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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The best and worst of Spice City in 2011

I've had a blast exploring all corners of the city in search of great ethnic food in 2011. In addition to enjoying countless great meals, I've had a chance to chat with fascinating people at restaurants and on Twitter and Facebook. Special thanks to Torontoist and AutoShare for their support.

Here's a round up of some of the best, worst and strangest things I've encountered on my food adventures this year.

Best hang out: You can easy end up spending an afternoon chatting with the friendly folks at the Haitian restaurant St. Clair Bakery & La Belle Jacmeliene in Scarborough.

Most memorable dessert: Gourmet Garden serves up a crazy crushed ice dish called ais kacang. The ice is sweetened with syrup and comes with strings of jelly, salted peanuts, creamed corn, red beans and sweet basil seeds.

Worst meal: I was excited to find this little Nigerian restaurant, Planet Nollywood, in the India-Africa mall, but we were served chunks of lukewarm, burned chunks of meat by a sullen waitress. Barely edible.

Best renovation: It's been amazing to see the transformation of El Gordo's empanada shop in Kensington into a full on hub of Latin cuisine, complete with a tranquil back patio.

Craziest burger: Novo Horozonte's Brazilian "sheesh burger" comes with a baggie around it to keep the ridiculous amount of toppings on it: it comes loaded with chicken, bacon, a fried egg, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pieces of corn and thin-cut french fries.

The spiciest food: When I ate the dumplings in chili sauce at Ding Tai Fung in Markham my throat literally constricted and I had trouble breathing for two or three minutes.

Best community effort: I'm constantly impressed by the enthusiasm of the rag-tag bunch of vendors serving food out of old containers at Scadding Court.

Worst service: A staff member at MJ's BBQ & Suya screamed at me and threatened to call the police if I didn't delete my photos, even though I had asked another staff member for permission. I threw my money on the table and left before my meal arrived.

Best restaurant run by a cult: Green Earth serves vegetarian food and follows the teachings of the Supreme Master.

Strangest dish: The charming Motherhome Myanmar Cuisine serves the traditional Burmese dish of fermented tea leaves, an incredibly bitter meal that I think you need to grow up with in order to appreciate.

Most surprising foodie find: I was amazed to discover an excellent ethnic food court inside the flea market by Downsview Airport.

Best part of the GTA for food: This may surprise you downtown dwellers, but Scarborough can't be beat if you love cheap ethnic eats.

Spice City Toronto will be back in the new year. Have a great holiday and keep sending in restaurant tips.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Awesome Toronto street food: grilling jerk chicken on the sidewalk at 4 in the morning

There's been endless handwringing about Toronto's lack of street food options, but if you know where to go, you'll find some world-class street eats here. You've got to feel a blush of pride in our city when you watch jerk chicken being grilled over coal fires on the sidewalks of Eglinton West.

Three rival Jamaican restaurants, Spence's Bakery, Rap's and Hot Pot Restaurant (at 1539, 1541, 1545 Eglinton West) pull out oil drums that have been converted into barbecues nightly around 7pm and start grilling jerk chicken. The tradition was started in the 1990s by Spence's, and the years of smoke have left the restaurant's main awning completely charred. Rap's has had the same man grilling it's chicken, Horace Francis, for twenty years. 

"When we first started doing this, I wasn't sure if it would take off," says Horace Rose, the owner of Rap's, "For sure, I didn't think it would work during the winter." 

Not only does the barbecuing take place year-round, it goes until 6 in the morning on the weekends, and until 5am on other nights. "People go party at the clubs and everybody comes here to eat after," says Roy, the jerk pork specialist at Hot Pot (pictured below).  

For all three restaurants, the chicken is marinated and partially cooked inside, then transported to the grill to be finished off. Grilling specialists douse the grill with water from plastic pop bottles. You purchase a $5, $7 or $10 container inside the restaurant and bring it out to be filled up at the grill. 

The chicken has a delightfully smokey flavour. It's a bit on the dry side, but this can be remedied by dousing the meat with the sweet, tangy hot sauce. Hot Pot's jerk pork was even better: juicy and much spicier than the chicken. 

For the Eglinton West's sizeable Jamaican community, the steel drums are the taste of home. "I started eating at drums back in the 1970s in Jamaica, " Horace Rose says. "In the evening, people put out drums on the street and you can go and buy a whole chicken. Ever since this time it's been something special for me." 

Thanks to Andrew D. for the tip. 

Spence's Bakery is at 1539 Eglinton West; Rap's is at 1541 Eglinton West and Hot Pot Restaurant is at 1545 Eglinton West. They are just a few blocks away from Eglinton West subway station. The restaurants start grilling most nights around 6:30 or 7pm and go until 5 or 6 am.

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