Saturday, April 21st, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Toronto Redux: Unique Eats

Having grown up in Edmonton, and having endured years of reading and hearing about how Canada’s largest city is the centre of the universe, I realize I should despise Toronto. But after my sister moved there, and now having spent some time with her there, it’s hard not to admire and respect Toronto, especially for their vibrant and dynamic food scene only possible in a large municipality.

In March, Amanda and I were able to take in and explore some unique food events and places – things I’ve definitely never seen in Edmonton.

Come and Get It

Pop-up restaurants, mostly in the form of kitchen takeovers and guest chefs, have been all the rage over the past six months in Edmonton. But what we’ve never seen is a truly temporary establishment, as Toronto’s Come and Get It exemplifies.

Come and Get It

Come and Get It

Set up on the ground floor of a soon-to-be-demolished building on Spadina, entrepreneurs took advantage of the low rent afforded by an indefinite lease and installed a restaurant inside the vacant storefront. Although a condo building is slated for construction soon, no firm dates have been established, so until then, Come and Get It will be in operation.

Come and Get It

Interior

The space is clean, if raw, but befits the concept perfectly (including the . Accents are provided by splashes of colour on the walls and kitschy, retro décor, including a neon Mac monitor, Nike shoes, and plastic Barbie lunchboxes. Our favourite item had to be the N64 (on which I pwned Amanda in a brief post-dinner showdown).

Come and Get It

Archie comics!

Come and Get It has an ingenious menu that doesn’t overwhelm a small, makeshift kitchen. The same base combination of ingredients can be requested in either a salad, sandwich or poutine form, easily multiplying the total number of dishes offered by the restaurant. Amanda and I were disappointed to find out that they were already sold out of the Granny Smith’s chicken caesar stream of creations, so she ended up ordering a Hawaiian pork belly sandwich while I chose the chipotle beef shortrib ($8 each). We decided to share a Hawaiian pork belly poutine ($7).

Even though the food seemed like it was ideal for take-out, the majority of customers were of the eat-in variety, as we were. The wait for food wasn’t long and arrived in paper boxes. Amanda’s first impression of her sandwich was that it was quite oily, but she liked the hoisin-glazed pork and the springy bread. The short rib in my sandwich was very fatty, to the point where I couldn’t really taste the accompaniments, which included chipotle aioli, ancho chili barbeque sauce, crispy onions and sweet and sour coleslaw.

Come and Get It

Hawaiian pork belly sandwich

Come and Get It

Chipotle beef short rib

The poutine was enjoyable – the fries were crispy and topped with a slightly sweet beef gravy and crispy cracklins. We would have preferred that the pork belly had been chopped up so we could easily pick up bits of pork with fries and cheese curds, but that was a minor quibble.

Come and Get It

Pork belly poutine

The menu at Come and Get It will change often – but since it is a limited engagement, I’m sure that’s enough incentive for folks to return often. It was a neat to finally be able to visit a true pop-up establishment!

Toronto Underground Market

When my sister found out when I would be in Toronto, she jumped at the opportunity to take me to one of the city’s trendiest food events. The Toronto Underground Market is fashioned after similar events that have happened in other large cities including New York. They allow upstart small businesses and passionate home chefs to share their specialities with the public. Tickets sold out almost immediately, but Amanda was able to score a pair from someone on Facebook who didn’t need the number of tickets she bought.

We took the subway to Broadview in order to catch a shuttle bus to Evergreen Brickworks, where the Underground Market would take place. Like our experience with the Fail FunBus last year to reach the Night Market, it seems to me that Toronto always underestimates the number of people who choose public transportation – again, the small bus could not accommodate everyone who was in line (those who choose public transportation shouldn’t be punished, even if inadvertently so). Thankfully, we were near the front of the line, but felt bad for those left behind.

Toronto Underground Market

Evergreen Brickworks

Evergreen Brickworks is a not-for-profit space built on the bones of a former brickyard. Although parts of the buildings have been renovated to house a cafe, shop and teaching centre, the majority of the space is beautifully raw and industrial. Between the brick and high ceilings, it was a blank canvas that would be suitable for many different kinds of functions.

Toronto Underground Market

Shop

Toronto Underground Market

Covered ice rink!

That said, the Underground Market was set up in a covered, but not enclosed, part of the building. As a result, the frigid air seeped into the space, and even though the thermometer read –4, it felt closer to –20, especially after nightfall. But crowds were far from deterred – the space was packed, and proved to me that Torontonians are a hardy bunch! They wouldn’t let a cold night dampen their hunger.

Toronto Underground Market

Inside Evergreen Brickworks

Toronto Underground Market

Heat lamps helped, but only if you stood right beside them

Toronto Underground Market

Some vendors also had great fun in spite of the cold – these vendors would randomly cheer every few minutes, perhaps to keep themselves warm

It seemed to us that most vendors used the event as a platform to connect with foodies searching for the “next big thing”, and perhaps a launching pad towards a brick and mortar storefront. One obvious example was the taqueria that was physically separated from all of the other vendors out of necessity – their line was at least a hundred people deep half an hour into the event.

Toronto Underground Market

The line for La Carnita

Amanda and I weren’t very strategic in our choices, and in most cases, just chose vendors with the shortest lines. Some of our spontaneity paid off, while others did not. One vendor that did work out was Babi & Co. Their congee ($3) could have done with more of their delicious sweet soy reduction, but the egg and pork belly also added some needed texture to the soupy rice base. Their pork satays ($5) were freshly off the coals, but even better, the meat was tender and flavourful. The pickled cucumbers were a nice touch as well.

Toronto Underground Market

Congee

Toronto Underground Market

Pork satays

The Popover Girl had a neat concept – essentially a sandwich made using a popover in place of bread. But it probably wasn’t ideal for such a chilly night because the popovers really should have been enjoyed warm. My savoury popover was the better of the two, with hot chilli on the inside, but Amanda’s, filled with a Nutella mixture, ended up more like a very dry ice cream sandwich.

Toronto Underground Market

Savoury chilli popover

Toronto Underground Market

Amanda’s happy she scored a chocolate popover!

Our plunge into the crazy lines was at Comida del Pueblo. Amanda really wanted the jalapeno cornbread sandwich ($5), but even she didn’t think any food item would be worth a forty-five minute wait. Still, we couldn’t leave the line once we committed, so we shivered along until we reached the front. By that point, many vendors had already run out of food, so the crowds as a whole had started to thin.

No surprise, the sandwich didn’t live up to the mammoth expectations. The bread had a good crumb, but the cheese wasn’t melted. I also ordered an Ontario water buffalo empanada ($4) for good measure. It was steaming hot and was filled with a good amount of meat. The pastry was also enjoyably flaky.

Toronto Underground Market

Jalapeno cornbread sandwich

Toronto Underground Market

Water buffalo empanada

As a whole, it was a great experience, and neat to see so many people embracing small-scale vendors.  I wondered if something like this would work in Edmonton, but in many ways, our farmers’ markets serve as the incubators in our city.

Longos

Longos is the largest independent grocery store chain in Toronto, but I didn’t get a chance to visit their store until this trip. Our hotel location meant we were about ten minutes away from the Longos located in the basement of Maple Leaf Square, so we were able to pick up some ready-to-eat items for a quick breakfast.

I didn’t do an extensive inventory of the store’s items, but they did carry treats by local favourite Dufflet in their freezer case.

Longos

Dufflet products

I was also impressed by how inexpensive some fresh bakery items were, that would be considered “specialty” items in Edmonton, and aren’t readily available at mainstream grocery stores.

Longos

Chapatti

Longos

Korean wheat pops (they tasted like lighter rice cakes)

My last post about Toronto will be about all of the restaurants we had a chance to try, including a few more Oliver & Bonacini outlets that we couldn’t stay away from!