Crazy, only-in-Toronto story: A grandmother from Goa, on India’s west coast, wandered into One2 Snacks, a ridiculously delicious Malaysian mom-and-pop shop in Scarborough the other week. She’d been on the bus, she said, and a friend had recommended the place.
This was after the lunch rush – after the throng of kids from Agincourt Collegiate had slurped back a couple metric kilotonnes of golden yellow laksa with opalescent pink prawns and broad rice noodles, and thick shakes blended from shaved ice, sugar cane syrup, and cubes of black sea-grass jelly. There were a few Malay and Singaporean women left in the lull now.
“What’s good here?” the Goan woman asked no one in particular. Where downtown she might have been greeted with embarrassed silence, here the shop burst into conversation. That dessert with the lime-green crepes that come stuffed with coconut pulp and caramelized palm sugar? They had something like that back in Goa, the woman marvelled. A Sri Lankan guy remembered another of the desserts from Colombo, he said. The kid behind the till, the owners’ son, referred to one of the customers – a stranger until a few minutes ago – as “jiejie,” which means “older sister,” roughly. It felt like a roomful of long-lost friends.
What’s crazy about the story is how that tiny shop, with its extraordinary food and bargain-basement prices, is almost completely unknown outside the area. Even crazier? There are places like it on every third block, just about, as soon as you get into the ’burbs.
We went out in search of the best of Scarborough, eating our weight in some of the most delicious food imaginable to whittle a long list of excellent restaurants into a shortlist of unambiguously exceptional ones. The result, which follows, is 10 unique and brilliant places with the sort of food you just can’t get downtown - restaurants that make the ring of suburbs around the city one of the tastiest regions on earth. (We plan on getting to the other suburbs soon.)
So pick a day, rent a car, or load up on transit tokens, and prepare for the thrill of discovery. And don’t act surprised if there’s already a lineup of food-savvy grandmothers at the door.
It’s hard to imagine a better sandwich: Flame-blistered pitas stuffed fat with wickedly savoury beef or chicken, fluffy tabbouleh, pickled turnip and cooling hunks of cucumber so fresh-tasting they might have been prepped by a terroir-obsessed chef. The sauce is the deal-sealer: the inky, smoky chili sauce that tastes like a Mexican-Middle Eastern kitchen-table tryst. I’m guessing chipotle chilis and tamarind, though the kerchiefed and chubby-cheeked kitchen boss at the stove refused to say. “I’m not buying it from the store,” she said, half scowling, half smiling. No kidding, lady! Don’t go within 20 kilometres of this place without stopping for a bite. 1823 Lawrence Ave. E., 416-285-1337.
Tangerine Asian Cuisine
The specialty is Indian Hakka cooking, the odd but addictive cuisine of the Southern Chinese community in Calcutta. The Bombay tiger prawns, wok-fried with tandoori spice and coriander, are irresistibly tasty, while the spicy garlic paneer – fresh cheese that’s cubed, shallow-fried and sauced in a gloopy soy and garlic concoction – whipsaws between cultures in a moaning, gasping, gotta-have-a-cigarette-afterward sort of way. There’s a bit of the food court to it, but in the best sense possible: Where else can you go from never having heard of a cuisine to craving it in 90 minutes flat? 2058 Ellesmere Rd. 416-289-8885.
South Indian cooking is light, largely vegetarian and built around fresh colours and textures: the crunch of red onion and coriander stems; the earthy richness of dosa crepes; the warmth of coconut chutneys; the cold, endorphin-tickling sweat of salted citrus pickle. No place around Toronto does it better; most restaurants I ate at in Southern India didn’t have food this good. Try the rava masala dosa with mashed onion and potato, plus a couple of puris (they’re balloon-like breads that burst into clouds of buttery steam) with sambar, and a plate of savory vada, which will forever change the way you think about fried dough. There’s delicate ginger, carrot and honey kesari cake afterward. You’re going to want that. Then, if you’re like me, you’ll want to have it all again the next day. 3021 Markham Rd., 416-412-0024.
Zen Japanese Restaurant
Maybe it's the location in the same plaza as an "all-star interactive bowling court" but you don't have to kowtow for attention the way you do in most better sushi places. Young apprentice Jackie Lin is particularly friendly, happy to talk about fish (he went to see a hook-and-line bluefin operation in Atlantic Canada last year) and an excellent sushi chef. The omakase option at the sushi bar, which progressed one night from tempura Japanese shrimp and onion balls, to fluke sashimi with dark purple umeboshi plum and bonito paste, to crunchy amberjack with skin that looked like molten copper and three cuts of that East Coast tuna (it’s from one of the rare, truly sustainable bluefin fisheries), is easily the best sushi experience I’ve had in town. 2803 Eglinton Ave. E., 416-265-7111.