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

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Meet Parkdale's master of the barbecued pig

There's a guy in Parkdale that you've got to meet. His name is Bernard and he's 80 years old. He runs a Filipino specialty shop, Bernard's Pilipino Specialties, at 1534 Queen Street West, just west of Jameson. 

Bernard (above) is a charming former health-care worker who hails originally from Ilo Ilo in the Central Philippines. He's been running this small Filipino specialty store with his wife Cecilia in this location since 1984.  
They sell sauce mixes and canned goods from the Philippines. Many of the products are so old that the labels are falling off and their colour has faded. The shop also sells fresh baked good such as the yummy hopia baboy cookies, made with onion and a bright purple yam called ube. If you like natural beauty products, you can't get more earthy than gogo, a bark used in the Philippines instead of shampoo.

Bernard used to specialize in longaniza (sweet Filipino sausages) but now his claim to fame is barbecued pigs made to order. Filipinos call this type of pork lechon, and it has origins in the country's Spanish colonization. Bernard cooks the pigs in a giant, ancient-looking gas oven in the back of his shop. Be careful if he takes you back there--there is grease everywhere, on the floor and in buckets on the ground.

Members of the local Filipino community order barbecued pigs for family events and special occasions. On Christmas Eve, for example, Bernard cooked a whopping 60 pigs for the festivities. "When I moved to Canada in 1970, there were around 5,000 Filipinos in Toronto," muses Bernard. "Now there are almost 250,000." He uses a traditional recipe from his home island, stuffing the pig with lemon grass and garlic.

Bernard also makes chicharron, or pork rinds--one of the most extreme junk foods ever created, in my opinion. The skin of the pig is cut into squares (see below) and boiled. Spices and salt are added and the skins are deep fried, making a salt-and-fat packed punch guaranteed to take a few months off your life.

A whole pig costs $100 to $160. If that's too big of a commitment, just come by on Saturday or Sunday and ask for a pound of pork to go. They'll chop you up some meat for $5.50 a pound. It comes with Bernard's excellent lechon sauce, made with sugar, vinegar, black pepper and a bit of liver. 
Bernard hopes to retire one day to the Philippines, but for now he keeps running the shop to get money for charity projects back home. Make sure you get down to say hello to Bernard before too long. None of his five kids have chosen to follow their father's footsteps, so the master of barbecued pigs won't last for another generation in Parkdale. 

Thanks to Carly's Whey for the tip. 

Bernard's Pilipino Specialities at 1534 Queen Street West just west of Jameson. Tel: 416 534 3640. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Abandon your hipster brunch diner and try this amazing Ethiopian breakfast

Unbeknownst to the hungover hipsters who line up at College Street diners for their weekend brunch, one of the best breakfast joints in the city is an Ethiopian restaurant just off Ossington. Lalibela, a popular restaurant at 869 Bloor Street West, serves a killer breakfast with coffee guaranteed to get you moving. 

Breakfast is served from 10am at Lalibela, and most of the items are different than those served later in the day. One excellent dish is the firfir special (below left; $8), which is made from the spongy Ethiopian injera bread cooked with butter, hot peppers and yogurt. The dish gets its punch from berbere, a curry-like spice mixture.

The scrambled egg ($6) looks like any regular diner fare, but is made with lip-smacking spices and jalepeno. The kenche (below) was another hit—it's a airy cracked wheat dish similar to couscous that's flavoured with butter, ginger, coriander and garlic.

Other breakfast dishes on the menu include foul, a mashed bean dish common across North Africa and the Middle East, and qunta firfir, a cube of dry meat that resembles jerky.

There are also some interesting drinks to sample. Our waitress, Rahel, chops up some fresh ginger for tea and serves it in a glass with a regular tea bag. After the meal is eaten, it's time for the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Rahel brings out a metal ladle, where she roasts fresh coffee beans (shown below).  The coffee is served in a clay pot and comes with smoking incense and an enormous basket of popcorn. Syrupy and potent, the coffee is guaranteed to jump start your day.

Lalibela is located at 869 Bloor Street West, with a second location at 1405 Danforth Ave. It's open 7 days a week, 10 am to 2 am. 

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