Coming home after being away for a long time helps you remember who you were before you left. You grab coffee with old friends. You pass familiar streets you bummed around as a kid. Soon, you begin to think about what you wanted before you took off for the big world, the person you wanted to be before life gave you tunnel vision that made it easy to forget.
Every time I come back home to Toronto, Canada, I remember these things. On a more recent trip, I had the chance to catch up with childhood friends and family. As we shared meals at both new and old places, the conversations over fries dripping in gravy and the aroma of hot jerk chicken reminded me why I started writing -- "to find the extraordinary in the ordinary." A naive piece of advice my high school English teacher used to tell me.
So, let me preface this guide by saying this isn't an expert's authority to everything you need to eat in Toronto. It's a rambling conversation about nostalgia and change through food. Toronto locals may notice a strong preference for Queen West and Scarborough -- a specific street and area where I spent most of my childhood. Still, if I missed a spot, do let me know. I'll make sure to visit it next time I'm in town.
Tim Hortons' Chili
TASTES LIKE: MILDLY SALTY, SAVORY
In Canada, Tim Hortons, or Timmies, is a national icon held in the same regard as the pope. It's also the same Tim Hortons that Burger King merged with to evade US taxes. Fast food politics aside, the best thing on their menu is their chili. Rich consistency, pieces of diced onion and celery, mushrooms, beans, hearty chunks of ground beef and always hot --Timmies chili is a godsend during those nasty winters.
Oh, and their donuts aren't too bad either.
WHERE: Anywhere there's a human
Mexican Street Corn
TASTES LIKE: SWEET, BUTTERY CORN CRACK
I ventured here upon the advice of my elementary school friends, who said La Carnita was one of the first places in Toronto to bring over "not shitty" Mexican food. As someone who's taken advantage of California's heartbreakingly great Mexican grub, I have to admit that the tacos at La Carnita are overpriced and not magnificent in flavor. Their Mexican street corn, however, now that's something California can learn a thing or two from. It's messy, unapologetically dripping in sweet butter, and you'll be reminiscing about each bite afterwards.
TASTES LIKE: INDULGENT, DRUNK SIN
Dear America, you're doing poutine wrong. A proper plate of poutine has three basic ingredients: thick-cut french fries, brown gravy and cheese curds. Throwing your leftover cheese and meat on top of a plate of fries ≠ poutine. That's called a goddamn offense.
Protip: Great poutine should cost you no more than $5. This unofficial drunk food of Canada can be found at every corner in downtown Toronto. A great spot to hit up for both poutine and street meat (below) is the front of New City Hall. There will be a few trucks setting up camp, but the one I head to is the blue truck that claims it's been Serving Toronto for Over 30 Years. Because their poutine is cheap, messy and 30 years is no joke.
WHERE: 100 Queen St West, in front of new City Hall
TASTES LIKE: WELL, IT DEPENDS HOW SERIOUS YOUR CONDIMENT GAME IS
The grilled polish dogs from Toronto street carts are on point. Thick, juicy and decadent in that zero fucks-given-to-calories type of way. The overall flavor of your dog, however, depends on how far you want to go with the condiments. Every street cart in Toronto slinging street meat knows to offer the classic condiment line-up: corn relish, bacon bits, pickles, relish, sauerkraut, mustard, ketchup, sliced onions, banana peppers, jalapenos, diced onions and crunchy, dried onions.
WHERE: 100 Queen St West, in front of new City Hall
High Priest Burger
TASTES LIKE: THE WAY IT WOULD IN A BIG MAC PROMO
I was pretty put out about this place. I met up with my cousins at Burger Priest -- a trendy black and white hole-in-the-wall -- and we all came to the same conclusion: We were eating glorified fast food.
The not-so-secret High Priest burger, however, tasted almost exactly like a Big Mac, but with a heftier price tag. I know I'm going to get trolled for saying this (Burger Priest is incredibly popular in TO), but if I'm paying $11 for a burger, it better give me a memorable mouthgasm or at least come with a side of fries and a drink. Don't get me wrong, it tastes fantastic, but you can get the same effect at Burger King. I'll stick with my polish dogs and poutine, thank you very much.
PS: Cash only.
TASTES LIKE: SPICY, TENDER, SAVORY
Pat will not take your shit. He asks for your order in a thick Jamaican accent and doesn't waste time pretending he owes you a favor. His food is awesome, he knows you know that, that's why you're here. I like Pat's for that reason. It's good, honest food that doesn't try to bullshit you with exposed brick walls and dangling cable lights.
Which brings us to the badass decor -- posters of Michael Jordon, Gretzky, Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Obama, etc., line the walls. It makes me feel comfortable, like I'm back in elementary school walking around in my fresh pair of Jordans. For $10 you get a large portion of meat + rice + your choice of sauce. The portions are generous and will spill over the takeout box barely containing it.
Jumbo Veggie Empanada
TASTES LIKE: FRESH, LIGHT AND CRISPY
If you're in Kensington Market -- a marvelous little neighborhood tucked behind Chinatown -- make a beeline for Jumbo Empanadas. While the joint is mostly known for their humongous pouches of chicken and beef, their Chilean-style veggie empanadas don't get enough love. Stuffed with fresh spinach and mushrooms encased in a cripsy, fluffy crust, make sure to pour their classic salsa onto each bite. The marriage of hot veggies and crust with the cool, spicy, chopped tomatoes is something I find myself craving every now and then. And I don't even like spinach.
Patty on a Bun
TASTES LIKE: EVERY SCARBOROUGH KID'S CHILDHOOD
This one is dedicated to every kid that grew up in Scarborough. The Warden beef patty is the stuff of legends to everyone that went to school in this area. As my cousin Matthew perfectly put it, "All of high school I ate just the patty, then a friend bought it for me with the bun. It changed my whole outlook on life." Why on a bun? If you're asking that question, then that's the first thing you're doing wrong.
Pro-tip: If it's your first time getting the patty on a bun: walk in and order it like that's the only thing they have. Otherwise, they'll refuse you. They'll smell you're not from Scarborough and give you a beef patty on French bread drizzled with vinegar. Bonne chance!
WHERE: Warden station, go upstairs to the dingy little convenience store on the LEFT, not the right. Trust.
Kentucky Fried Handshake
TASTES LIKE: MISPLACED FRIED CHICKEN
Going to a kitschy American restaurant draped in the Star Spangled Banner in the middle of Canada was an idea so inglorious, I knew I had to stop by. Upon recommendation, we tried the Kentucky Fried Handshake -- a sandwich that squeezes an entire chicken leg, foot included, in between two sesame buns and adds some shredded lettuce for aesthetic's sake. The whole shake-this-chicken-leg-then-eat-it gimmick is shameless, yes, but the actual sandwich is solid -- lightly fried chicken skin, tender meat inside, a respectable amount of buffalo sauce. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was something Guy Fieri would drool over in Texas.
WHERE: 589 King Street W
Peameal Bacon Sandwich
TASTES LIKE: FATTY, EGGY GUILT
I know. By not getting a peameal bacon sandwich from St. Lawrence market, I might as well give up any right to being a Toronto native and move to Montreal. But no one wants to live in Montreal, so hear me out. I headed to St. Lawrence market only to find that it was closed and fate have it be, that was my last day in Toronto. Still, my wonderful cousin Asha told me Rashers served respectable peameal bacon sandwiches. The verdict: YES, AND AGAIN PLEASE.
Made from boneless pork loins, peameal bacon originated in Toronto -- something the city takes a lot of pride in. So if you can't make it well, don't make it. Rashers does it well, and then some. I opted for the Hogtown Sandwich with peameal bacon and added a fried egg on top. The entire thing is a giant, meaty behemoth, but don't worry, you'll end up inhaling it. Easy. Your teeth first bite into the sweet, toasted bun, then meet the satisfying pop of the juicy peameal bacon soaked in egg yolk. You'll be licking the grease and egg guts off your fingers, which will be shaking from how good that just felt.