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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Funny signs at Toronto restaurants

We love our ethnic restaurants and greasy spoon restaurants because each one is independent and unique. One way they express their individuality is through their amusing and sometimes grammatically-challenged signs.

Here's a sampling of ones I've noticed in the Toronto area recently. If you have some photos of amusing signs in restaurants, please send them to me at [email protected]

"Latinos: Trudeau forever in our hearts!" at Segovia Meat Market in Kensington. 
Segovia's Meat Market borrows a page from Honest Ed
Segovia's Meat Market
Next door at El Gordo in Kessingthon Market
The Japanese equivalent of A&W's Mama and Papa burgers, at Cafe Green Tea at JTown Mall 
Not clean fish heads at United supermarket in London, Ont. (Click for larger image)
Reputable since 1955 at the Vesta Lunch at Dupont and Bathurst
Dine on credit at the Vesta Lunch

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I'm in heaven with this butter chicken wrap

What do you get when a half-Iranian half-Pakistani man born in Burma marries a Guyanese woman and opens up a restaurant in Toronto? You get Eastern Twist restaurant, located at 505 St. Clair Ave. West at Bathurst. (see map below)

The menu is a creative combination of the best eats of Asia, with a Caribbean twist. You can get a wrap stuffed with chicken tikka, Pakistani seekh kabab or jerk chicken for $6.95 to $8.95. Vegetarians can enjoy potato, chick pea or spinach curry wraps. There is even a chocolate wrap—think crepe—offered for dessert.

But the most popular item here is the butter chicken wrap. Like all the wraps here, it starts with a thin, light paratha made fresh on the premises. "It's a Pakistani bread that's a cross between roti and naan bread," explains the lovely server Rosary.

The bread is filled with chunks of saucy butter chicken and you can pick your garnishes—tomato, onion, yogurt, cilantro and spicy carrots. The result is a messy but delicious treat.

Rosary has worked at this location since it first opened up four years ago, and she doesn't miss a beat while juggling phone orders, chatting with male admirers and greeting her customers. "Spinach wrap, no yogurt, no onion," she says as one regular walks in. The woman nods. "Hey Harry, have you recovered from your cold?" she asks another patron.

There used to be another location of Eastern Twist in Scarborough, but it didn't survive.  "But this location has been booming since it opened up," says Rosary. She says the owners would like to franchise their operation. I can't see it being the world's next Subway, but it certainly seems right for worldly Toronto.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

East end pizza, Turkish-style

A tip from a Spice City reader led me down to Pizza Pide, a Turkish joint. It's located near Gerrard Square, at 949 Gerrard Street at Pape (see map below).

The place serves pizza, but 90% of the customers come in for the pides. Pronounced "peeday," this is a sort of Turkish thin-crust pizza that comes in many variations.

Owner Mustafa Ozkan, who is from the Black Sea region of Turkey, opened up this restaurant in 2003. He says that originally 80% of his customers were Turkish, but now it's about 50% because much of the Turkish community has moved outside of Toronto.

He explains that unlike pizza, pide has no sauce. He walks us through the menu, telling us the regions of Turkey that each pide comes from. There are so many kinds of pide available here that it's difficult to prepare them all, says Mustafa, who muses about of giving up his restaurant and returning to his previous job as a dump truck driver.

Mustafa says that #1 on the menu, lahmacun, is popular throughout the Middle East and is also a hit with his customers. It's a thin crust topped with spiced ground beef, peppers, onions, tomatoes and parsley.

#1 Lahmacun
For first time visitors, he recommends #18, Karsik. It consists of slices of all his most popular pides.

#18 Karsik
The lahmacun is a tasty treat, like a thin-crust pizza but with spicy meat. The karsik is quite the adventure: one part is has grilled chicken breast in a sea of mozzarella; another has roasted lamb and mozzarella; another has turkish (beef) sausage. My favourite was the spinach and feta, a sort of doughy spanakopita.

It's certainly not a light meal—grease drips down your hands as you eat—but it's tasty. Each pide costs $6.99 to $9.99 and is enough for a meal and possibly leftovers.

You can wash it down with aryan, yogurt drink, although I'd recommend a cherry juice if you're not accustomed to salted yogurt.

Pizza Pide is open 11am to 10pm Monday to Saturday; Sunday 11:30 to 9pm.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Is this quaint vegetarian restaurant in Riverdale part of a religious cult?

Loan Bhan-Le, an immigrant from Vietnam, tells me that she set up this Riverdale eatery after her guru, the Supreme Master, asked her disciples to start up restaurants. "She asked us to open them so people can try vegan food and see that it's not bad food."

The result is Green Earth Vegetarian Cuisine, a vegan restaurant located at 385 Broadview near Gerrard (see map, below). This may be one of the most unusual restaurants I've encountered to date in Toronto. However, it does succeed in its goal of showing that vegan food can be quite tasty.

Photos by Jennifer Hollett

The menu has pages and pages of veggie food options. There are elaborate salads and Asian-style soups, Indian curries, fried rice dishes and pasta. Many dishes have grilled soy protein or grilled tofu.

I ate some tasty spring rolls and surprisingly yummy "shrimp" made out of yam. The crispy lemongrass faux-chicken may be a delight to vegetarians, but if you're a carnivore, you might find it a bit lacking. Prices are reasonable, with appetizers running for $3 to $4, giant soups for $6.50 and entrees for $7 to $10.

It looks like any normal restaurant, except for a few telling details. A TV screen in the corner is tuned to Supreme Master Television, a network that broadcasts the activities of Loan's guru—a spiritual teacher based in Taiwan named Ching Hai—in multiple languages. Stats roll across the screen on the numerous diseases you can get from meat and commentators warn that meat production is causing global warming that is destroying the planet.

The Supreme Master appears on her TV channel.
Green Earth has the Supreme Master's books on display.
The Supreme Master is a bleach-blond woman originally from Vietnam. Her disciples meditate two-and-a-half hours a day using her Quan Yin method of meditation. The Supreme Master says she doesn't accept donations directly, but she does peddle pricy merchandise to her followers online. You can buy a hat for your dog with the Supreme Master logo for $24, or the "at-one-with-creation lamp" for $1,094.

What does Loan say to accusations that her organization is a cult? "We don't care," says Loan. "Just God knows and we know." Loan says she's a buddhist, and that people of any religion can follow the Supreme Master. "We call her a guru, but she says she is just a friend of people."

Green Earth, says Loan, isn't meant to promote the Supreme Master. "I hope my customers become vegan," she says. "I don't care about religion."

Green Earth waitress Shayna with the owner, Loan
Green Earth is just one part of Supreme Master's massive effort to vegangelize people through restaurants. She is behind the international chain Loving Hut, which just opened up two locations in Toronto.  The chain has 160 locations in more than a dozen countries.

For a good story explaining the phenomenon, check out this article in VegNews.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Check out this great new burrito place on Sherbourne

Like many Torontonians, I love to hunt for the best burritos in this burrito-blessed city, so I was happy to discover Bolet's Burrito. It's located at 134 Lower Sherbourne Street south of Front Street East, just past the Rabba Foods.

The restaurant is in an oddly shaped space up a flight of stairs, but that doesn't stop the lunch time crowd from streaming in from the nearby offices.

They offer chicken, beef, pork, veggie, shrimp and fish burritos. The small ones are giant and weigh a ton, and they sell for just $5.25 to $6.75. If you haven't eaten in a few days and are going into hibernation, you could try a large burrito for $6.25 to $7.75.

You can pick your toppings, which include rice, beans, fresh guac (no extra charge), cheese, salsa and hot sauce. The burritos are toasted on the grill. I'd still say that Mission Burrito is my favourite burrito joint in town, but this is pretty great too.

Prescilla makes your burrito to order. 
My recommendation: the small beef burrito
Bolet's Burrito was opened about a year ago by Mauricio and Prescilla, a couple from the Philippines. But even though they are serving Mexican food, they add their own touch of home. On Mondays and Fridays they serve an adobo chicken burrito, made with the soy-and-vinegar-marinated meat that is the national dish of the Philippines.

Be warned that Bolet's isn't open late. Hours are 11 to 7 Monday to Wednesday, 11 to 8:30 Thursday and Friday and 12 to 6 on Saturday.

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Are the authentic Mexican tacos in Kensington Market based on a Lebanese recipe?

El Trompo at 277 Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market serves some of the best tacos in Toronto. The tacos al pastor are Mexico City-style pork tacos served in corn tortillas with pineapple, coriander and lime. It's cooked in a way that's similar to a Middle Eastern shawarma.

At El Trompo, the meat is marinated for two days and then put on a spit and slowly roasted for an entire day with onions and pineapple. They do this during the week when the restaurant isn't as busy, because it makes the restaurant very hot. Indeed, it's this rotisserie "spinning top"—trompo in Spanish—that gives the restaurant its name.

The waitress says she's not aware of any connection between Tacos Al Pastor and Middle Eastern cooking, but it's easy to see that it shares a lot in common with the Lebanese staple, the shawarma. Indeed, David Sterling, an American chef who runs a cooking school in Mexico, writes that waves of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico in the late 1800s and early 1900s had a big impact on Mexican cuisine. 

"The traditional spit-roasted meat called shawarma—generally comprised of layers of seasoned lamb on a vertical skewer that rotates in front of a flame—evolved locally with the substitution of pork marinated in achiote with a pineapple balanced on top," it says on his website Los:Dos

"Thin pieces of pork and pineapple are shaved off of the skewer and onto a fresh tortilla. The now-Mexicanized name of this dish—tacos al pastoror shepherd’s taco—reveals its ancient mideastern roots and belies its principal ingredient, which would no doubt be viewed as a scandalous twist in the pork-eschewing land of its origin."

If you have any information on the origins of this tasty dish, please comment below.

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