SpiceCityTo

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Toronto's best Malaysian restaurant has a new spin-off

One of the absolute best Southeast Asian restaurants in the Toronto area is Gourmet Malaysia, an oversized dining hall in Scarborough with a massive menu of Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean favourites. In September, the owners opened a new spin-off restaurant called Gourmet Satay at 1348 Kennedy Road near Ellesmere Road in Scarborough. 


Owner Amy Lim (centre) with cousin Shuen and son Nikola

The restaurant hasn't even had its official opening yet, but fans of Gourmet Malaysia have noticed the similar sign at this dodgy strip mall on Kennedy and started popping by. The narrow restaurant has many of the same dishes as Gourmet Malaysia, although owner Amy Lim wants to add some specialty "hawker" or street food dishes here soon. A flyer for the new joint describes it as "food court style," meaning it serves dishes sold at bustling South Asian food stall markets. (In fact, it's similar in some respects to Gourmet Malaysia's precursor restaurant, the now closed cult classic Gourmet Garden.)



The dishes at Gourmet Satay are carefully prepared and packed with flavour. The satay doesn't taste like globs of peanut butter, but instead is made of fresh crushed peanuts and a surprising amount of spice. 

Nasi lemak (below) is an eye pleasing dish that offers a sampling of the wide range of flavours in Malaysian cooking. A mound of coconut-sweetened rice is surrounded by rich curry-leaf infused chicken, sweet shrimp, a fried egg and a punchy garnish of dried anchovies and peanuts, all for just $8.80.


Nasi goreng (below) is a Malaysian classic, consisting of rice fried in thick, sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) and densely packed with veggies and seafood.

Amy opened this restaurant so she can use the kitchen to supply labour intensive desserts like pineapple tarts and layer cakes for events at Gourmet Malaysia. She also plans on taking advantage of the space to store freezers full of imported goods from Malaysia.


And the restaurant's hours? Well, hard to say exactly. As a blogger specializing in strip mall food I've been to an awful lot of plazas but this is definitely one of the sketchiest I've seen, with a porn shop, late night reggae bar, various massage parlours and many suspicious looking dudes sitting in parked cars in the evening. 

"Some customers don't like the area," says Amy. She originally planned to be open until 9pm but has gradually moved to closing earlier and earlier, so if you want to stop by before 5pm give a call first and ask if the restaurant is open. But let me assure you, these wonderful Malaysian dishes make the trip more than worth while. 

Gourmet Satay is located at 1348 Kennedy Road, Scarborough, Ontario. Call for hours at 647 741 2468. 


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  • Monday, October 6, 2014

    Legendary North York jerk chicken restaurant gets a new home

    Allwyn's Bakery has long been a legend amongst residents of North York. The location at Parkwoods Village Centre was obscure to say the least, but Allwyn's had no trouble drawing a crowd of rabidly loyal fans thanks to its killer jerk chicken and dirt cheap prices. Now the restaurant has a moved into a more visible storefront at Donwood Plaza at 81 Underhill Drive.



    Allwyn's regulars have flocked to the new location, which opened three months ago after the old space was given up to expand Shopper's Drug Mart as part of the Parkwoods Village redevelopment. "There are lots of old folks and new faces," says stoic staffer and Jamaican immigrant Donald Simpson, who has worked for Allwyn's for almost 20 years. "It's much busier and there are lots of lineups," he sighs. 

    The new location is still modest, but bigger and brighter than the previous space. There is one table and some stools so patrons can eat inside instead of scarfing down the food in their cars. Heck there's even a phone number now. But the basics haven't changed. 

    "It's still the same food. It's great if you like spice," says Rich McDonald, a North York resident who's been going to Allwyn's for more than five years. 

    The jerk chicken sandwich—moist and flavourful meat and crunchy coleslaw nestled between two airy pieces of coco bread—sells for just $4.25. The patties ($1.50) are pockets of spicy meat encased in dough that has the perfect balance of flake and chew. Plus there's a new addition to the menu—the spicy curries can now be enjoyed inside roti. 




    Allwyn's Bakery is located at 81 Underhill Drive, North York, Toronto. Telephone 647 859 6388. Hours are currently 11am to 10pm every day although they may be changing soon.   


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  • Tuesday, May 6, 2014

    Kick off summer with this killer Caribbean ice cream

    After a meal at Ali's Roti, your stomach will be so heavy you'll be tempted to skip out on dessert. That would be a mistake. The Trinidadian restaurant has some of the best ice cream I've ever tasted. 



    Ali's is Parkdale's original roti shop on a strip that is practically a roti district today. Apologies to Roti Lady and Bacchus but Ali's is by far the best of the bunch. Trini-style dalpuri roti is dusted with spicy split peas and stuffed with hefty, flavourful goat, chicken or beef. Ali's also lays claim to being the first restaurant in Canada to sell doubles, a delicious street snack of chickpea curry slathered between two pieces of hot fried dough.

    Regulars have been coming here since the restaurant opened up in 1976, and it's not uncommon for people to tell owner Shiraz "Ali" Aligour (below, with his granddaughter) that they came there as children. The ice cream is certainly memorable.



    The three flavours of ice cream—mango, soursop and coconut—are made on the premises. Ali starts with ripe fruit, adds cream, sugar and stabilizer and mixes it in a machine in the back. The result is an airy, delicious dessert that tastes much fresher than anything you can buy in the store. Plus it's not sickeningly sweet, like many tropical fruit ice creams.

    "Back in the day all over the Caribbean families would make ice cream with a hand crank on Sundays to make a treat for the kids," explains Ali. "It's expensive to make the ice cream here and we make very little profit on it, but it's something we do for the community because they enjoy it."


    Ali's Roti is located at 1446 Queen Street West at Lansdowne, Toronto. Telephone: 416 532 7701. Hours of operation: Open every day 11am to 10pm.  


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  • Wednesday, April 9, 2014

    A new Haitian hotspot hits St. Clair

    Haitian food is finally getting some love in Toronto. In the fall, Jen Agg from the Black Hoof opened a much acclaimed Haitian spin-off restaurant, Rhum Corner, with her Haitian hubby Roland Jean. And just a few weeks ago, La Créole, a French Caribbean restaurant, opened up at 810 St. Clair Ave West, between Oakwood and Bathurst. It's a good thing, because since the closing of La Belle Jacmel, there had been no place to find Haitian food in Toronto. 



    La Créole serves food from the French Caribbean, including Martinique and Guadeloupe, but as the chef is Haitian, classics from that country dominate the menu. Marinad (shown below) are bits of fried dough, typically sold as a street food in Haiti. Akra malanga are bite-sized fritters made of malanga, a starchy root vegetable. Both are served with tasty but searingly spicy side of shredded vegetables, called pikliz. 


    Mains include le toro, a hefty, rich beef stew, and creole chicken, baked and coated with a spicy tomato sauce. Both are served with djon djon rice, made with the elusive djon djon mushroom only found in Haiti. "We get it from Montreal because you can't find it here in Toronto," explains owner Ben Cherette, a Haitian community organizer and event planner. Without a Haitian grocery in the city, La Créole is picking up the slack, and customers can purchase bags of djon djon, as well as sweet cassava, Haitian coffee and Couronne, a gaggingly sweet Haitian soft drink.




    In the next few months, Cherette plans to introduce new menu items from other French-speaking Caribbean islands, such as bokit sandwiches, which are also served at Le Ti Colibri in Kensington Market. He also wants to turn La Créole into a live venue. Thursdays you can learn kizomba, a sensual dance with Angolan origins that is popular in Haiti. Fridays and Saturdays will be live music and DJ nights, focused on sultry Caribbean genres like souk, compas and troubodour.  

    At the bar, Cherette will be serving cocktails, classic Haitian rums like Barbancourt, and cremas, a dessert-like drink made of coconut cream, cinnamon, anise and rum. "We want to have things you can't get anywhere else and have people feel like they're immersing themselves in the French créole culture," explains Cherette. 

    La Créole restaurant is located at 810 St. Clair Ave West; telephone: 416 651 8228.

    Hours: La Créole is closed Monday. Tuesday to Thursday open 4:30pm til 10pm; Friday and Saturday 4:30pm til 11pm; Sunday 12pm til 6pm.

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  • Monday, February 10, 2014

    Lebanese lunch, loaded with flavour

    Hidden in the back of a plaza at Dufferin and Finch is the perfect place to sample the wonderful ingredients that make up Lebanese breakfast and lunch. Haddad's Mid-East Bakeries consists of a small restaurant and retail shop, plus a kitchen in the back where the fresh bread is made. The 20-year-old restaurant is mainly frequented by Lebanese and Armenian immigrants seeking out the tastes of home. 



    Strangely, the restaurant is named Thyme & Sesame on its website, although the signage on site calls it Haddad's. "They're going to change the name on the sign, but they haven't done it yet," explains Nadine Hajjar, a communications student who works part time at the restaurant. 

    A couple of Lebanese origin order the kashkaval ($6), a sandwich with melted kashkaval Bulgarian cheese and tomatoes. It's served on kaak, a bib-shaped flatbread with a hole in it, which makes it easy for mobile vendors in the Middle East to display pieces for sale. The sesame-studded bread is perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. 


    The couple also ordered the ful ($7.99), a stew of mashed fava beans with a surprising kick. Ful can sometimes be bland, but this version is oozing with olive oil and lemon juice, and packed with hefty chunks of garlic and hot chilis. The result is an intense, tasty spread that you can stuff into a giant flatbread, inflated with warm air and fresh from the oven. The sandwich is garnished with mint leaves, tomatoes, olives and green onion, a fresh yet comforting combination.



    Other popular items include the manakeesh—a sort of flatbread pizza. The version with zaatar—a spice blend of thyme, sumac, sesame and other spices—is popular, as is the one with akawi, a milder version of halloumi cheese.

    Haddad's also has a broad selection of savoury pastries, such as the spinach pie, which has a generous amount of spinach and a sour kick. The pies need to be purchased by the half dozen or dozen, with 12 costing between $8 and $12.




    While you're waiting for your food, check out the groceries. There's a good selection of olives and spice blends, and other interesting items like grape molasses. I recently tried grape molasses at Tavoos, and discovered that when blended with tahini, it's one of the most delicious combinations I've tasted, a lip-smacking Arabic sibling of peanut butter and jam.


    Haddad's Mid-East Bakeries/Thyme and Sesame is located at 4610 Dufferin Street Unit 19B, Toronto. Telephone 416 661 8998. Hours are Monday to Friday 8am to 6pm, Saturday 8am to 4pm, Sunday 8am to 2pm. 


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    Monday, January 20, 2014

    Dumplings that are truly works of art

    ***Update as of Jan. 21, 2014: I just learned this restaurant is now closed. Apologies, it has been a few months since I was there. If you know another restaurant serving Xian dumplings in Toronto, please get in touch. 

    A small restaurant at First Markham Place, a jam-packed Chinese mall at 3255 Highway 7 East, has dumplings like you've never seen before. Not only are these dumplings at Ling Long Legend extraordinarily tasty, they are handcrafted to look like miniature works of art.  




    I went to the restaurant with Zhixi Cecilia Zhuang, a Ryerson prof who shares my love of strip mall eats. In fact, Zhixi, who hails originally from southern China, researches ethnic retailing in Little India and the Pacific Mall in Markham. But even Zhixi was surprised to discover the strange and beautiful dumplings this restaurant has to offer.

    Ling Long Legend has been around for roughly two years, and the name means 'delicate and beautiful,' explained Zhixi. Their delicious Ling Long dumplings, shown above, have a pocket of meat inside, topped with three separate chambers filled with egg, carrot and mushroom. 





    The restaurant specializes in dishes from northwest China, a region known for its noodle and lamb dishes. In contrast, Zhixi explains, Cantonese food specializes in soups and fresh, steamed fare, while Shanghai food tends to be cooked longer with more seasoning.

    We tried an excellent braised pork pancake: a wonderfully intense meat stuffed between a two layers of bread with the consistency of naan. The spicy chicken in a pot with noodles, a classic northwestern Chinese dish, was also very good, with hand-pulled noodles, salty potatoes and fresh, crunchy peppers.



    Co-owner Ailing Hu, shown above, hails from the Chinese city of Xi'an, where dumpling making is somewhat of an art. It turns out that if you preorder a few days in advance, a party of ten can sample dumplings she makes in the shapes of animals, flowers and plants, handcrafted like little sculptures. 

    She showed us her technique: in less than a minute she stuffed a ball of dough with meat and transformed it using just her hands and a few simple wooden tools into the shape of a fish. It was incredibly fast, like watching a sped up video of someone making origami. Then Ailing did the same thing to create a duck, complete with black sesame seed eyes. 




    After, she prepared these adorable golden fortune dumplings for us. They are supposed to bring you good fortune, of course, and are filled with a smooth, sweet egg yolk paste. I'll definitely be back to try the dumpling special and see more of these wonderful little creations. 

    Ling Long Legend is located in First Markham Place, 3255 Highway 7 East, Markham. Tel: 905 477 9881. Hours: Open 11am to 10pm Sunday to Thursday, 11am to 11pm Friday and Saturday. 



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