Eating like a local:- Exploring Canada's Largest City
Regional food specialties
Regional food specialties
We decided to spend this past 4th of July in Canada. It was a last second decision as we didn't have anywhere to go we just knew we wanted to get out of Chicago for the extra long weekend. Tickets were crazy expensive to anywhere worth flying so on a Wednesday afternoon we said f-ck it and got in the car and drove to Detroit for the night. The next morning we were up and into Toronto within four hours of crossing the border. The drive straight through is 8 hours and in my opinion that's about the max amount of time I want to spend driving for a three night stay somewhere which makes Toronto the best option for a roadtrip where you don't have more than 3/4 nights. Why is that you ask?
Sights from Toronto
Why are you here? Food! Toronto is quite possibly the most diverse city in the world. It has a population of more than 3 million people and more than half of them aren't from Canada originally. This makes for a melting pot that features flavors from all over the globe. Never have I been so overwhelmed with options and I probably wont be again until I go to Tokyo. The reason Toronto excites me as much as it does is due to the fact it has whom I consider to be the best food scout on the continent. Suresh Doss is the CBC Toronto Food Guide among other things. I've been following him online for a long time and we had the chance to hang out in Chicago this past year. Alas we didn't get a chance to cross paths on this trip as it was so last second. That said I went to to Toronto loaded with more than 50 spots I really wanted to try mostly bc of his excellent work covering the city's diverse food scene. His Google maps guide to all the spots he's covered at CBC is a must for any visitor to the city. He also does food tours which you can check on at his website found HERE.
Sights from Toronto
Since this was our second trip to Toronto in the last decade I got to see it grow. The first time we visited it felt like Chicago. This trip in felt more like NYC in that there were so many more cars and people on the streets and sidewalks. Like both cities it has a special buzz in the summer and bc of that paired with the obvious reason it's the best time to go. But really it's a city so whenever you visit you can find something. At the very least you can find a ton to eat. My goal was to try as many different cuisines as I could. I don't keep track so I'm not sure if I broke a record I just know that for as many different kinds of food I tried there's just as many that I missed. Which is why Drake's the Six is probably my favorite North American food city to visit. There's quite a few options you wont find anything like in Chicago and you could visit every year for the rest of your life and only cover a small portion of it. You'll probably need a car to do it all as like elsewhere the suburbs have become hot spots for immigrant food and culture. But even without a car you'll have plenty of options. Let's roll.
Sights from Toronto
North Shore Pie Co.
This was my pick for spots we'd be passing on the ride into Toronto. It's west of the city as were quite a few of the spots on my map. I wouldn't be able to try them all due to the fact they were 40+ minute rides from the hotel. I love meat pies of all origins and varieties. They're particularly big in countries like Australia and New Zealand. The latter of which is where the owner of North Shore Pie Co. is from. They're mostly a takeout business and he told me people drive from Michigan to buy them frozen. They also have a selection of fresh baked pies available to eat then and there. I'd read the butter chicken was the most popular and was able to snag the last one for the day. It was awesome. Had they been open Sunday's I would've stopped to grab a case to keep in my freezer. Good stuff.
New Zealand Meat Pie from North Shore Pie Co.
Toronto has a large number of Syrian refugees. As the years go on they're starting to open their own restaurants like this colorful looking spot that specializes in flatbread and treats like Knafeh. I decided to try the most popular item according to the nice lady taking my order. A Zaatar flatbread (Manaeesh) which is served folded over like a quesadilla. Zaatar is a blend of thyme & olive oil topped with fresh cucumber, tomatoes & mint. It was about 90 and sunny outside so this was the perfect snack for the weather. The bread was perfect. I wish we had a spot like this in Chicago is something I kept saying throughout this trip. Not a knock on Chicago though. Rather a testament to Toronto.
Manaeesh at Soufi's
Saffron Spice Kitchen
While most folks back home were eating burgers and hot dogs on the Fourth of July I enjoyed some Sri Lankan food. Sri Lankan being the single cuisine I was most excited to explore. Ever since I first discovered the aforementioned Suresh Doss (who's Sri Lankan himself) I've been very intrigued by this colorful cuisine through his travels there and around Toronto and Scarborough in particular. That's where you'll find the largest Sri Lankan community in North America. Unfortunately it's a bit of a ride from Downtown Toronto and I never made it there choosing to save the entire area for next time. In the meantime there's a fantastic Sri Lankan spot that's easily accessible on Queen street. I was there for the Kottu Roti which I'd read the owner of Spice Kitchen was obsessed with. Chopped up roti is stir fried with lamb, veggies, and curry which seemed like the type of dish I would love. It definitely was.
Kottu Roti at Saffron Spice Kitchen
Our early July visit came right around the time this place was starting to make noise. Dreyfus is from a Joe Beef alum thus there's lots of French-Canadian influence. You wouldn't notice it if just walking by. It's tucked into a house that's also the home to a music teachers office. Inside the feel is of a natural wine bistro. The Dreyfus was the first of a few stops that night. So we went somewhat light. For starters an order of Marinated Mackerel with fresh cucumbers was wonderful. The perfect bite in what was the hottest time of the year in Toronto. The Pommes Dauphine was said to be the most popular item on the menu. They were light as air and felt as if the insides were hollow and not filled with mashed potatoes. One of my favorite bites (literally) of the trip were the finger food mash-up of a Cuban sandwich and a Croque-Madame - the Croque Cubano. I expect to see Dreyfus on Air Canada's popular best new restaurants list at the end of 2019. So make reservations before you go.
Meal at the Dreyfus________________________________________________________________________
I didn't think it was possible to create a Haitian bar as cool as Agrikol in Montreal. But Rhum Bar here in Toronto comes close. We loved both the food and drinks. The former of which had the usual suspects as far as Haitian dishes as well as some less known ones. Ever heard of Cashew Chicken? Not the American-Chinese dish but the Haitian version which they make here. But like I said we were hitting up a few spots this evening so we ended up splitting a plate of Griot (fried pork) with pikliz. We both adore this dish which is so much better when made fresh as is the case here. The plate came with some stir fried veggies as well as smashed plantains. As always the star of the show was the pikliz (pickled cabbage and carrots) which when ate with the pork is one of my favorite things.
Griot at Rhum Corner
Après Wine Bar
We ended the night with some natural wine at Après Wine Bar. It's a sister restaurant to a popular spot called Canis. It opened early this year and has a menu of small plates to enjoy with the wine. The food is meant to be items that go great alongside wine and a plate of duck confit with oyster and white button mushrooms was causing flashbacks to France. It's rare for the duck not be the focal point of a dish with duck confit but the oyster mushroom was like a perfectly seasoned piece of meat.
Duck Confit at Après Wine Bar
Hot Pot Restaurant
There were lots of musts this trip. Jamaican jerk chicken being one of them. I still think this is the best chicken preparation ever as far as recipes and traditions go. Just make sure the chicken is being grilled over live coals. As far as finding that in Toronto that means heading over to York which is where Toronto's fading Little Jamaica is located. There's a row of restaurants along Eglington ave where they break out the oil drums on the sidewalk and start cooking. It's kind of like a mini social event for the neighborhood as lots of locals hang out and chill. I walked up to the Hot Pot Restaurant and was greeted by the grillmaster in part English part Patois. I got me a 1/4 bird with rice and peas and extra sauce ladled on top. I ate a little bit of it as I chatted with the grill guy about his hometown Ochos Rios which I've never been to as I could never go to Jamaica and not go to Negril. The jerk was on point though maybe a bit overcooked as I arrived later in the evening around 10/11p.
Jerk Chicken at Hot Pot Restaurant
We walked over to this hip Northern Thai kitchen for lunch around opening and it was packed shortly after that. The flavors of Northern Thailand are something I’ll never get sick of. The stir fried chile Morning Glory was glorious like I remember it to be in Chiang Mai where we ate it daily for a week straight. Killer Khao Soi too. This spot wasn’t on my hit list but thanks to a quick tip from Suresh Doss on restaurants near my hotel it was the perfect lunch. Downtown is the spot to eat Thai food.
Lunch at Sabai Sabai
Sang-Ji Fried Bao
One of the driving factors in driving to Toronto was for some Sheng Jian Bao. I'm not even kidding. You cant find this delicious style of dumpling anywhere in Chicago and so those in the know say you wont find any good ones in America period. The ones I had from a famous spot in Hong Kong remain the best dumplings I've ever ate. I needed to get my fix as it had been almost an entire year since I first tried them in China. Toronto somehow has a few spots that specialize in these fried soup dumplings. Sang-Ji is one of them. They offer a few other menu items but the sheng jian bao are why everyone is here. They come four to an order and are ready quickly as they're made ahead and then left to steam. It's tough to wait when you have four luscious looking dumplings sitting in front of you but you must or else risk burning your mouth up bad. I waited more than 10 minutes and they were still piping hot but I was fine with the heat as I needed to eat. Some of the juiciest dumplings I can remember.
Sheng Jian Bao at Sang Ji Fried Bao
What’s a trip to T.O without a ride up and into North York and beyond? 'Tehranto' is home to over 100,000 Iranians. So you know the Persian food options are aplenty. You could dedicate a career to covering all the businesses stretching from North York up into Vaughan which is where I went for lunch. Pars Grill sits in the middle of a strip mall. You wouldn’t notice it if just riding down the streets but plenty of locals know this is where to go for gigantic plates of charcoal grilled kebabs. The specialty of the house is the regional Torsh Kebab. Veal is marinated in a paste of crushed walnuts, pomegranate juice, parsley, olive oil, and garlic. When grilled over hot coals it becomes smokey, sweet, and sour. Paired with that perfect Persian rice and a char grilled tomato with fresh salad seems pretty simple but it’s also perfection on a plate. Another gem from Suresh Doss and his CBC Toronto duties covering the city’s world class food scene. I need to go back for the koobideh kebab.
Torsh Kebab at Pars Grill
Toronto is home to the largest diaspora of Tibetan people in North America and the Parkdale neighborhood is their hub. There’s plenty of options for Momo dumplings including this cool little cafe just off Queen St. West. Momo are the backbone of the community as many of its people have never been to Tibet. Some are born and bred Canadians while others like Loga and his son were born in India and moved to Canada. The making of Momo is a family ordeal and a way to preserve the culture. In many cases the people of Toronto are gifted with some delicious snacks when these Momo are made for family restaurants like Loga’s. Get the beef which are deep in beef / onion flavor. Consider yourself warned with that red sauce. It packs heat. Loga’s has been on my radar since the T.O episode Eddie Huang’s ‘Huang’s World’ on Vice. I was hyped to finally stop by and both the food and service couldn’t have been better.
Momo Dumplings at Loga's Corner
It was only one trip but I got the feeling Toronto is home to some of the best Greek food outside of Greece. Aside from the bustling Greektown you'll find Greek restaurants scattered throughout the city. Mamakas Tavern is serving slightly elevated Greek food. It's kind of like a Greek bistro. Inside it's a beautiful space on a popular dining block. We started with an order of fresh cut potatoes topped with a tzatziki aioli. Simplicity wins with this one. We couldn't decide between the lamb chops and the days fresh catch. We probably should've got both bc the fish was really good but I left wondering about the lamb chops. That said this meal had me aching for a trip to Greece for some food and fun.
Greek Food at Mamakas Tavern
Imanishi Japanese Kitchen
We ate lots of Japanese food last time we came to Toronto. This time around we skipped the Vancouver Izakaya imports and focused on Toronto's homegrown spots. One of which is this low key Japanese kitchen pushing classic Japanese comfort food. The goal is to make you feel like you're a guest of someones Tokyo home and the food reflects this in a really good way. Most Japanese folks don't make ramen or yakitori or even sushi at home. So don't expect to find many of the dishes tourists like to eat at restaurants in Japan. For example potato salad is big in Japan and while it can be found on izakaya menus it's simple enough to make in the leisure of your own home. Imanishi uses a recipe incorporating sardines and serves their potato salad with taro chips. A plate of sashimi was stellar and plates of both corn kakiagi and chasu (braised pork cheek) were pretty much perfect.
Japanese Comfort Food at Imanishi Japanese Kitchen
There's a large Filipino population in Toronto and they've been there long enough to where the second generation Filipino kids are opening spots. BB's Diner is a weekends only (Fri/Sat/Sun) Filipino brunch destination. It's a small space inside of a pink house transformed into a restaurant. We went around the 11a opening and had to wait in line for about 10/15 minutes. The menu is fairly small but very mighty. Popular choices to start are the buttermilk fried wings that put Jollibee to shame. They come served with an amazing side of orange sauce. Maybe the best fried chicken I've ate this calendar year. A plate of what they just called greens in blackbean sauce was also killer. They have a choice of two breakfast plates with eggs. One of which is homemade corned beef hash. Probably my favorite breakfast dish so it was an easy decision for me over the marinated kingfish. I want to eat all my corned beef hash with a side of garlic rice from here on in. Worth the wait. Highly recommended.
Filipino Brunch at BB's Diner
How about some brekkie mate? That's breakfast in Australian slang. Man Toronto really does have it all. Over the past decade or so restaurants in Australia have made breakfast the country's strong point when it comes to food. Breakfast plates in trendy Australian cities like Sydney feature all sorts of bright colors and relatively healthy ingredients. It's almost an art which is why it's taken off in the last decade - Instagram. Baddies is in a what looked to be a formerly rundown area going through some gentrification. They had a full house on our visit but bc you walk up order and take a number there's quick turnover on the tables. Stuff like Avocado Toast is big here but we opted for a breakfast sandwich. Made with housemade sausage, fried egg, pickled red onions, coriander sauce and more. The best part was the house baked bun. It was light and fluffy but sturdy enough to hold everything.
Breakfast Sandwich at Baddies
Danforth Roti Shop
Had we just been passing through Toronto and only had one option for lunch Trinidadian food would've been it. Usually I get my fix while in South Florida as there are no spots serving food from Trinidad in Chicago. The two most popular items when it comes to the cuisine of the Indo-Caribbean nation are roti and doubles. The former is similar to a burrito in that curried meats and or vegetables like potatoes are wrapped up in a wrap and easily ate on the go. West Indian style roti is primarily made from wheat flour, baking powder, salt, and water, and cooked on a tawa. Popular fillings incl. chicken curry and my personal favorite curry goat. Danforth Roti House makes an amazing roti. I've never had a bad roti (they're always good) but this one was just about perfect. I also enjoyed my doubles (always pronounced plural) which is the most popular street food of Trinidad made with two pieces of flat bread dough that are filled with curry channa and an extra hot pepper sauce. I LOVE this stuff.
Roti and Doubles at Danforth Roti House
Efes Kebab House
Turkish food was also something I was interested in exploring. I didn't quite work out to my liking bc a couple of the spots I really wanted to get to didn't happen. Not just that but I also ordered wrong at Efes Kebab House which is a popular Turkish restaurant on Danforth. The pro move here is the Adana Kebab which is cooked over live charcoal. The grill is in the back so I totally spaced out and focused on the shawarma in front. I tried a beef doner which was still good for the traditional Turkish style but it's not the style I prefer. I like the Turkish expats in Germany's version a bit more.
Doner Sandwich at Efes Kebab House
Greektown is loaded with gyro shops and some of them are very well known. I chose to hit up a low key locals type place for what I was hoping to be some real deal Greek gyros. Meaning some spit roasted pork stuffed into a pita with fries. The spit of pork gyro meat at Souv Like was exactly what I was hoping to see. I ordered a sandwich and took it outside to sit in front and watch the Greektown traffic go by. I got what I wanted as far as an "authentic" pork gyro goes. Not all gyros in Greece are made with pork meat but it's the most popular amongst the people and thus the most common.
Pork Gyros at Souv Like
Many of Toronto's most historic restaurants are immigrant owned. Yueh Tung is one of them. They lay the claim of having introduced Toronto to one of it's favorite dishes. Indo-Chinese Chili Chicken is found all over town as Indo-Chinese food is a big part of many Toronto peoples diets. Indo-Chinese being the food made popular by the Chinese community that has lived in Kolkata going back over a century. Just like Canadian-Chinese or Peruvian-Chinese it too has it's own signature dishes and Chili Chicken is one of the most popular ones. The owners daughters are doing what it takes to bring Yuen Tung into modern times of the restaurant world but they aren't doing anything to the classic Hakka recipes they've served for more than 30 years. The signature Chili Chicken (ordered dry) is a delicious plate of spicy fritters and grilled onions that gets crispier by the minute when you order the dish on the sizzling platter for $1 more. Chili, garlic, and ginger are all big ingredients in Indo-Chinese cooking so expect lots of that from here. S/O @mr_ez_livin for verification of it's deliciousness. There's a reason they go through 200 lbs of chicken a day.
Dry Chili Chicken at Yueh Tung
Pinky's Ca Phe
If it weren't for the hot ass dining room our meal at Pinky's Ca Phe would've been near perfect. By which I mean this tribute to the Vietnamese-Cambodian bars and hangouts of the 1970's set in an old house gets hot in the middle of July. That's bc the open air kitchen is literally what was once probably the kitchen. Out in the backyard they have a full fledged grilling rig setup where much of the meat gets cooked. It's not always going to be scorching hot so do what you can to experience this fun spot with a killer dish. But first an order of soft shell crab fried rice which was very nice. But the Pork Jowl lettuce wraps may have been my favorite dish of the trip. Thinly sliced pork jowl which was grilled over charcoal is served with a deliciously funky SE Asian dressing and served with lettuce wraps and julienned veggies. One of the best little snacks I've ever had at a trendy spot like this.
Dinner at Pinky's Ca Phe
Wafels & More
Before heading back we stopped over at the Kensington Market as we hadn't been over there yet. I liked the area on my first trip but you really only need to go over there once. It's not the best as far as produce and shopping and there's other areas where better food options are more compacted together. That said the Belgian waffles from Wafels & More were the perfect breakfast before hitting the road. The decision of which to do was a hard one as there were so many other spots I wanted to try in Toronto alas most of them weren't opening early and it made more sense to get on the road and back into the US as soon as possible. The line at the border was at least two miles long going into the Windsor streets so we made the right decision in that it took longer due to waiting to cross.
Belgian Waffle at Wafels & More