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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

This insane Brazilian burger is loaded with beef, bacon, chicken, cheese, ham, corn, egg and even french fries

Update as of March 2015: This storefront is covered in paper and looks to be closed. If you have information, please share in the comments below this post. 

Brazilian burgers are not your ordinary burgers. Forget about two-all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. The folks at Novo Horizonte Sports Bar at 1430 Dundas Street West at Gladstone take it to the next level by layering four types of meat—among other things— onto their burgers. 

The owner, Maria das Gracas, serves beer and burgers to an entirely Brazilian crowd. She hails from Minas Gerais, a state in southeastern Brazil. Maria fries up the hamburger, ham and bacon on a tiny grill in the corner of the bar. The scent of bacon wafts out into the street. 

If you're coming here, don't bother with half-measures. Go for the "X-Everything" burger. Apparently the X comes from the way Brazilians pronounce the letter X in Portuguese. They say "sheesh,"  which sounds like the english word "cheese," so the X-Burger is their cheeseburger. 

The X-Everything comes with hamburger, chicken, bacon, fried egg, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pieces of corn and thin-cut "shoestring" french fries. The whole thing is so messy that it's actually served with a baggy around it so it doesn't ooze out when you're eating it. 

The result is a yummy mess of a burger, where the hamburger patty is only one of many attractions. Each bite is different. You can wash it down with some Guarana, a soft drink made from a Brazilian fruit. 

Also on the menu is the picanha, a high-quality burger made of rump meat, and linguiƧa, a Portuguese sausage burger. The coxinha, a ball of battered and spiced shredded chicken, is a delicious snack.  
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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

If you love lamb, you will be crazy about the Chinese Halal Restaurant in Scarborough

Along the Markham/Scarborough boundary there are endless rows of modern strip malls filled with Chinese restaurants. Chinese Halal Restaurant, which serves the food of northwest China, is truly special.

Chinese Halal Restaurant, also known as the Chinese Beef and Lamb House, is located at 668 Silver Star Blvd (see map below). It was founded by Chef Li, who ran several halal restaurants in northwest China. It says it's the first halal restaurant for the Toronto Chinese community. There is also another location in North York, at 101 Ravel Road.

Reading through the extensive menu is an experience to itself. Where else can you get fried ox tongue, spicy jellyfish and lily-fried celery?

I came here for the lamb and I wasn't disappointed. Every part of the animal is on the menu in endless combinations. You can get lamb organs soup, lamb dumplings, barbecue lamb, curry lamb, fried lamb tongue, friend lamb lungs, jellied lamb, and "special lamb bones," just to name a few.

This intense and yummy soup has bits of lamb skin and organs in it. 
These cumin lamb skewers are to die for. Perfection.  
Beans with garlic and of course bits of lamb. Wonderfully crisp.
These pancakes are filled with spiced lamb and green onion. A bit on the greasy side. 
They went a bit too crazy on the cumin in this beef dish. 
The bottom line: If you are a fan of lamb, you'll love this place, particularly the skewers.

Chinese Halal Restaurant is open seven days a week, 11:30am to midnight.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

These crazy Chinese guys mix Asian cuisine with Mexican comfort food

When Minh La goes on holidays in Mexico or Cuba, he is often greeted by locals shouting of "chino," the Spanish word for Chinese. So when Minh opened up a burrito joint with another Chinese-Canadian, Victor Su, they decided to run with the theme, calling it Chinos Locos, or "Crazy Chinese."

The restaurant is located in the east Toronto neighbourhood where Minh grew up, at 4 Greenwood Ave at Queen Street. There's a second location at 459 Church Street, a couple blocks south of Wellesley (see maps below).

Victor and Minh have a love of Latin American culture, and they've decorated the tiny space with Mexican wrestling masks and sombreros, along with one of those ceramic good luck cat sculptures you always see in Asian restaurants.

Minh, a former chef at the fancy Asian restaurant Blowfish on King West, brings careful attention to each and every ingredient that goes into his burritos. The chicken is all-white breast meat. For the pork burrito, he slow roasts pork leg for four hours in an Asian-style marinade made of honey and soy. The hot sauce is also made from scratch.

In addition to their chicken, pork, steak and bean burritos, Chinos Locos also has specials like its Korean BBQ burrito, jerk chicken burrito and General Tao chicken burrito. For vegetarians, there is a bean burrito as well as a vegan burrito with tofu, eggplant and shitake mushrooms. For all the burritos, you can choose between rice or chow mein noodles.

The fish burrito is made with sauteed basa, an Asian fish. Usually I don't bother ordering fish burritos or tacos and you can never taste the fish anyways, but here, the generous portions of marinated basa hold up well inside the burrito. 

The Korean BBQ with chow mein burrito ($8.99) was an interesting novelty, but I preferred the more traditional pork burrito with rice. It was perfect in every way and was just $6.99. And while both the Church Street location and the Greenwood Street location have great food, Greenwood is definitely my favourite due to its charming ambiance. 
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Monday, April 18, 2011

The wonders of Toronto's Japanese Mall

In a barren complex in Markham lies the bustling Japanese Mall, J-Town. It's the biggest Japanese mall in the Greater Toronto Area, and here you'll find a wide sampling of the great foods of Japan.

J-Town is located at 3160 Steeles East off the 404 (map below) and it's open 10am to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 6pm on Sunday.

True, there are some missing items at J-Town these days due to supply and radiation issues following the recent earthquake in Japan. The seafood section, in particular, looked understocked, but still, you'll definitely be impressed by all the great food on offer.

The complex includes stores selling Japanese magazines and clothing.
The grocery store, Heisei Mart, has seaweed, various Japanese sauces and green tea.
Jumbo radishes.
The Cafe Green Tea serves "Western-style dishes you used to have in Japan." They have breaded pork and chicken, hot soba tempura, fried noodles and curried chicken. Plates are $8 to $9.  
A red bean pastry at the Cafe Green Tea.
A woman makes fresh tofu behind the grocery store.
Bakery Nakamura serves additive-free pastries and breads. Here is the tuna and cheese crown and a ketchup and mayo knackwurst.
Black sesame custard bun and green tea bun with red bean paste.
Feeling brave? Try the  beef curry donut.
Famu, the butcher shop, sells Japanese cuts of naturally-raised meat.
Get a lunch plate for as cheap as $3.88. 
Pick up some octopus, albacore tuna, charcoal grilled eel or black cod from the Sakana-Ya fish market.
Sushi chefs in action.
Normally 90% of the fish here comes from Japan, but more fish from other regions is being sold right now.
Sea urchin roe is a delicacy in Asia.
Still have some money left in your pocket? Pick up some premium fatty tuna belly for $120 a pound. This package costs $139.20. While you're at it, pick up a rare geoduck clam for sixty bucks.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

For just $2, Chinatown's Vietnamese sandwiches put Subway to shame

update as of Mar 2015: Banh Mi Che Cali is closed but Nguyen Huang Food Co is still open. 

Toronto's downtown Chinatown is the home of several much loved shops that sell Banh Mi. Also known as Vietnamese subs or Vietnamese sandwiches, they are a wonderful hybrid of French and Asian culinary traditions.

Nguyen Huong Food Co. is located at 322 Spadina just north of Dundas. It's rival Banh Mi & Che Cali ("Sandwiches and Sweet Dessert") is next door.

Apparently banh mi was born in the French IndoChina era, when the Vietnamese adapted French jambon, baguette and mayonnaise sandwiches by adding Asian tastes such as barbecue pork, pickled carrots and sliced chili peppers.

Banh Mi Nguyen Huong's BBQ pork sandwich was a great combination of salty, spicy meat with fresh, moist, flavourful veggies such as shredded daikon (white radish), carrot and cilantro. I also tried the sardine sandwich and Che Cali's grilled tofu sandwich, and both were good.

Most small sandwiches at Banh Mi Nguyen Huong are just $2.00 and the big ones are $2.50, putting Subway's Five Dollar Footlong to shame.

Banh Mi Nguyen Huong also has locations in Scarborough, Vaughan and North York.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

A charming little piece of Newfoundland in the GTA

Newfies and Maritimers who have migrated to Toronto don't have to go without the tastes of home. Much of the distinctive East Coast cuisine is available in a little shop called Seaport Merchants at 1101 Victoria Park Ave. and St. Clair East. (See map at end of post.) 

Fish, of course, is the main attraction. "Our fish comes fresh from the East Coast and Ontario lakes," says Lorne, who started the business with his father—who hails from Newfoundland—in the late 1970s. At the time, the neighbourhood had a lot of people from the East Coast and Caribbean, but now it has bigger numbers of Sri Lankans and Filipinos.

Depending on the season, the shop sells snow crab, dungeness crab, sword tuna, mahi mahi, marlin and salmon. 
Co-owner Marilyn shows off the live lobster.
Lorne, also co-owner, with one of the large pots he rents out to cook lobster at large family gatherings and fundraisers.
The shelves are stocked with all kinds of East Coast packages foods, and many might seem strange to someone who isn't from the region. You can buy large cans of lobster bisque and clam chowder, and tubs of cured navel beef.

The Newfoundland pudding bag can be used to make pease pudding, a dish made of split yellow peas.
Cured navel beef (salt beef) is used to make the traditional Newfoundland meal Jigg's dinner.
The store has many different products made by Purity, a popular Newfoundland brand.
Chow Chow, Marilyn tells me, is a Nova Scotia sauce made from unripened tomatoes and served on fish.
Partridgeberries (left, better known as lingonberries) make a wonderful tart jam; cod tongues are, um, the tongues of codfish.
Marilyn says it's easy to figure out where each customer is originally from. "I can tell by the combination of things they buy," she explains. "A certain combination of candy and pickled fish would be a dead giveaway."

There are several other stores specializing in Newfoundland cuisine in the Greater Toronto Area. You can check them out in Adam McDowell's story in the National Post.

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