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

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Absolute roti perfection at Drupati's

I knew it was going to be a good meal when a regular customer invited me to his table to try his food and listen to anecdotes about his love for the restaurant. Drupati Doubles & Roti Shop, located at 975 Albion Road in Etobicoke, inspires this kind of devotion in many of its loyal patrons. 

"Five days out of seven I eat here or at the Drupati's in Brampton," enthused Trinidad native Vaughn Khan (below), who started coming here in 1994. "The food is just as good or better than what they serve in Trinidad. Servings are large, the food is excellent and the people are like family."

Even with high expectations, I was impressed by the food. Normally I find that Caribbean roti can't compete with my favourite Indian-style roti from Gandhi's Indian Cuisine, but Drupati's roti was just as good, if not better than the Gandhi classics.

The dough was made up of many thin layers dusted with bits of dahl (yellow split peas). Inside, the lamb was tender and lean, with a powerful spicy sauce. A regular sized rotis are $7.49 to $8.99; smaller versions sell for $5.49 to $7.25.

The doubles were also excellent: this dish consists of two fried pieces of bara—a doughy bread—slathered with a chick pea curry for just $1.50. If you like it hot, they will add some sauce made with shado beni, a Caribbean herb.

Drupati's started off as a struggling grocery store run by a Trini family of Indian descent. Business was slow, explains Asha Ramlakhan, daughter of the founding couple, so her mom started cooking up doubles in the tiny staff room and selling them. (Drupati is her mom's first name; she's pictured below with her granddaughter.) "The doubles took off and we started expanding from there."

Then Asha's father took up the cooking, and he's never stopped. "My dad has done all the cooking since day one, and we've never had another cook," says Asha. "He'll be here until he is ready to retire, and I don't know what will happen then."

There are some other interesting menu items if you'd like to try something new. Appetizers include saheena, a greasy spinach fritter, and pulourie, oily balls of dough that make Timbits look like health food, served with a wonderfully tangy tamarind sauce. Duck curry (shown above), goat tripe and fish soup are also available.

Thanks to Gilbert Li for the tip. 

Drupati Doubles & Roti Shop is located at 975 Albion Road, Etobicoke. Telephone 416 745-4189. It's open Tuesday to Friday, 10-8; Saturday 9-8; Sunday 9-6. 

There is another location at 4550 Ebenezer Road in Brampton; Tel 905 794-5944; and 1085 Bellamy Road North, Scarborough; Tel 416 289 9988.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

A hidden buffet serving Portuguese home cooking by the pound

I was surprised to receive an email from one of my Spice City tipsters about a grocery store in my old neighbourhood with a hot food buffet inside. I must have crossed by the place, M&M Fruit & Grocery, a million times. It's located at 1263 Dundas Street West, just across from the 7-11 at Dovercourt.

Outside, the place looks just like your run-of-the-mill corner grocery, but inside, it's a different story. The shop sells a good selection of Portuguese breads and cheeses, and there's a full meat counter in the back. More unusual is the large hot food buffet right inside an aisle, packed full with dozens of southern European specialties. 

While Portuguese take-out barbecue joints aren't hard to find in this part of town, this place is unique, as you can serve yourself. Food is sold for $14.99 a kilo; fish is $21.99 a kilo.

"Customers can choose whatever they like," says the owner, Joel Morais, a native of Portugal's Azores islands (shown above). "I got the idea to do this when I was on a trip to Florida 18 years ago. In the plazas people buy everything by the pound and it's amazing."

Hot food has been served at this 34-year old grocery for a long time, but Joel says his offerings have expanded considerably in the last couple of years. The food is grilled in the shop's basement.

While the buffet is a hit with the Portuguese grandma crowd, it's a great opportunity for non-Portuguese to sample a wide range of the country's dishes that go well beyond the standard barbecue chicken and potatoes. The dishes aren't labelled, but if you ask what they are, you might be in for some surprises.

You can try alcatra, an Azores dish of beef marinated in wine and garlic. There is a wide variety of tasty fish: plump mackerel stuffed with cornbread, good quality tuna steaks in tomato sauce, grilled stickleback and sole filets. Moray eel, another Portuguese delicacy, is served up fried.

The chicarron (fried pork rinds) is a trashy treat, and the blood pudding and blood sausage are undeniably tasty. Another surprisingly pleasant dish is the cow's feet, which is stewed with sausage and chick peas and served extremely tender.

However, you can never be sure of what you will find here. "The food here is always changing," says the Jorge, who works at the meat counter (shown below). "It's never the same twice."

And the final bill? On my first visit I piled in a piece of chicken, those lovely round Portuguese potatoes, and two long grilled fish and it came to $5.55. On a second visit, taking a solid chunk of tuna steak, a large mackerel and a sampling of half a dozen other dishes and it came to around $10. The meal was easily enough to feed two people.

Thanks to Shan for the tip.

M&M Fruit & Grocery is located at 1263 Dundas Street West at Dovercourt. Tel: 416 533 9017. Hot food is served from 9:30 am until 4pm or 5pm. 

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Get a bulgogi burger for five bucks at St. Clair subway station

**UPDATE as of June 2013: I'm getting reports that this business has been replaced with another Korean restaurant. See comments below. 

Toronto is filled with soulless, concrete buildings, but thankfully, some of them house hidden restaurants serving great ethnic food. One such gem is Airima's Kitchen, which serves homemade Korean cuisine in the bowels of St. Clair subway station at St. Clair and Yonge.

Airima's opened about six months ago in a food court by the subway entrance and has quickly gained popularity with local office workers. It was opened by Joe Bang, a Toronto-born former extreme sports spokesperson. His retired parents, an adorable couple who are originally from Seoul, helped their son launch the restaurant and have never left. "They're retired and they're having fun, so they stayed on," says Joe. "It's nice to have them around."

Indeed, it was Joe's mom (named Airima of course) who came up with the idea of selling a bulgogi burger (above), a fusion dish. It features traditional Korean sliced sirloin marinated in soy, garlic, brown sugar and onion, served on an oversized hotdog bun. Overflowing with fried onions and crisp cucumbers, it's topped with hot sauce and Airima's homemade thousand island dressing.

The meat isn't as high quality as you'll taste at some Korean places, but for just five bucks, you'll find it to be a satisfying, if somewhat messy treat. However, Joe himself prefers the traditional method of eating bulgogi on rice. "I think the bulgogi burger is weird," he confesses. "I've never tried it."

The restaurant recently added a $5 kimchee burger to the menu. It's a chopped pork cutlet topped with kimchee, a pungent Asian cabbage pickled with salt, garlic and spices. You can also get a bargain priced Korean pancake for $1.91 and dok boki, a wonderfully alien-looking dish of spicy rice cake that is served on the streets of Seoul, for $6.99. The Korean classic rice dish, bibimbap, sells for $7.49.

One of the nice touches of this place is the free boricha tea, a wonderfully rich caffeine-free drink made with roasted barley and corn kernels (shown below). That alone makes it worth a stop if it's approaching lunch time and you find yourself travelling along the Yonge-University line. 

Thanks to Angelina for the tip. 

Airima's Kitchen is located at 12 St. Clair Ave. East at Yonge, lower level; tel: 647 340 6262. Hours are 7:30 a.m. til 6pm Monday to Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday. 

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