Welcome to the one city where Jamaican-Chinese and French-Korean food make perfect sense.
Considering peameal bacon—cured pork loin coated in cornmeal—is one of the only dishes that can be traced back to Toronto, and the city is routinely called one of the world's most diverse, it's nearly impossible to narrow its restaurant scene down to key styles of cooking. Or, as the critically acclaimed caterer/chef Adrian Nima (Food Dudes, Rasa) puts it, "I just call it 'Toronto cuisine.' When you have access to ingredients from Korea, Greece, Italy, France and Israel, you can create something truly special when you blend it with Ontario produce and meats."
Another local entrepreneur who's tapped the potential of Toronto's expansive palate is former white-collar worker Ed Wong. After helping steer the ship at Henry Brown's Small Batch Ice Cream Company for a few years, Wong set up shop in Chinatown with his own Wong's Ice Cream earlier this year. Left-field flavors like Sriracha butter popcorn, black sesame with salted duck egg and pine-needle pink lychee have left his storefront slammed ever since.
"I'm Chinese-Canadian," says Wong, "So pairing ingredients from those distinct cultures comes easily to me. Luckily, I think most Torontonians—at least the ones I know—are just as receptive to diversity in their food choices, so that gives us an eager market and customer base."
Longtime food writer and editor Liora Ipsum has seen a similar level of excitement from readers of local publications like blogTO and Daily Hive, although some self-anointed critics have been quick to deem certain fusion dishes "inauthentic" or "not how my nonna/safta/abuela cooks it."
"Toronto's food scene is not immune to claims of cultural appropriation," says Ipsum. "But it's also experiencing the results of second- and third-generation Canadians. So when someone like [Patois chef] Craig Wong cooks beef patty benedicts and Hainanese chicken with foie gras, it's not gimmicky because it comes from a genuine place. It is what their grandparents cooked."
Wondering where you'll find TO's top border-less takes on international food? Here are 10 must-order meals the next time you're in town:
The namesake pies at Descendant Detroit Style Pizza often sell out well before the Leslieville staple's closing time. Better call ahead, then, to ensure next-level takeout from the mad-for-it mind of chef Christopher Getchell. His "Jaffna" recipe is a revelation, weaving in complementary spicy-sweet notes with kothu roti, mango chutney, cilantro cream, green onion, calabrian chilis, fresh cilantro and coconut sambal. Pair it with a bomber or two of bold craft beer from nearby Left Field Brewery for a pizza night you won't soon forget.
It takes just $70 CAD (around $54 USD, thanks to a strong exchange rate) to sample Paul Kim's entire French-Korean menu at Doma. Reflective of his rigorous Le Cordon Bleu training, his dishes can incorporate everything from elevated bibimbap (black rice, quinoa, gochujang, Korean wild leaves, rapini, carrot, zucchini, taro chips and quail eggs) to grilled octopus that's been gut-punched by Korean mustard dressing and cooled off by a cucumber granita. A cocktail menu curated by Drinksmith keeps the room cutting-edge but not the least bit stuffy, as soju is mixed with maple syrup, perilla, lime and ginger beer (Next Generation) and cucumber-infused gin is cranked up by rice vinegar, soy sauce, and daikon (Old Boy).
One restaurant trend that's hit Toronto hard over the past year is previously unthinkable riffs on poutine, Canada's grand champion of comfort ford. Chef Kyle Panthep keeps a khao soi variation in rotation at EAT BKK, melding a mound of beef, fries and cheese curds with a slick coconut curry sauce. It's not the only unconventional street eat on the menu, either; chicken satay tacos, ramen tom yum and spaghetti pad kee mao also pop up in a menu section devoted to "Bangkok Fusion Food." (Panthep spent more than a decade working the line at major hotels and restaurants in Thailand and Japan before settling down in Toronto six years ago.)
Thanks to its co-owner connection (Dennis Kimeda) to the beloved Danforth gastropub The Wren, Little India's Lake Inez restaurant has an Ontario-heavy beer list that'll please even the most jaded hop heads. And then there's the fearless Southeast Asian flavors of Philippines native/former pop-up star Robbie Hojilla. Take his 5-Spice Grilled Striploin, for instance; it pairs a perfectly cooked steak with a fermented black bean vinaigrette, charred eggplant purée and seared Chinese broccoli (gai lan).
"Every year customers get more educated in different cuisines," explains Hojilla. "So nothing is too unfamiliar nowadays. A lot of chefs of my generation are also coming of age and heading up restaurants that connect them to their roots. I feel like our good restaurants are on par with places like New York, Chicago and Montreal; there's a lot of talent in this city."
It's hard enough to find traditional Egyptian food in North America, let alone a spot that dials it down to brunch fare like eggy falafel patties; rich barley porridge made with whole milk, vanilla, raisins, walnuts and coconut shreds (belila); and three-egg scrambles that're studded with thinly sliced cured beef (basturma) or dates. Speaking of nature's favorite sugar substitute, Maha's gussies its grilled cheese up with a sweet and savory blend of Gouda, Havarti, Swiss, butter-sautéed dates and egg bread that's been drizzled with honey and griddled till it's golden brown. By the way, get here early if you don't want to wait outside for more than an hour; the secret's clearly out, on a local level at least.
While Jerk Chicken Chow Mein is not the most Insta-worthy item on Craig Wong's manic Patois menu, it breathes new life into a tired takeout staple. Dig in alongside a pile of "pierogi style" Kimchi Potstickers and a KFC-inspired Jamaican Patty Double Down or two, and save your hashtags for Caribbean-styled cocktails like a Monkey Tings Slushie that blends Monkey Shoulder whiskey with peppermint-tamarind rum, angostura bitters and Pink Ting soda. Wong's raucous Dundas Street West digs also encourage bigger parties to explore the entire menu with a "Whole Shebang" special that includes a little bit of everything for just $114.95 CAD (about $90 USD).
Much like Leemo Han's last two laid-back locales (OddSeoul, Hanmoto), Pinky's Ca Phe serves pan-Asian think pieces and sophisticated stoner food like the gnarly Freak Nasty nod "You Dip, I Dip." The messy but masterful sandwich is a cross between three distinct casual eatery classics: Vietnamese pho, Philly cheese steak and an LA-style French dip. Wash it all down with a cheap-but-cheerful Foco-Loco cocktail—a corner store fruit juice can dumped into a tall glass of muddled herbs, white rum, and freshly squeezed citrus.
In a why-didn't-anyone-think-of-this-before moment of pure genius, Rasa chef Adrian Nima brings us hand-formed Soup Dumplings cut with French onions, a beef-free gruyere broth, shallots, parsley and Marmite (!). Once everything's been pan-fried, giving it a "gyoza texture," Nima finishes this freak vegetarian accident with a pickled shallot salad, dialing the richness down with a piquant level of acidity. Looking for something more substantial? Meat-starring mains have included braised lamb with aerated sweet potato, mint creme fraiche, okra and chili lavash bread; duck that's been dry-aged in koji fungus and pelted with puffed grains, a fermented plum sauce and spinach; and a good ol' beef cheek burger topped with provolone, gochujang mayo, pickles and "scrapchi."
To give you an idea of how loose and lawless Uncle Mikey's is, cuisine-wise chef Michael Kim recently posted a beef heart tartare photo on the restaurant's Instagram, complete with cognac, black truffle pecorino, hazelnuts, and fish sauce. Oh, and he said it's "not on the menu yet, but I might make it if you ask." Other recent high-low hits have included buckwheat brioche beignets, seared duck breast served with a clarified kimchi jus and cheese curd-blessed mashed potatoes; and radishes stacked alongside everything bagel butter and seaweed. The sake and wine list is also stellar and priced to move, making this one a perfect, pretense-free night-on-the-town pick.
The next time you're trying to choose between the Chinese and Vietnamese standbys in Toronto's East End, make sure you cap the winning meal with dessert at Wong's Ice Cream. His vegan Dark Chocolate Five-Spice sorbet balances a fistfull of Szechuan peppers with cinnamon, cloves, fennel seed, and star anise.
"When you grow up in a city like Toronto," says owner Ed Wong, "diversity simply seems like the 'norm'—the way things are and should be. So when you experience places that are much less diverse, they stand out as being 'unordinary'.
He continues, "For me, and many others in the Toronto food scene, working with ingredients and flavours from a wide range of cultures comes naturally, instinctively. The experience of growing up here allows for few rules, norms or standards since, as a city, we’ve been adapting and changing constantly in order to make this diversity thing work on all levels."