sticking it on the inside wall of a clay oven. Dr. Laffa's co-owner Sasi Haba was born in Jerusalem, and he learned to make the bread from his father, a baker originally from Iraq. 

The chewy, dense bread is is the basis for Dr. Laffa's falafel sandwich. The result is a gargantuan wrap that skillfully blends the fresh, cool taste of the vegetables and humus with the warmth of the crisp falafel balls. Even better is the sabich, another popular street food in Israel. This sandwich is filled with smoky, fried eggplant and "latke balls" made of potato, celery, eggs, parsley and green onion. These sandwiches are hefty meals and cost just $5.99 each. 

Tov-Li, a classic North York kosher pizza restaurant, also has a sukkah at its "south" location at 3519 Bathurst between Lawrence & Wilson. The original north location doesn't have room for a sukkah, but here it's very popular. "People have sukkahs at their homes, but having it here is a plus," explains Tov-Li's Miriam Epstein. The restaurant serves a light, fresh version of the falafel, topped with a generous serving of carrots and beets.

If you want to check out the sukkahs, you better act fast. These restaurants are closed Saturday for the Jewish sabbath, although Tov-Li opens up again after sundown. Sukkot ends Sunday (October 6, 2012), so that will be your last chance to dine in the sukkah this year.

Photos by Ronit Novak

Dr. Laffa is located at 401 Magnetic Drive in North York. It's open Sunday to Thursday 11am to 10pm; Friday 11 am to 3pm; closed Saturday. Tel: 416 739 7134.

Tov-Li's South location is at 3519 Bathurst Street. It's open Sunday to Thursday 9am to 11pm; Friday 9am to 3pm; Saturday 1 hour after sundown to 12:30am. Tel: 416 784 9900. 

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are you ready to try the wedding-size buss-up-shut roti?

Toronto Weston Flea Market vendor Tenny Ramkissoon has a personal mission: to make roti and doubles—a Trinidadian roti-like snack—as popular as pizza and hamburgers. "Roti is a food a lot of people love, but it's not internationally known," says Tenny. "My intention is to put doubles and roti on the international map." 
Tenny and his wife Chandra, who both hail originally from Trinidad, opened up Kavita's Hot & Spicy Foods inside the Toronto Weston Flea Market last year. Despite the fact the duo each has a full time job—Tenny works the night shift at a car parts factory and Chandra packages coffee—they were excited to bring the Trinidadian food they served at weddings and parties to a wider clientele by opening a weekend stall at the market. (See part one of Spice City's post about the flea market here.)

This flea market vendor thinks big. "I contacted Galen Weston's people at President's Choice to talk about doubles and roti," says Tenny. "Someone in the office is not communicating with him, because he's not calling back, and it's been a month now." 

Several years ago, Tenny attempted to break the world record for the largest roti with Etobicoke's Roti Roti restaurant. He says the Guinness Book acknowledges they broke the record, but hasn't updated their site to confirm the feat. 

At his flea market stall, named after his youngest daughter Kavita, Tenny sells a giant "wedding size buss-up-shut roti." During a wedding in Trinidad, instead of making individual rotis, chefs make huge ones that are divided up, stuffed with curry and eaten by 10 or 15 people. It's a paratha roti, made of thin layers of dough dusted with crushed yellow split peas.

The moniker "buss-up-shut" comes from the fact the hefty pile of dough looks like a busted up or torn shirt. "I'm the only Canadian chef who can cook it and I've been doing it since I was small," boasts Tenny. "I cook it at home with my wife. We throw it on a hot plate and use wooden pallets to turn it." In the photo below, Chandra holds a ball of dough from a half-size buss-up-shut roti. 

Tenny's pride in his cooking isn't misplaced: the goat roti he serves at his stall ($7) features fresh, delicate sheets of paratha roti stuffed with flavourful tender chunks of goat meat and potato. The doubles—two fried pieces of dough slathered with chick pea curry—have a rich, smooth flavour. 

Also worth trying is the mauby, a homemade beverage created with bark from a tropical tree. It tastes similar to root beer, but has a slightly bitter, earthy flavour.  

Photos by Molly Crealock

Toronto Weston Flea Market is located at 404 Old Weston Road, just north of St. Clair Ave West. Admission is free. It's open Saturdays and Sundays 10am to 6pm. Tel: 416 654 6455.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Great Caribbean eats at the Weston Flea Market

***Note of Aug 2014: See update in comments at end of story.

Some of the best international food Toronto has to offer is served at city's flea markets. The cheap rents on stalls and weekend-only hours make them a great place for aspiring chefs to test out their home cooked favourites on a diverse crowd. 

After discovering an unmatched selection of Latin American and Caribbean food stalls last year at Downsview Park Merchants Market, I decided to hunt for cheap ethnic eats at the Toronto Weston Flea Market at 404 Old Weston Road just north of St. Clair Ave.


Outside the market, fruit and veg vendors holler to try to attract customers. "ONE-DOLLAR-PINEAPPLE-ONE-DOLLAR-PINEAPPLE!" repeats one strong lunged vendor. Another chants, "HONEY-HONEY-HONEY DEW! HONEY-HONEY-HONEY DEW!"  

There's no charge to enter the bleak-looking concrete building. Head past the stalls hawking dollar store surplus and low-rent antique junk and go to the food court in the back. The Chinese place looked like your standard mall outlet and the Caribbean joint was serving dried up chunks of mystery meat, but a Guyanese food stall caught my eye. 

Nadira & Family Halal Cuisine is run by Nadira Khan (below left). Her daughter Nafeeza (below right) drums up business by handing out flyers to the flea market shoppers. "I love to be in the kitchen," says Nadira, who is paying $500 a month to rent the stall each Saturday and Sunday. "I want to open up a restaurant that would be open every day, so I'm here to build up my clientele." 

The menu reflects the diversity of the South American country of Guyana. Vegetable fried rice and chow mein dishes are variations on Chinese recipes, while the channa curry and roti have Indian roots. The prices are super cheap: A curry and roti is just five bucks. 

The potato balls ($1) are a Guyanese snack that sound like a novelty item you'd get at the CNE. It's basically a deep fried and battered ball of mashed potatoes. Similarly, the egg ball ($3) is a hefty lump of dough with a whole hard boiled egg inside of it. They were served with a tangy chutney. 

Nadira also sells traditional Guyanese sweets: The round 'chinee' cake probably also has a Chinese origin, as its black eyed pea filling tastes like the sweet bean paste you get in Asian desserts. Red cake (salara) has layers of shredded coconut in it. My favourite of the bunch is the pine tart: It's triangular shape reminds me of the Jewish hamentashen, but it's filled with tangy, stringy pineapple.

Check back with Spice City Toronto next week for more discoveries from the Toronto Weston Flea Market.

Photos by Molly Crealock

Toronto Weston Flea Market is located at 404 Old Weston Road, just north of St. Clair Ave West. Admission is free. It's open Saturdays and Sundays 10am to 6pm. Tel: 416 654 6455.

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