During a vacation in Toronto watching films at TIFF Kids, I got a peek into the culinary scene of the hip city. From the chew of chicken dumplings to the crack of homemade tortilla chips, I got to sample a wide array of flavors in the city. Here’s a quick walk-through of the restaurants I sampled.
This house of dumplings located on Spadina Ave was packed when we arrived, but we were quickly seated. The menu is divided between boiled, steamed, pan-fried, pan-cakes, steamed buns, and some other noodle and side dishes. I tried the boiled chicken and mushroom dumplings which were by far my favorite with the soft pop of the mushrooms contrasting nicely with the tender chicken. I ordered the chives and eggs pancakes which were unimaginably hot, burning my mouth. When I bit into them at a reasonable temperature, I wasn’t as impressed as the dumplings. The eggs were done in a scrambled style but, combined with the chives, didn’t amount to much of a flavor. Where as the chicken and mushroom came together nicely, here the egg and chive didn’t result with much of a taste. The steamed bak choy, mushroom, and tofu dumplings, meanwhile, were quite good with a soft vegetable flavor. I wasn’t as big a fan of the shrimp, egg and chives, but that being said, I’m not a shrimp fan.
Even if I didn’t love all of the dumplings, the cooking and craft that went into these dumplings is evident, especially as I watched the chefs carefully roll dumplings behind the counter. They know what they’re doing: traditional dumplings the same way members of their family made before them. And as you sit in the bustling restaurant, with your chopsticks at the ready, all you have to do is eat.
Traditional Mexiacan food served with care and quality. As I bit into the Trio Botanero, a trio of guacamole, refried beans, and salsa accompanied by tortilla chips, it was clear that Tostitos chips and mashed tomato puree trying to pass as salsa was not what was being served. Instead, the salsa was more of a pico de gallo with a refreshingly sharp kick to it. The chips had a salty and almost sweet flavor that could obviously only be achieved when made in house. They were so good I almost wanted to munch on them alone to soak up their deliciousness. But with the guacamole being so fresh and chunky and the refried beans being so dark and textured, I couldn’t resist a hearty dip.
For an entree, I ordered the Carnitas Los Panchos tacos. Three small tortillas were propped together with a large, but not overflowing amount of pork confit. They were topped off with chopped white onions and some cilantro and served with salsa de chile cascabel on the side. Refried beans and brown rice also came on the side. The tacos themselves were good and simple. Today’s average burritos are overstuffed with fillings ranging in flavors, adding up to an all-over-the-place result. But, these tacos were filled with just enough simple, meaty, flavorful pork, a little bit of onion to cut the fat, and some refreshing cilantro and mildly spicy salsa to top it off. I also stole bites of my family’s dishes too including the Rosarito tacos. Filled with sautéed shrimp, refried beans, crema, some avocado, and rosarito salsa. The flavors came together nicely and, even though I don’t love shrimp, it still impressed me. I also sampled the Mole Poblano: grilled chicken, topped with rich, dark homemade mole dripping onto rice and seeping it’s flavor into everything it touched. Downright traditional, downright delicious.
Having taken over all of New York with four restaurants, and a Milk Bar bakery, chef David Chang headed to Toronto a couple of years ago with hopes of taking down the city. And he has done just that with a three floor empire of a restaurant. Three restaurants, one bar/lounge, one walk-in fridge: the restaurant was massively hyped. It had trouble in it’s opening months, despite ridiculously long lines, but got good reviews. I went twice during my time in Toronto and my verdict? There’s so much to discuss that I decided to write a separate review. You can expect the review soon.
One Last Note
What did I find in common with a hip Korean-Asian-American fusion empire, an old-fashioned dumpling house, and a traditional mexican cantina? Open kitchens. If you’re not familiar with the concept, the idea’s pretty simple: an open kitchen. Gone are the days of chefs hiding away in the back, hunching over the dishes, and stressing over your food between arguments with co-chefs. With an open kitchen setup, chefs and cooks have to be constantly aware that they have an audience that will witness every step of the cooking process and will also eat the food and judge it. While the exact details of the setup ranged, the idea that these chefs must now tackle with a performance element was still there.
Creative, unique, diverse, and challenging, the food I ate in Toronto resembled a city that is embracing new techniques with old cushines. From pork buns to tofu dumplings, rich mole to ginormous bowls of ramen, Toronto is at it’s culinary high.