If the measure of a city’s food culture is how exciting and accessible its every-day restaurants are, Toronto takes home the trophy. Sure, many cities may have more Michelin-starred restaurants and better fine dining, but if you want knee-weakening good, affordable food from almost any country on Earth, then there really is no better place than the capital of Ontario. Arguably one of the most multicultural cities in the world, about half of Toronto’s citizens were born outside of the country. This salad bowl of ethnicities has created an international food scene unlike any other and led to more delicious fusion restaurants and dishes than you could sample in a lifetime. But if you want to give it a go, keep reading this culinary guide to Toronto’s neighborhoods.
Breakfast is not what you think
Let’s start with breakfast at Persian favorite Takht-e Kavoos in Little Portugal. You didn’t think it would be all Portuguese food here did you? As with Little India, Greektown, Little Poland, Little Italy, Little Jamaica, Chinatown and all the other enclaves in Toronto, you’ll find restaurant and resident diversity in Little Portugal.
The neighborhood is still home to many Portuguese, but for years, the area has also been a favorite with a trendy young crowd who appreciate the great indie bar and restaurant scene and being on a first-name basis with staff and owners at local corner stores, cafes and bakeries.
Regulars flock to Kavoos, where you can lounge shoeless with your friends, drink chai and eat barbary flatbread and tahini with grape molasses. Grab a table for savoring delicious breakfasts though. Try the Shahrudi, which includes eggs over turmeric infused potatoes, feta cheese, olives, grape tomatoes and greens. The more adventurous could try the sheep head and hoof soup Kalleh Pacheh.
A royal affair
For some legendary Portuguese chicken, visit Alex Rei dos Leitões on Ossington Avenue. Technically, this is just outside of the neighborhood, but you’ll want to allow the exception. This place has been serving up charcoal barbeque chicken and spit-roasted pork for forty years. “Alex King of Chickens” (the translated name of the restaurant) also does excellent take-away in case you’d rather eat in. The traditional Portuguese bakery Venezia just down the street can supply a dessert like custard tarts or rice pudding to cap off the meal.
A few streets over, nestled among tiny, lovingly-tended lawns on Dovercourt Road, is Julie’s Cuban Restaurant. It’s a bit hard to spot since it’s in a house, and Dovercourt, like much of the neighborhood, is mostly residential. It’s only open for dinner but the casually intimate atmosphere combined with a great tapas menu makes it an ideal date spot. The tender corn fritters are a must-have.
A taste of Tibet
Continue west from Little Portugal and you’ll find yourself in the cool but slightly dilapidated Parkdale neighborhood. From King Street West on Parkdale’s southern edge you get a view of Lake Ontario, but easy access to the water was severed way back in 1956 when the city built the now very busy Gardiner Expressway.
Once mainly the haunt of the down-and-out or those seeking cheap rent without leaving the downtown core, Parkdale is now climbing slowly but steadily from tired towards trendy and has emerged as a welcomed alternative to the more gentrified areas further east.
Most businesses in Parkdale are concentrated along Queen Street. Among the seemingly endless stretch of storefronts, you’ll find more Tibetan restaurants than you’ll typically find in entire countries. Loga’s Corner is a renowned Tibetan momo place (Tibetan dumplings) that’s refreshingly unpretentious and easy on the wallet. Almost as beloved as the dumplings are owners Loga, who works the front-of-house, and his wife Dolma, who cooks the delicious but limited menu. Loga’s Corner is the epitome of “do one thing and do it well”.
Izakayas, roti and perogies
Also on this stretch of Queen Street is the rowdy Japanese Izakaya spot Guu. Izakayas are often described as Japanese pubs. Be prepared for the staff cheering and shouting in unison when you enter, order and leave this creative tapas spot. It sounds like it would be disconcerting but the Guu experience is about the frenetic energy as well as tasty dishes like miso-marinated black cod and grilled beef cheek. Daily special lists are as long as your arm so expect more options than the menu suggests.
Many Parkdale locals swear by Bacchus for their fix of Caribbean roti and for good reason. Try a saucy goat roti or a vegetarian squash, spinach and chickpea combo. Bacchus isn’t glamorous, but like Parkdale’s best eats will cure your hunger with some of the best value food in the city.
At the western edge of Parkdale is Roncesvalles Avenue – aka Little Poland. For more than 30 years, long-time tenant Polonez – not to be confused with the Polish car or dance of the same name – has been serving hearty traditional food, that by all accounts, is as good today as when they opened. The schnitzel and perogies at Polonez are standouts but the cabbage rolls and goulash aren’t far behind. Make sure to arrive with an appetite because portions are generous.
Bloorcourt Village and Koreatown
Generous portions are also typical of most Ethiopian restaurants. Head north to Bloorcourt Village, west of Christie Pits park and you’ll find a strip of Ethiopian places that will make you forget you’re in Toronto.
Though passionate locals may disagree, the greatest draw to this nondescript strip of Bloor Street is the abundance of great and affordable Ethiopian food. Nazareth is one of the most renowned but so are its long lines and wait times. Go early or try Lalibela down the street which won’t disappoint. Ethiopian food is traditionally served on injera, a moist flatbread, and eaten as a sharing plate with your hands. Orders of vegetables or meat are placed on top of the bread and you just rip pieces off and scoop up the goodness. Meat eaters will want to try kifta (rare minced beef) and everyone can savor the vegetarian platter which, unless you’re starving, will likely feed two people.
East of Christie Pits – which is named after the combination of cookie maker Mr Christie and the sand pits that used to occupy the spot – is Koreatown. Naturally, scattered among the Korean businesses there are lots of tasty, authentic Korean food like you’ll find at Yummy Korean Restaurant.
For a unique fusion of Korean-Mexican though, head to Barrio Coreano at Bloor and Euclid. This is essentially a Korean-inspired taco joint, though they have a handful of other items as well. The decor is artfully distressed and the over-sized signs, exposed brick walls and metal chairs make Barrio Coreano feel as much like a bar as a restaurant, but the food doesn’t take a back seat to drinks. The overflowing braised short rib tacos will linger in your thoughts for weeks after tasting them and the baja fish taco is almost as memorable. Man cannot live by tacos alone so order a side of Asian pear kimchi, then finish it all off with a round of churros poutine.
Ossington strip and Kensington Market
Churros are a fried doughnut-like treat originating somewhere in Spain or Portugal, but poutine is a French-Canadian invention made with french fries, cheese curds and gravy. For a more refined – and expensive – offering of Canadian cuisine, Boralia on the popular Ossington strip offers a menu drawing on historical recipes of early settlers and immigrants as well as traditional aboriginal dishes. The slightly kitschy Canadiana setting is just right for eating dishes like Pigeon Pie or L’éclade – mussels smoked in pine needles.
Toronto and tacos
However, if you really want to try aboriginal food, try the Ojibwe restaurant Pow Wow in the laid-back, bohemian Kensington Market neighborhood. These few square blocks just might have Toronto’s highest density of food from other countries, not to mention one of the country’s few pot cafes. Think of Pow Wow as Ojibwe (group of indigenous peoples) food rather than Canadian cuisine. After all, the ancestors of First Nations peoples have inhabited what is now known as Canada for at least 12,000 years. Canada, on the other hand, is celebrating its 150th birthday. Before opening Pow Wow, Ojibwe chef Shawn Adler began serving traditional Indian tacos at his restaurant The Flying Chestnut in rural Ontario. Indian tacos are traditionally served at pow wows and tangentially, they now make up the core of Pow Wow’s menu (what is it with Toronto and tacos?). These tacos are unlike the tortilla ones you are undoubtedly familiar with. For one thing, they’re served on bannock – also known as fry bread. All you really need to know is that everything tastes great with crispy, melt-in-your-mouth fry bread and anything you are imagining is falling short of the unique deliciousness of Adler’s work. Traditional Indian tacos are a jumping-off point from where Adler creates specials like the Coconut Lime Leaf Chicken Curry taco or the Greek-inspired Souvlaki with feta and Greek Salad taco. On weekends they also offer brunch that includes things like eggs and venison but don’t worry, you’ll still find fry bread on your plate. If you’re still hungry after eating your way through these Toronto neighborhoods, don’t worry, there’s about 135 more that are bursting with places every bit as delicious as these ones. And if reading this made you hungry, what are you waiting for?