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Toronto's restaurant scene heads south in a very good way

Chicago Tribune
Forget poutine; Toronto food has gone Pan American

Two things are big right now in this Canadian boomtown. The first is condo-building. Years ago, someone declared the construction crane the national bird of Shanghai. Well, the cranes have migrated to Ontario.

Another is that the Maple Leafs have a new coach, but this story isn't about condos or an organization that hasn't won a Stanley Cup since the National Hockey League had only six teams, none of them in Tennessee.

There was a third big thing this summer: The combination of the Pan American Games and Parapan Am Games lured competitors from 41 countries and almost-countries (Puerto Rico fielded its own team) and thousands of followers to enjoy events Olympian (the familiar warm-weather events) and almost-Olympian (roller-figure skating, wakeboard, others).

Sports aside, the enterprise raised a question, and that's what this story really is about: How Pan American is Toronto's restaurant scene?

There was a time not so very long ago when culinarily speaking, dining in Toronto was, with a few exceptions, predictable: steaks, some high-end gourmet, a little barbecue, a bit of French, varieties of Asian, standard Greek and Italian, a smattering of Portuguese, plus pushcart sausages, pub grub and Tim Horton's.

Would fans visiting here from the islands and Latin America this summer find something familiar? The answer: Oh, yes.

"The whole Toronto restaurant scene has gone through a transformation," said Scott Savoie, longtime chef and educator and founder of the Culinary Adventure Co. (www.culinaryadventureco.com), which conducts food tours and events in the city. Fine, inventive dining has burgeoned. "You've got a lot of great local chefs doing a lot of great things.

"And because Toronto's such a melting pot of cultures, people are borrowing ideas from different cultures — so you'll have some Latin American flavors mixed with some Canadian flavors."

And with other Latin American flavors.

Steve Gonzalez, a respected Toronto chef who in 2011 became a celebrity via "Top Chef Canada," opened his own restaurant, Valdez, on trendy King Street West two years ago (www.valdezrestaurant.com).

He's Canadian, but the "Gonzalez" is Colombian. His menu, he said, is "my interpretations of Latin American food." So we get quesadillas featuring eggplant and artichoke, an award-winning smoked chicken guacamole, chaufa (a Peruvian fried-rice dish) with duck and edamame, and a brisket-endowed mofongo, a Puerto Rican plantain-based standard but unlike any mofongo you'll find in Santurce.

Are there any Puerto Rican restaurants in Toronto?

"No," Gonzalez said. "You'd be lucky if you found a Puerto Rican."

If you did, you might find him at Albert's Real Jamaican Food (www.albertsrealjamaicanfoods.com). When Albert Wiggan launched his curry-and-jerk restaurant on St. Clair Avenue West 29 years ago, it was little more than a corner shack, but it was an instant hit. It's expanded now, a full-size diner facing a Catholic church with an Orthodox synagogue right next door.

Folks line up to order oxtail, curry goat, stew beef, jerk chicken and other good things. The people could be from anywhere.

"The most diverse clientele is what you'll find here," Wiggan said with a broad, confident smile. "It's all about flavor in the West Indies."

Naturally, directly across St. Clair Avenue sits a Peruvian restaurant. El Fogon (www.elfogon.ca) is 12 years old. I ordered the lomo saltado, a national dish of sliced sirloin, sweet onions, tomatoes and French fries ("Inca steak frites," said the server), all tossed together in a wok (Peruvian cuisine was borrowing from others centuries before Steve Gonzalez) and washed down with an amber Inca Kola.

Toronto's Kensington Market (www.kensington-market.ca) is more a state of mind than a market. It's a neighborhood of little storefront businesses — "eclectic" is probably the right word, with a touch of 1960s hippie (recycled clothing is fashionable here) and some fresh produce — and on Baldwin Street in Kensington Market just days before my arrival, Sully Rios opened her little empanada shop called Latin Taste.

Rios, trained as a pastry chef, is Peruvian; the empanadas are Argentine; she also sells Uruguayan sandwiches and things with hints of Brazil. She teaches me the Peruvian way to eat the flaky Argentine meat pastry: Take a small bite, she said, "then we put in a little lemon, and then some hot sauce. I want people to try it."

It was really good — and while I still have your attention: One of the joys of seeking out Pan Am eats in Toronto is that finding them brings you into so many of the city's neighborhoods, most easily accessible via Toronto's trademark red streetcars or its easy-to-figure-out subway.

The Queen Street streetcar gets you quickly from downtown to Dovercourt Road and into a neighborhood that once was Jewish, then Italian and now Portuguese, the obvious place to find Julie's Cuban Restaurant (www.juliescuban.com).

It is the quintessential neighborhood restaurant. The circa 1880s building was a grocery store and lunch counter when Sylvia Llewellyn's family bought it in 1954. "In those days," said Llewellyn, whose mother was Julie, "you could buy a roll of toilet paper and buy a burger." Then 20 years ago, Sylvia and her husband, Jesus Baute, turned it into a cute little Cuban place, and that's what it is today.

Try the ropa vieja, a traditional pulled-beef dish with traditional Cuban sides (rice, black beans, plantains). Even if you usually don't like the dish, you'll like this version.

You'll like the carne asada — "the same as you would find in Nicaragua," promises chef-owner Jesus Morales — at La Bella Managua (www.labellamanagua.com). Steps from the Ossington Station on the Bloor-Danforth subway, Morales' 10-year-old storefront is in every way a delight, including the convivial Morales, who arrived in Canada 27 years ago speaking no English. "Can you imagine the subway for me?"

So Nicaragua is represented in Toronto. As is Venezuela. The arepas at the 6-year-old Arepa Cafe (www.arepacafe.blogspot.com) on Queen Street West are, the server promised, exactly what you would find in Caracas: same grilled cornmeal bread surrounding your choice of filling. I had la reina pepiada ("curvy queen") — roasted chicken, a mound of guacamole, red onion, coriander — and on it tested the restaurant's three sauces. One of the sauces was crazy potent. I'd been warned.

Tacos?

"It seems every menu has a taco on it," said Savoie, the culinary guy. "And that's not necessarily a bad thing."

Two of the menus get a mention here: Milagro (www.milagrorestaurant.com), with three locations (the one sampled, on Mercer Street, is down the block from the local Second City venue), serves the requisite tacos plus surprise variations (rib-eye and bacon) along with other creative foodstuffs, including a wonderfully complex mole poblano.

And there's El Catrin (www.elcatrin.ca/home). El Catrin, in its second year in the city's Distillery Historic District, is a trip, a mind-blowingly gorgeous, theatrical installation whose decor almost, but not quite, overwhelms chef Olivier Le Calvez's modern interpretations of Mexican standards. (Pulpo carnitas, anyone?) Among the tacos: the vegetarian cazador (hunter) — sauteed wild mushrooms, huitlacoche, queso fresco and poblano.

And when only a burrito will do, especially after the bars stop serving (currently 2 a.m.): Burrito Boyz (www.burritoboyz.ca). Multiple locations. Multiple innards. Obscenely sloppy and good. Try the halibut burrito. Open weekend nights until 4 a.m.

Pan American diversity. Something for everyone. As Jamaican Albert Wiggan might say: delicioso.

And something to build on.

Alan Solomon is a freelance reporter.

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