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

Monday, December 9, 2013

The ultimate Japanese comfort food

In an empty food court in the basement of a half-finished condo mall hides a gem of a restaurant. Kaiju, located at 384 Yonge Street in the newly built Aura condo, isn't easy to find. Look for a stairway half a block north of Gerrard, follow the corridor straight and then to the left and you'll find Kaiju, one of only two operating restaurants so far in this food court that is still under construction.

The two-month old restaurant is pan-Asian, featuring dishes from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, but the star of the show is the Japanese curry. Served as an accompaniment to a breaded, sliced pork or chicken cutlet, the curry is milder and sweeter than its Indian predecessor. Intensely thick, you have to eat the curry sauce when it's piping hot before it starts to turn into jelly. "It's made of fruits, vegetables and spices," explains owner Siak Khoon Chen. "We cook it for two days at a very low temperature."

South Asian food lovers will also be interested in the selection of dishes from Chen's home country of Malaysia. While the posted menu only has a few specialties listed such as the hefty fried sambal udon, a longer printed menu behind the counter offers Malaysian dishes such as hokkien mee, char keow tiau and nasi kampung (aka nasi goreng).

Kaiju (Japanese for 'monster') has a charm that is lacking in most food court establishments. Chen brings the food out to the customers' tables, and don't be surprised if he recognizes you and remembers your order from a brief visit a month or two prior.

The first converts to the restaurant are Ryerson and University of Toronto students living nearby. "I came down here one night and I got hooked," explains the Steven, a student originally from Glasgow who lives in a condo in the building. "It's the food quality and the friendliness."

Kaiju is located at 384 Yonge Street on the lower level; tel: 647 748 6338. Hours are Monday to Friday 11am to 8pm; Saturday 12 to 6. 

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    Thursday, November 7, 2013

    Is Queen West ready for Sri Lankan food?

    Toronto is fortunate to have some great Sri Lankan food, but it's not easy to find downtown. Aside from a few Sri Lankan places around Parliament, like Rashnaa, you have to head up to Markham and Scarborough to try the cuisine, which is perhaps described as a labour intensive, spicier version of Indian food, but with dozens of its own unique dishes. However, one Sri Lankan family is bucking the trend by opening up a Sri Lankan take-out spot right on Queen West at Spadina.

    In August, Saffron Spice Kitchen was opened up at 459 Queen Street West by the family that runs Esther's Soup Kitchen (Queen of Soups) at Cumberland Terrace at Yonge & Bloor. It's a venture run in part by Esther, a Tamil woman hailing originally from Colombo, and her nephew Jacob.

    There are several soups of the day available of course, including a mulligatawny soup, an Anglo-Indian spiced classic served with hefty chunks of chicken, carrot and celery. 

    But the star of the show here is the kotthu roti. I recently visited Sri Lanka, and in the evenings there you hear the chop/chop/chop sounds of this dish being made on the street. It's prepared by chopping the morning's stale roti bread on a flat grill, throwing on heaps of chopped veggies, egg and spices, and mixing it all together to create a dish that tastes something like fried rice—but without the rice. It's a fabulous dish that would probably be popular across the globe if people knew about it.

    Kottu roti was supposedly created in Batticaloa, a coastal town in eastern Sri Lanka that was cut off during the civil war, a situation that Jacob says sparked some creative cooking. "During the civil war, Tamils had to make due with any food they could find, as supplies were cut off and they couldn't get food at the store," explains Jacob.

    Saffron Spice Kitchen's version of kottu roti is true to what you'll sample in the island nation. It's hefty, intensely flavourful and punched up with a mouth-warming amount of chili.

    The dish may be a hit in Tamil-heavy Scarborough, but is it ready for prime time on Queen West? Saffron Spice's owners certainly think so. "Oh yeah," says Esther. "We're already crazy busy at lunch time. A lot of people call and ask for kottu roti and they know what it is."

    Soon they plan on introducing Queen Street patrons to some new Sri Lankan flavours. They'll be offering egg hoppers—wonderful, golden rice flour crepes with eggs cooked into them—as well as string hoppers—a noodle type dish served with dahl or curry.

    Saffron Spice Kitchen is located at 459 Queen Street West just west of Spadina. Telephone is 416 203 0222. Hours are Monday to Friday 11am to 10pm. Saturday and Sunday 11am to 9pm. There are a few seats at the counter to eat but the restaurant focuses mostly on take-out. 

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    Wednesday, October 9, 2013

    Seriously good jerk chicken comes to Kensington Market

    It's not hard to find jerk chicken in this town, but all too often it's dry and flavourless. Food lovers in search of good jerk have had to go to Scarborough to pick up the excellent sandwiches at Fahmee or Allwyn's. But now there's a new restaurant serving top notch jerk chicken, smack dab in the middle of Kensington Market.

    In June, Rasta Pasta opened at 61 Kensington Ave., a tiny space formerly occupied by Hogtown Charcuterie. Previously, Rasta Pasta had a brief stint inside the Latin Mall on nearby Augusta Street. The name Rasta Pasta reflects the Jamaican heritage of co-owner Magnus Patterson, and the Italian heritage of his partner, Mary Neglia. 

    You can get oxtail, curry goat or even the namesake dish, Rasta Pasta, which consists of tricolour pasta in the rasta colours with, um, tricolour peppers. Skip all that and go for the jerk. The "lunch special"—a small container of jerk chicken on rice—is just five bucks. 

    The chicken is purchased around the corner at St. Andrew Poultry and marinated in a spicy sauce for two days. Then it's steamed in the oven, and transferred onto the oil drum barbecue outside the shop, where it's roasted for half an hour. 

    It's a similar technique to the nightly oil drum Jamaican BBQs that take place on Eglinton West, but the chicken at Rasta Pasta is much better. It's incredibly moist, with an intense, smoky flavour that doesn't just coat the surface but saturates every bite. Get it while it lasts, because Rasta Pasta's reputation is quickly growing. If you get there too late in the day, they may be out of their soon-to-be-famous jerk.

    Rasta Pasta is located at 61 Kensington Avenue, Toronto. Tel: 647-501-4505. Hours are 11am to 8pm Tuesday to Sunday; closed Monday.

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    Thursday, September 12, 2013

    A new location for the popular Pakistani joint King Palace—kind of

    Many Torontonians are familiar with King Palace, a late night joint on Church Street with a huge array of Pakistani dishes. The place is a magnet for Pakistani cabbies, late night partygoers and downtown residents who want to spend $10 for an enormous, spicy meal. Now there's a new location of the popular chain...sort of. 

    I was recently biking downtown and saw the familiar signage. I was interested to see that a new location of King Palace had opened up at 236 Sherbourne at Dundas, but as I slowed down to check it out, I realized the sign said King Place, not King Palace

    Turns out King Place is pulling a Coffee Lime and mutating the name of an existing, established business. One of the business partners of King Palace, Mr. Butt, left the partnership and set up King Place on Sherbourne in April.

    Inside everything is the same as the Church Street restaurant, right down to the handwritten signs on the counter. There is a large selection of dishes like kashmiri chicken, lamb curry and seekh kebabs, served with naan or rice and a drink in combos that are generally around $9 to $11. Given that the food is cooked hours before and then microwaved, it's certainly not the greatest. But what King Place lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity, and two people can easily share the enormous plates.

    King Palace regulars will remember that the new restaurant is located just a few blocks north of the original King Palace location at Sherbourne and Richmond, which was torn down a few years ago to make way for a condo. And the Pakistani cabbies have flocked back to their old hood, filling the parking lot with their vehicles as they stock up on some late night fuel.

    King Place is located at 236 Sherbourne Street at Dundas; telephone number is 647-352-0786. Hours are 11am to 6am, seven days a week. The food is halal.

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    Monday, August 26, 2013

    A very special Ethiopian restaurant

    Toronto has dozens of Ethiopian restaurants, but Queen Street East's Keeffaa Coffee is truly unique. Located on Queen East near Parliament—one of the only parts of downtown yet to gentrify—Keeffaa is a cross between an independent coffee shop, a hippie organic cafe and a traditional Ethiopian restaurant. It's a strange mix but the somehow the elements combine to make a friendly place with some truly innovative dishes.

    Like many good cafes and bars, Keeffaa is an extension of the personality of its owner, Elsabet Wubie. A bubbly, free thinking artist, Elsabet has her paintings displayed on the cafe's walls. "I cook just like I paint," she says. "I don't use recipes. It just comes to me."

    The quaint back patio is a meeting place for new age types—don't be surprised if you find yourself invited into a conversation on healing techniques or the materialism of Western society. If that doesn't turn your crank the food certainly will.

    The menu is subject to Elsabet's mood, so just ask what's on offer. On one visit I had a cold ginger/mango/lime drink punched up with cayenne, which was surprisingly refreshing. On another visit I had the popular Mexican hot chocolate. For $5, This frothy, rich bittersweet drink has a complex flavour that beats the hell out of anything you can buy at Starbucks. It contains a shot of espresso made from Elsabet's blend of Ethiopian beans, boiled the same way it was made on her grandfather's coffee plantation in Ethiopia.

    In fact, the restaurant name, Keeffaa, is an alternate spelling of Kaffa, the place in Ethiopia where coffee originates, says Elsabet. She likes to combine espresso with different flavours, like ginger, mint or cayenne.

    When it comes to cooking, Elsabet blends the techniques of Italy, where she lived in her teen years, with the influences of her mother, who was a culinary healer in Ethiopia. The menu is also influenced by the preferences of the customers, who gravitate towards vegan and gluten free options. Some dishes are better than others, but the ones that succeed are truly memorable. 

    Elsabet's papaya salad will change the way you think about the fruit. It's a savoury dish served warm and torqued up with ginger, garlic, lime, sweet syrup and her trademark "Ethiopian cayenne" blend of cayenne, sea salt, sundried garlic and cardamom. "I've never had papaya like that," enthused one regular customer.

    The vegetarian planner ($12) comes served on a tray of injera—Ethiopia's spongey, addictive flatbread—which is made out of fermented teff, a type of African grass used to make flour. On top are chunks of kale, beets, lentils, yellow split peas and a fiery tomato salad.

    The restaurant closes at 7pm, so make sure you head there early—and don't wait too long. Keeffaa is best visited while the weather is still warm enough to enjoy the beautiful back patio. 

    Thanks to Mike D. for the tip. 

    Keeffaa Coffee is open Monday to Saturday, 9am to 7pm. It's located at 368 Queen Street East, just east of Parliament. Tel: 416 349 0900.

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    Friday, July 19, 2013

    The real Somali culture of Toronto

    **Update as of Sept 2016, I hear from sources this place is now closed.

    If your only information about Toronto's Somali community comes from the news media, you could easily come to believe that the community is comprised entirely of drug dealing, gun toting thugs. A visit to Dabagoye, a Somali restaurant located a few streets over from the infamous Rexdale house where Rob Ford posed in a photo with alleged gangsters, reveals another side to this Toronto community of 80,000 people. 


    Dabagoye shares double-billing with an African church in this desolate industrial strip of Martin Grove Road near the airport. You won't find the restaurant mentioned on Yelp or Chowhound, but it's well known to Somali-Canadians living in nearby apartment complexes or coming to the city from places like Brampton, Hamilton and Kitchener. 

    My Somali-Canadian friend Maram heard about the restaurant through her relatives at a recent family wedding. The name Dabagoye comes from the nickname of the family who runs the place. It means "tail-cutter," a reference to their northern Somali grandfather's practice of cutting the tails of his camels as a way to brand them and avoid having them stolen. Maram explains that it's common practice for a family to receive a nickname based on their head of household's traits: for example, you might be called "Crazy Mohammed" or "Ali Big Ears" thanks to your father's standout features.  
    Somali food blends African cuisine with Italian colonial influences, and the results are fantastic.  First off comes a bowl of veggie soup that has a surprisingly intense flavour thanks to the goat meat broth.

    Enormous platters start coming to the table in quick succession. The goat meat chops are incredibly tender and fall off the bone with a soft nudge. Seasoned with garlic, lemon and pepper, it's certainly much better than the same dish served at the downtown Somali restaurants. A second plate comes with a mountain of dense couscous coated in a wonderful spinach and okra sauce.

    Somali meals are served with a banana. Maram explains that you chop it up and eat a piece of banana with each bite of rice, which adds some interesting texture to the meal. The traditional green chili hot sauce may be extremely spicy, but it also adds a complex lemon flavour to the rice.

    Owner Kos Ahmed (above centre, with her family) quit her corporate accounting job a couple years ago to open the restaurant with her family. Previously she didn't have much contact with the Somali community, but today she has a strong connection. 

    She hopes that people realize that a few bad people don't represent her community as a whole. "There are many good people," she says. "The Somalis I know are educated. They are engineers and pilots, they are brilliant people." Head to Dabagoye to see it for yourself. 

    Dabagoye is located at 1274 Martin Grove Road, Toronto. Tel: 416 742 3653. Open seven days a week. Hours are Monday to Thursday 11am to 10pm; Friday and Saturday, 11 am to midnight; Sunday opens at 11 and closing time varies. This restaurant is halal. 

    NOTE: During Ramadan (until Aug. 8, 2013) the restaurant opens at 5pm.

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    Saturday, June 22, 2013

    Snake gourd, oxtail, fresh channa and other culinary wonders at Iqbal Halal Foods

    Iqbal Halal Foods is one of the pioneer ethnic grocers in Toronto. Established in 1991 at 2 Thorncliffe Park Drive, this large halal superstore is a well loved destination for Thorncliffe Park's large South Asian community. Another great thing about Iqbal is the location: nestled on the edge on an industrial zone in Thorncliffe Park, it's one of the closest ethnic supermarkets to the city core. 

    I started my visit to Iqbal's off with breakfast in the adjacent Iqbal Kebab & Sweets Centre. For $6.95 you get a spicy potato dish aloo, a chick pea curry called chhole, two fried puri breads, a garnish of Indian pickle and some bright orange cream of wheat. The cream of wheat, explained one of our fellow diners, Nazmul, is made with ghee (Indian clarified butter) and spices, while food colouring gives the dish its orange hue. 

    In the grocery store next door, Nazmul, who hails originally from Bangladesh, kindly offered to show us around the store. First stop was the bread section. There's a wide selection of Afghan flat breads, pitas, naan, chapati and paratha. If you want to make your own dosa or idli, a type of Indian/Sri Lankan breakfast cake made from fermented lentils, you can buy premade batter. 


    The produce section features some veggies you're unlikely to find at many other groceries in town. Iqbal's sells fresh channa—raw, unprocessed chick peas—as well as raw (unroasted) peanuts, which are strangely squishy to the touch. You can sample banana flowers, which can be made into salads, fritters or stir fries. In addition to more familiar vegetables like bitter melon and okra, you can get snake gourd, a long, thin vegetable that resembles a serpent, and betel leafs, a mild stimulant chewed with betel nut. 

    For cheese lovers, there's a good selection of paneer and Middle Eastern cheeses, such as akawie (a milder version of halloume), string cheese and the Palestinian nebulsi. 

    The main attraction of Iqbal's is the meat counter, explains the grocery's co-owner, Anwar Tejani, who hails originally from Pakistan. "People come here because they can get everything in one place. They can get their meat, spices, rice and flour. There are so many traditional things like sweets that they can find here."

    There's a large queue at the meat counter, as people wait for their numbers to come up. In the back, a small army of men chop up the meat for customers, largely by hand with small knives. You can get various cuts of chicken, beef and lamb, plus more unusual things such as cow feet and tongue, oxtail, and nahari beef, ready to be made into a type of south Asian stew. I had the butcher cut me some goat chops, which were easy to grill up on my barbecue, sprinkled with a box of Shan spices recommended by Nazmul.

    Iqbal's also boasts a stash of rice that would get you through a famine, and a selection of bottles containing rose water, orange blossom water, mint water and pussy willow water. These specialties are used for cooking as well as for medicinal purposes. Last but not least,  there's an adorable little ice cream hut outside, serving up fresh juices, shakes and faluda, a South Asian drink made with rose water and jelly pieces. 

    Thanks to Gabby R. for the tip.

    Iqbal Halal Foods is located at 2 Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto. Tel: 416 467 0177. Meat department 416 467 9112. Hours: Monday to Sunday, 7am to midnight.

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    Monday, May 6, 2013

    This insanely popular strip mall joint serves up the best of Northern China

    ***Update as of November 2014: Silk Road has moved to 1852 Dundas Street West in Mississauga.

    What kind of hole-in-the-wall strip mall restaurant requires reservations? On a Monday!?

    When I recently visited Silk Road, a tiny Chinese restaurant in a strip mall in Etobicoke, I was shocked to find out that not only were there no tables available, but waiting wasn't an option—they were fully booked all night. A week later I booked a table (the waiter warned me the tables have a one hour maximum) and I headed back out to Silk Road to see what all the fuss was about.


    The sign outside the restaurant is faded and unreadable and the tiny parking lot seems designed to provoke accidents, but this is the place to be if you like northern Chinese food. People waiting for a table stand awkwardly in the centre of the restaurant, and even a reservation isn't a guarantee that you'll be seated promptly. As you wait, you can watch huge troughs piled high with noodles and meat being placed before large groups of trendy looking Chinese 20-year-olds, adorned with pink nail polish and iPads.

    The food is worth it. Blending influences from southern Chinese food and the dishes of Muslim people to the north, the food is heavy on lamb and spice.

    The excellent lamb and noodle soup ($9.99) is a salty, savoury broth with chili and cilantro chunks that float to the surface. Underneath are impossibly long handmade noodles and ribs with tender lamb meat that easily falls off the bone.  


    The spicy chicken stew ($28) is a gargantuan plate best shared amongst a gang of friends. The platter is weighed down with hefty, blunt chunks of leek, ginger, whole garlic cloves, red chilis, green peppers and tangy dried jujube fruits. Underneath are handmade sheet noodles that are thick like lasagna noodles and whole chicken legs, saturated in a dark, intense gravy.

    The lamb skewers have a wonderful cumin smell that wafts all the way out the back door and to the suburban streets a block away. But the meat is fatty and chewy—for better lamb skewers check out BBQ Store or Chinese Halal Restaurant. Stick with the noodle and rice dishes, and you'll go home happy and very well fed. 

    Silk Road is located at 438 Horner Ave., Etobicoke. Tel: 416 259 9440. Hours are Monday to Saturday 3pm to 10pm; Sundays and long weekends closed. 

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