Flavours of Kensington – A tour of sweet & savoury Toronto
Written by Ivy Reiss
“Fusion cuisine doesn’t have to answer to tradition,” explains Audrey, our Tasty Tours guide. “It’s a safer terminology. Fusion restaurants are the peoples’ eatery, they reflect the neighborhood.”
Audrey was telling us about a popular fusion place down the road, but she didn’t want to play it safe; she wanted us, her tour group, to see what passers-by might perceive as a “hole-in-the-wall” bakery versus the “popular places.” Audrey knows the real-deal with food, being an avid food-lover who has travelled the world over, tasting and seeing the process that food undergoes before it gets to our paletes.
We were about to embark on Audrey’s Sweet & Savory food tour into Kensington Market, the most ethnically diverse and anti-corporate neighborhood in Toronto, where most of the mom-and-pop shops are not only family run with secret recipes that are generations old, most of the restaurants are being run by second and third generations – a tradition that seems to have been lost decades ago with the rise of the franchise.
Audrey is big on tradition, because she knows that flavours cultivated by people in the traditional methods of their culture create the flavours that continue to drive our obsession with (or love of) food as a culinary art that goes far beyond the necessity to eat.
The busiest bakery in Chinatown
We started off at Ding-Dong Bakery at 321 Spadina Avenue. Although not inside Kensington Market, this was the “hole-in-the-wall” bakery that Audrey wanted us to see. But our “hole-in-the-wall” bakery is actually not that at all. As the saying goes: never judge a book, or in this case, a bakery, by its cover.
Ding Dong bakery claims to have the largest variety of all Chinatown bakeries, and the prices are amazing. A window at the back gives a glimpse into the kitchen as the rolls, buns, and different sweet treats fly out. At the front register, the stream of customer seems endless as they line up, trays stacked high, buying quantities that would feed a family for a week. (An American couple on the tour couldn’t get over the amount of food each person was buying, as we sat at the back, chatting and eating spring rolls.) Ding Dong Bakery is three generations old and is the longest running bakery in Chinatown. That speaks for itself. (Did I mention they serve Dim Sum as well?)
The world’s best fries
After Ding-Dong, we headed into Kensington Market for our next stop, Moo Frites at 178 Baldwin Avenue. Moo Frites is the #1 fry (or technically frites) place in Toronto. Technicalities are important at Moo Frites – although we’d have never guessed by looking – as the technical aspect of cooking potatoes is what got them that prestigious position. As we crammed into this very busy little place with its original brick mortar walls and long bar with diamond shaped holes – a collective ohhh escaped us when we found out these were specially designed to hold the cones the frites come in – a simultaneous aha moment occurred: we were beginning to see how at Moo it was all about the little details that make up the bigger science of it all.
We struggled to pay attention to Audrey as we looked at a poster of Kimchi Frites behind her as we waited for our Poutine Frites. Audrey wanted us to try the Poutine, which originates from Quebec, the simplest of their frite combos. Traditionally poutine is fried in beef-fat for extra flavour (Moo offers the beef-fat option Fri-Sun, and uses veg oil for vegetarians), cheese curds, and topped with house-made gravy with a touch of their maple syrup drizzle. The gravy was perfect: a light consistency that carried a rich-flavour, and just enough salt, while the maple drizzle added the sweet to the savoury. The perfect combo.
Ambrose, the owner of Moo, came and chatted to us – he was tired from a long night of prep – and I had to ask him about the difference between fries and frites? He told us he wasn’t afraid to share his secret to getting the perfect frite. Ambrose gets his information from university research papers on the (technical) science of the starches, glucose, and H2O levels in potatoes and the bio-chemical reactions these compounds have to frying times and temperatures. All these factors affect how the final product should be fried for the best taste and texture; the perfect frite should be crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. Sounds complicated, right? Then we found out that there are over 2,000 varieties of potatoes, and every single harvest varies in these compounds. Who knew the science of frites was so complex!
Ambrose is so busy these days he can barely keep up with the demand. Yet, he remains uncertain whether he wants to branch out because he worries the quality of his frites would become compromised. He’s probably right. The perfect frite depends on getting the ever-changing timing and temperature right, literally right down to the degree and the second. Ambrose’s five-step method to make a traditional frite also makes a naturally less-fatty frite; only a thin outer-layer is fried, so the inside absorbs less fat.
Then there are the sauces and topping combos, original flavours tried, tested, and made in- house. Here, the details matter, right down to the small forks, the standard in Belgium for frites (Moo is the only restaurant in TO that uses these). And did I mention, his frites are 100% additive free? Ambrose explained that additives and stabilizers are the reason why McDonald’s and all major fry manufacturers get the same tasting fry each time as they don’t need to worry about fry temps and times. Need I say more?
After Moo’s, we popped into the Toronto Popcorn Company at 147 Baldwin Street. Thriving since they opened 2½ years ago in what is commonly known as the “Kensington dead-zone” close to Spadina (where most new places last just one year), as we chatted outside the door didn’t stop opening and closing with traffic and once inside it was shoulder to shoulder busy. They have over 30 flavours to choose from, which change up with the seasons, and provide sampling jars for each sweet to savory flavour, including Strawberry Milkshake, Cinnamon Roll, Orange Peel, Maple Bacon (actually not bad), S’Mores, Vanilla Sponge Cake (my favorite!), Honey Mustard, Buffalo Kick, Hot Jalapeno (really good), Salt and Vinegar, and more.
Despite starting to fill up (the Moo frites had hit the spot), our next stop was Tibet Café & Bar at 51 Kensington Avenue. Super cute inside with an awesome patio out back, the loft architecture style takes you back to 1920s Toronto, pulled off with deco that is Asian tropic and punk scene graffiti in one. We sat down and ate vegetarian and beef momos, aka dumplings, with their homemade secret hot-sauce. The Tibet Café is a Taiwanese family run restaurant in its second generation, the atmosphere was comfortable and chill, and the food divine.
If we thought we were full before, we definitely were now. But we had to have dessert, and Audrey said we needed to try a traditional Mexican dish (we had by now come to trust her palette!). Located at 214 Augusta Avenue, Pancho’s Bakery – also commonly referred to as Churros thanks to their reputation for the best churros in Toronto (even Justin Trudeau has eaten there) – it was another bustling place, the line up out the door. But we didn’t have to wait. Thanks to Audrey, the crowd parted as if they knew we were a priority, and before we knew it we were at the dessert counter watching as two young servers busied themselves making our churros, a sweet, rolled, deep-fried pastry topped with either a caramel, strawberry, or chocolate syrup. To wash it all down I sampled their Chilled Ginger Lemon Honey Iced Tea and a Pure Mango Lassi, a delicious traditional yogurt-based drink.
Audrey explained that Churros was now in its third generation, and that they came from a long line of bakers stretching back to 1827 that still use the traditional rosca de reyes method of baking. Despite having branched out to other parts of the city due to their popularity, Churros cooks still don’t know the secret recipes as they’re only handed prepped bags of flour by the owner to make the pastry dough.
Canada’s maple syrup rules, ok?
It’s more than safe to say that at this point we were satiated, happy, full, our tastebuds in heaven. But we weren’t done yet. The next stop? Kensington Market’s first organic grocery store, Essence of Life Organics at 50 Kensington Avenue. Opened in 1997 – long before most people knew about organic food – Essence has more than survived. The organic trend only took off in the mid 2000s and here they were in their third generation. Unpretentious and with excellent prices, the store is packed floor-to-ceiling with amazing goods (if you want it, they have it).
We sampled organic maple syrup from Quebec, as Audrey explained the Canadian laws around our maple syrup and why ours beats the United States hands down. Essence sells a dark maple syrup, hard to find and usually only used for baking, that’s naturally less sweet, has more naturally occurring phytonutrients, and leaves hints of a roasted flavour on the tongue. Losing myself in flavour heaven, I turned to one of the Americans, excited that they were trying our maple syrup for the first time, and said, “That’s pretty good, eh?” It didn’t go unnoticed! The Canadian in me was out. Needless to say, they loved the syrup and bought bottles to take home.
Not done yet, we stopped at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky bakery at 287 Augusta Avenue for some Dark Side of the Moon cupcakes (think Pink Floyd). Completely vegetarian, it, too, was full – this was definitely a trend with Audrey’s favourite spots! Every table was packed with people enjoying all sorts of beautiful treats and long lines that moved quickly. The cupcakes were works of art, the texture creamy and fluffy with a well-balanced sweetness and none of that sour aftertaste that store bought muffins tend to leave.
Touching hearts, building hope
Our second-to-last stop was Livelihood Café at 254 Augusta Avenue, where the bigger picture of the ethnicity and diversity of Kensington Market all came together. Opened less than two years ago, Livelihood Café is a registered not-for-profit, and it was clear that Parin, the owner, is doing more than just running a café. One year ago, he started the Livelihood Project with a goal to use, in his words, “digital technology and behavioural science to build interactive apps and training in the cognitive skills.” In essence, the group aims to help people keep learning by teaching them skills that are resilient and adaptable to change.
We sat down at the back of this spacious, sustainable and fair trade espresso joint to enjoy traditional Syrian tea and sesame cookies. And that’s where we met Jasmine, a beautiful, 31 year-old woman who escaped the war in Syria and lost her brother and family in the process. She has been in Canada for just over a year, a sole-survivor, and is studying at George Brown College.
Jasmine’s English was fluent, and she spoke thoughtfully about her past, her life in the present, and her plans for the future. When she’s finished her course at George Brown she wants to help children cope with the trauma of war, and her softness and hope brought many of us to tears – especially the two Americans, who acknowledged Canada was doing a lot right.
“We are using the café as an interactive space for people like Jasmine,” explained Parin. The Livelihood Project, which started in October 2016, will take two years to reach completion.
Currently, Parin’s café is providing jobs to refuges from Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia, and Somalia, and has a goal of teaching them “transferable skills and cognitive training that are always useful.” These skills include communication, teamwork, team building and problem solving. Essentially, he’s teaching them how to live in a country that isn’t ravaged by war, where people can talk to their neighbors without fear, express their views, and grow their own personal skillsets – skills that many of us may take for granted having grown up in Canada.
The Americans were still visibly very moved when we got outside as Audrey told us that this was the first time the Livelihood café was included on the tour. She thought it was important, and we agreed. And I’ll be back there not just because they have good tea, but because of what Parin is doing. Every cent counts towards helping these amazing people.
Making a difference
We had one more stop, this one at the Blue Banana Market at 250 Augusta Avenue, where we sampled some local chocolate (Audrey’s a chocolate connoisseur, and her Ultimate Chocolate Tour is next on my list!). Here we learned the difference between a chocolatier and a chocolate-maker, and I was surprised to find out that Toronto had a chocolate factory!
When we embarked on the Sweet & Savory Food Tour a few hours earlier, I had no idea that this was going to be so much more than your average, run-of-the mill tasting tour. The stories behind the eight amazing restaurants and establishments Audrey took us to in Kensington Market, and her passion for culinary and family tradition, linked the history of Kensington and the establishments to the food we eat in a way that few tour guides could manage.
The establishments we visited believed in quality, tradition, and good food. Their stories inspired and touched. They showed me that there are still people out there using their businesses to make a difference, whether it is an amazing meal made with love, promoting tradition, or helping on a bigger scale. In Kensington Market, the customers are not just a number, they are people. And food is not just about revenue, it’s about making a quality product, even if your profit margin is not that big. Many were not willing to compromise food-quality for the assembly line style kitchens and short-cut methods that bring up profit margins. In these establishments, their personal morals and belief system are on the line and ahead of their wallet. This tour wasn’t just about food, but I can tell you the food was amazing, and the experience priceless.
The Sweet & Savory tour didn’t just show us the amazing range of delicious flavours Toronto and the cultures of the world have to offer. It took us behind-the-scenes into the lives and stories of people and was so much more than just a food or history tour. These establishments demonstrated, in their own way, that they wouldn’t be doing this labour intensive work if they didn’t care about people and the relationships and values that make us human.
Personally, I can’t wait to show Kensington Market to my friends and get to know more of the people who make up that amazing hub.
Thank you Audrey, and thank you Tasty Tours.
To learn more about Toronto’s amazing Tasty Tours, visit their website at www.tastytourstoronto.com. Two tours are currently running: the Sweet & Savory Tour every Saturday, and Toronto’s Ultimate Chocolate Tour every Sunday.
For more on Jasmin, Parin and the Livelihood Project, visit the Livelihood Café’s website at www.livelihoodproject.org.
Contributing Editor Ivy Reiss is the Founder and Publisher of The Artis Magazine, a quarterly lit and art magazine that captures the raw talent and diversity of the artists from the Greater Toronto Area’s 905 suburbs.