“Look at that man… *points to Lake Ontario*…the view, this is why I love this city and rep the 6 (416)… it doesn’t get any better than this” – Ken, Cousin, and Long-Time T.O. Native
Pride, something everyone has when they love a place so much that their enthusiasm is deeply rooted from soft beginnings. For my younger cousin, Toronto (or T dot O as he likes to put it) has a lot to offer for anyone and everyone who decides to explore Canada’s Eastern borders. To provide a broader perspective, this is the first time I’ve ever set afoot on Canadian soil, so I didn’t know what to expect. You’d think with all the jokes South Park pulls on Canada, they’d be good sports about it. Wrong. I met the biggest Douchebag Customs officer ever, and to top it all off, I had another similar racist incident with a Pakistani/Indian man claiming I was a ‘terrorist’ just based on the appearance (For the record, he fit the Terrorist profile to a tee, smh).
Anyways, besides the colorful characters and the payload of lush green scenery (as far as the eye could see), Toronto for the lack of a better term is NYC’s equivalent with the invasion of the French substituted for the immigrants of Ellis Island. From a geographic perspective, Toronto is pincered by the Suburbs aka the Greater Toronto Area (or GTA as most locals refer to it as): Brampton to the west, Mississauga roughly Southwest and Scarborough to the East. The city landscape is wide with the interior extending as far north as York (which extends to North York towards their local Uni). During my short-time I managed to blitz my way through a majority of the suburbs (2 out of 3), barely scathing the eastern portion (Scarborough), but here’s my attempt to summarize the best of what I had to experience from Toronto… There are no ifs ands or buts when it comes to visiting this must-see Canadian Institution. Sure the picture was taken towards the end of my adventure but it looked a lot better than my premiere visit. I know I already blasted this on Instagram but this is a highlight post so whenever you’re up in the Great White North, give this place a shot and maybe you might find Robin Scherbatsky or James Van Deer Beek hanging out? Next up, the classic Asian-Canadian buffet. Granted it wasn’t my first choice but my family’s whom I stayed with for the time being. They were gracious enough to host me and show me around the local Suburb. This spot is a standard destination for most families within the Brampton area. If you’re like me, you know buffets aren’t really that great (unless they’re Las Vegas buffets) to begin with. However, this place caught me off guard and surprisingly it was pretty decent. With $30.00 Canadian currency (CAD), you get a decent choice of items:
What makes it even better was the fact they focused on “controlled food temperatures.” Unlike most American Buffets, I’ve been to (again Exception is Good Quality Vegas Style), they let the food sort of wilt or get mushy under the plethora of Heat Lamps. However within the restaurant premises, they have a Quality Assurance Technician to ensure everything is up to par (or so they Advertised). The difference is in the flavor and you don’t feel as Lethargic as you should after 3 or more plates. Day 3 in Toronto and I wanted to reach outside of the immediate Brampton Perimeter. We ventured into Mississauga where I uncovered a few choice spots. The first caught my eye when a few locals and Yelpers mentioned something along the lines of Sushi Pizza. I thought it was pretty blasphemous but given that California didn’t really create something like this (or at least I’m not aware of it), I figured presenting this set up for this dish might inspire a few restaurants to do the same (or even 1-up the concept overall). The credit for this masterpiece goes to Sushi Park, a Korean sushi owned spot. Their Spicy Tuna rolls definitely had that Gojuchang kick, but my relatives and I were more interested diving into this seafood appetizer. Essentially the “faux-crust” consists of a deep fried tempura California Roll, while it’s topped with a mouthful of Tobiko, Furikake Seasoning, and Salmon Nigiri (yummy!).
After getting our sushi fix, we decided it was time to put Canada’s national treasure to the test: Poutine. I’ve had iterations of this national dish all around California and New York (with nothing really impressive to write about), so I knew it needed to be traditional, ‘lo and behold we came across a Kosher spot that provided something entitled “poutine burger.” This tickled my fancy and it was time to visit A.S.A.P. This particular place which created this hearty and “halal” flavored combo comes from a place called On The Bun. The bun is toasted, the meat prepared in-house, slathered in sauce, and the fries were well seasoned and embedded with the melted cheese. Everything was tasty, however traditionally speaking, this is not the real Poutine I was looking for. Luckily a local McDonald’s (later in the trip) had a regional option that gave me the closest thing to what a Poutine actually consists of (Warwick, Quebec being the home of this legendary staple). You got the fries usually deep-fried, slathered in light brown gravy and more often than not topped with Cheese curds (not sliced or shredded cheese). Overall, it was a pleasant meal and I can’t knock ’em for it especially since it was quite affordable (about $10.00 CAD).
After a few days it was time to hit up some more distinguished foodies. Now people may argue about it but before becoming a “food blogger/writer/whatever” I was originally a Yelper and it was only right to reach out to the Community Manager to see what types of experiences were available, during my short-stay in town. Needless to say, I was fortunate to be added last minute at the afternoon Derby Event, giving us a first hand exposure to those who enjoyed gambling during Horse Races. The odds weren’t really stacked in my favor but I did enjoy a plethora of food, mostly comprised of Hors D’Oeuves. One bite led to another and after so many rounds of cocktails and food, sweets had to be in order:
At this rate, you’re probably thinking, so when am I going to become existential? How about the message behind what Toronto represents historically? (I’ll get to that). Now from Mississauga, we finally venture into what is known as Toronto Proper (there are two sides to the Proper zone, West and East). We took the local metro (TC) from Islington station (very similar to maybe the Bronx or some parts of Queens in New York). The area is nostalgic for my cousins who grew up within the remote vicinity, going to and from school (also noteworthy for the Hollywood movie, Mean Girls), hanging out with friends, only to be estranged and relocated once more towards the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Burbs and losing touch with many of their peers. This particular patisserie is located on Queen Street West (within the Trinity Bellwoods vicinity). At first glance, everything felt very similar to Petit Tout Sweet (San Francisco, Macy’s Union Square, aka Top Chef Desserts format): All white decor, clean and spotless floor with presentation full of Patisserie worthy desserts.
To start, we had the spread listed within the caption description. The Macarons were nice and airy, rivaling some of my favorite local businesses (and California fan favorite Macaron spots). The Praline was probably my dessert of choice (think of a Ferrero Rocher constructed in the most glamorous and fluffy dress possible), full of hazelnut and chocolate notes to give you the crunch from beginning to end. Many of the fine-dining places who specialize in this particular flavor has nothing on this iteration, it’s THAT DAMN GOOD. My runner-up dessert has to go to the Strawberry Pistachio (2 ways, custard and chantilly). The chantilly is airy and light, consistency is great with Pistachio whereas the Custard has enough of the nuttiness to remind you of its original form. Fresh strawberries always help bring out the brightness and tart flavors into the landscape. Everything else for me was standard (croissant usual, cheesecake had it) while the Illanka Chocolate I was expecting more from. Despite the novelty and exclusivity, all I can muster up is… the chocolate starts out semisweet and the longer you eat it, the more the bitterness pops out. The cacao stands at 63% and for chocolate lovers if you want a balance between sweet and bitter this might be up your alley but once was enough for me. As a side note, Nadege also offers this flavor in Macaron version but be forewarned it is a premium product (I believe it was $17.00 CAD for this one box as a sample). The entire spread was comp’d courtesy of my cousins which (I am very thankful of), somewhat pricey but they appreciated finally knowing about this place. Just before we left, I went back and forth with one last item. Never saw it in California or New York (until at later date of course) so it caught my eye and I had to buy it to get a sample. To describe this little piece of joy, think of a crystallized top of the soufflé and everything outside is caramelized whereas the core taste like fried donut batter. After the dessert splurge we ventured off east to continue along the street in hopes to try Lamesa Filipino Kitchen (unfortunately were closed) so we ended up trying to find a Sam James Coffee Bar (SJCB) to stay awake and aware of our surroundings. After the twists and turns within the financial district we were led to a financial building which contained a small escalator leading into the submarine levels of the district.
A wondrous plaza of metropolitan booths, selling newspapers, cell phones and as always a Tim Horton’s (around every block). Naturally, as a local business person I would’ve been inclined but as soon as I saw a crowd, I knew the Caffeine heads were clamoring for this stuff. Many people saw this drink and I also reaffirmed how much I loved this brew. One sip and you’re slipping and sliding down the latte staircase. There’s no “charred after taste” (which many of my favorite Coffee Shops still have), very high quality beans and preparation and Sam James has earned his title as Champion Barista for Toronto’s finest brews. After getting my caffeine fix the next stop was lunch and our entire family was getting pretty hungry. Walking a few blocks on the outskirts of downtown, Banh Mi Boys. This little sandwich spot provided a trio of options with fries on the side; The description is as follows,
So what were my favorites? The Bao really hit the spot for me, the complexity (and heartiness of the bun and pork belly) while the pickled turmeric slices really stood out. The Banh mi was nice but I was hoping for more of the gamey flavor Duck naturally brings to the table, the meat disrupted by other textural components of the sandwich. The Taco and fries weren’t really ideal for me since I’ve had better tacos in LA and the fries I expected spice but if Kimchi is in the picture, where is the fermented sour notes? Overall, this place provides a good bang for your buck it costed us around ($30.00 CAD). Towards the end of my Canadian trip, I needed to tie up some loose ends and it was only right to check out the infamous Pacific Mall located in Markham (going towards Scarborough a bit) in reference within this guy’s standup. The mall was exactly as he described it except he forgot to mention that it was in cubicle format. Every stall had a precise set of dimensions to fit on the showroom floor. In any event, although I wasn’t ‘purse shopping’ I had to try an indefinite amount of stalls to see the eats that were offered to the locals of this area. First up I came to a bubble tea spot (boba for those Bay Area residents)…
The one flavor I’ve been really getting into at most boba spots is Royal Milk Tea (thank the Kit Kat company for that one). So whenever you offer some R.M.T. with Black & White Boba (aka Panda Boba), I have to give it a try. The taste is semi-sweet with the boba’s distinction in color and not without flavor (people should try creating multi-flavored popping boba, just a thought). Otherwise, this native Taiwan tea chain (most definitely welcomed) is planning to expand to California (whenever that’ll be). After walking around several hours killing time, I finally gave into trying one of these classic HK treats, Egg Puffs. Granted my first encounter with this dish is seemingly naive despite having multiple opportunities in NorCal (and in SoCal) to see the hype. At $5.00 (CAD) this wasn’t the priciest thing I spent a pretty penny on but it was carb-filling and not as promising as one would hope for.
The outside was crunchy whereas it retained a sort of mini soufflé consistency from within. The setup is similar to what many Asian Vendors use for Pandan Waffles (however the Egg Puff Iron has a deeper trough in order to form the airy and spherical puff bubble everyone knows and loves. Would I try it again? Not really but this particular spot (which had no English signage) was co-signed by Martin Yan during a Hong Kong Eats Festival recently as a notable stall so try it out if you ever get the chance? Too many sweet items were on the menu and I needed a bit of savory, so i went to the third floor with my uncle and I encountered something very foreign but comforting to my palate, kabobs. These weren’t your typical kabobs and you can get 7 sticks for $10.00 (CAD), however I wasn’t too hungry since I had to save room so I was a bit frugal and got only one ($3.00, CAD).
It took a long-time to cook just one, making the experience somewhat disappointing. The turnover rate between products and customers served was a span of 10 mins per order. If there were more people in line a lot of impatience and complaints would ensue. in any event, when I finally got to trying the kabob, everything was pretty tasty. The lamb was cooked thoroughly and it still retained a bit of gaminess; the special seasoning (dominantly laced with cumin) brought out herbal and spicy notes to awaken and tingle your sinuses. It’s very important to have some tea (or water) to offset this particular treat. We finally finished exploring (and trying) whatever we could stuff in our stomachs and my uncle dropped me off at a rendezvous point to meet with my IG buddy Carmen. She was a New Yorker who moved back to T.O. and although our schedules were wack, I really appreciated her efforts into coming out. Arriving at a spot named Izakaya Ju, also in the Markham region and a detour from our original efforts to visit the Vice Munchies Acclaimed Guu Izakaya. As usual, a lot of the items are Japanese Barbecue friendly; we had our fair share of Yakitori as shown here and here but both of us agreed the main star of the show was….
Seriously? A Chicken Wing wrapping around a stuffed Pork Dumpling? The entire idea of wrapping one protein around another isn’t necessarily original but that’s the beauty of cooking: sometimes you come up with dope stuff on the fly. Served as a menu special, we didn’t think much of it especially since a lot of the Yakitori wasn’t really fulfilling our savory needs. This beautiful crafted wing did earn a special place in our hearts: the thin skin was nicely crisped and seasoned lightly with salt and sesame seeds and the moment you tear through the exterior, a nice juicy pork filled dumpling is waiting for your insides, bursting with juices held together by slivers of green onions. There are not many ways you can express bliss without sounding too wordy with regards to food porn like this. The meal was semi-filling and it was only proper to get some dessert elsewhere which led to this unknown Chinese Strip Mall along the 605 highway.
We finally parked and went inside a place named Pun Cao Tong Herbal Tea & Desserts. Now, I’m not heavily fond of herbaceous desserts but this place is truly something else. Carmen really enjoyed the place and thought it was a nice way to end our meal and stay on the healthier side. We had a few of the Jelly dishes consisting of Chrysanthemum, Coconut and Black tea. However the one that stood out the most looked like a countertop from Costco..
Stewed Egg & Milk with Sesame Paste, moments after it was brought to the table everyone loved it to the last scoop. The soft consistency reminded me of the Tofu delicacy in the Philippines entitled “Taho” except this was purely in mllk form and then sesame paste layered atop the stew as its own paste. The dark chunks (as some may find it unappetizing) brought a deep rich and savory flavor of Sesame that really brought out an outstanding combination of yin and yang. After the final scoops of the stew finally settling in our stomachs, Carmen and I decided to part ways (and keep in touch of course). Having spent only a week in the T.O., the ongoing theme wasn’t just a sense of pride but rather the importance of a support system to reinforce it. The idea of living life without a safety net may be pretty reckless (to some), so to assist those with the intention of creating a more idealistic lifestyle (be it healthcare, gastronomy, or freedom of expression), Canada boasts the opportunities to do all of the above. As I grow older, the idea of a “safety net” naturally goes out the window, with the increasing levels of responsibility, income, and stress making kindergarten sound like utopia (I don’t mind if I Benjamin Button at any time). Jokes aside, traveling across country and seeing the stark contrasts in U.S. vs. Canadian lifestyles, makes me think whether or not we Americans (U.S.A.’ers) really have our own system down pat? To see the world beyond your comfort zone is something everyone in life should strive for before their last days on this planet. Even if it’s just across our own immediate borders or oceans, to travel is to educate and with that education you’ll discover (or rediscover) the pride you have for this planet and for yourself.
“Now where can I find a good bowl of jook?”
Sam James Coffee Bar Review via BlogTO “http://www.blogto.com/cafes/sam-james-coffee” last seen 11 July 2014; last updated 9 Sept. 2009
Russell Peters- Pacific Mall – Uploaded by Home of the Rotary via Youtube “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVRGrUYu2x4” las seen 14 July 2014; last updated 20 Feb 2011