There’s a mosaic of colour behind the sneeze guard: jerk crab, sunburn-pink; oxtail that’s almost black in its gravy; a pile of curry chicken as yellow as a cartoon lighting bolt.
The food writer Suresh Doss sizes up the offerings at this walk-in Jamaican restaurant in Brampton, Ont., thinks about it for a minute, and orders one of everything, pretty much. (What he doesn’t get, like a red fish with its head on, he wants to know all about.)
He likes this place, Pepper Shack, because its cooking shows “a higher level of love.” Plus, he adds with a grin, you hardly ever see a white person here.
The restaurant is tucked away in a shopping plaza just off a roaring stretch of Kennedy Road in this suburb northwest of Toronto – what Mr. Doss calls arguably the most diverse food street in the Greater Toronto Area. “Between this plaza and that plaza,” he says, pointing to his right, “you can eat through a large stretch of the world.”
Mr. Doss is the foremost local expert on restaurants like these. Mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall and immigrant-run, they are among the city’s greatest cultural assets, a movable feast and a crash course in world culture from Colombo to Caracas.
Because of the pandemic, they are also among its most fragile. Thin margins have been battered by patrons staying home in fear, especially in the working-class, ethnically diverse neighbourhoods they call home, which have been hit hard by COVID-19. Before the virus, there was often a line out the door at Pepper Shack. Today, its owner Christopher Grant says, “We’re just trying to get through.”
For the past 15 years, Mr. Doss has mounted a remarkably successful campaign to bring the region’s strip mall cuisine into the foodie mainstream. Now his mission has shifted: He wants to keep the mom-and-pops alive.
There is more at stake than a few small businesses. The diversity of the city’s food culture, Mr. Doss believes, is nothing less than the “story of the mosaic” – Canadian multiculturalism in microcosm, a pattern of storefronts laid out side by side in asphalt parking lots, as varied and vivid as the dishes they serve.
It’s a mosaic whose tiles are starting to fall off.
Fans of his work will not be surprised that Mr. Doss keeps a spreadsheet of restaurants that have closed during the pandemic: His zeal for good food has always been matched by a digital savvy that has helped make him a cult figure to a younger generation of eaters.
The fabled “Suresh map,” geotagged with the restaurants he has profiled for a weekly CBC Radio segment, is now paired with this second, more mournful document. It runs to dozens of names, though he acknowledges it’s nowhere near complete. The ache in his voice is audible as he rattles off a litany of the departed: Royal Myanmar, once the city’s only Burmese restaurant; his favourite pho spot, Banh Cuon Pho Ga, which specialized in chicken broth; Shabestan, a Persian café that offered an elaborate, immersive tea service.
“You go in there and you’re transported,” he said. “A dozen places like that have closed.”
Mr. Doss learned about the power of food at a young age – both its power to fix identity and to transcend it. When his family brought him to Toronto for Grade 8, fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka, the dishes that delighted people back home became a source of shame. At his largely Filipino middle school in suburban Scarborough, classmates said his curry lunches smelled funny. Eventually he asked his mother to stop packing him anything, until she switched to ham sandwiches and spaghetti.
But the role of food in his life shifted in high school; it became a kind of liberation. He and a group of friends from all over the world – Kenya, Guyana, the Philippines, northern India, Sri Lanka – started driving around their sprawling borough, playing pool and looking for new places to eat. At a certain point, he realized the humble, brightly lit restaurants they loved most were also hidden gems. Nobody else seemed to think Scarborough’s strip malls were a culinary oasis.
After years of working half-heartedly in IT, Mr. Doss got the writing bug, but had no luck pitching Toronto editors on stories about the kinds of places he and his friends liked. “Media tended to focus on the white-tablecloth style,” he said. Sri Lankan restaurants in Scarborough were easily dismissed as “ethnic food,” fine for cheap takeout but not serious consideration.
So, Mr. Doss did what frustrated journalists did in the early 2000s: He started a blog. His obsession with food remained a hobby for years, his thoughts squirrelled away in a dusty corner of the internet.
Then, suddenly, the culture caught up with him. A strange brew of factors – online reviews, belt-tightening amid the 2008 recession, a rising ethic of multiculturalism in the United States – combined to democratize the way white, upper-middle-class North Americans approached dining out. The prestige of regional food in out-of-the-way places quickly rose. Foodies started taking ramen spots and Korean barbecue as seriously as fussier restaurants serving mille-feuille and molten lava cake.
One man incarnated the trend better than anyone: Jonathan Gold, the late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic with a Rabelaisian appetite and silvered prose, who championed the cuisine of the city’s ethnically jumbled, working-class suburbs. Mr. Doss met him once, during a work trip to California. They were eating at the same Mexican food truck, by chance. The disciple approached the master for advice. Mr. Gold was busy eating a shrimp taco and didn’t seem to be in the mood for conversation, but dispensed a single pithy suggestion: “Just keep driving.”
To this day, Ms. Doss does most of his restaurant reconnaissance by just driving. He keeps an eye out for bustling strip mall parking lots. If locals are clamouring to a place, he figures it’s worth a look.
“The way I find places is analog,” he said. “Yelp isn’t going to help me.”
Sheer volume is another part of his strategy. Mr. Doss dines at an average of eight to 10 restaurants a week, and returns to favourites over and over. If he writes about a place, he has eaten there at least half a dozen times, he said, and usually cooked through a cookbook from that culture, to understand the labour that goes into making Salvadoran pupusas or Chinese soup dumplings. (One exception to the rule: fine French pastry. Too fussy.)
“He is the quintessential gourmand,” said the chef Carl Heinrich, founder of the downtown restaurant Richmond Station and a long-time friend. “He is the modern-day Canadian Brillat-Savarin. He will eat 10 meals in an evening; he will drive to the ends of the Earth to find a meal.”
For the restaurateurs who have received his attention, Mr. Doss often plays kingmaker. He can extend the lifespan of a hole in the wall by years. Nobuyuki Toyoshima, owner of the ramen standout Nobuya in suburban Etobicoke, said he still gets customers who heard about him through Mr. Doss’s 2018 rave review for the CBC, which praised Nobuya’s artisanal approach and richly layered broth. “He changed my life,” Mr. Toyoshima said.
His influence is so great that a certain kind of downtown foodie has come to rely on Mr. Doss as a tour guide to the world cuisine of their own suburbs (sometimes literally, on paid food tours he hosted before the pandemic). Toronto’s diffuse geography, thin public transit system, and economic inequality can make strangers of low-income immigrants in the suburbs and young, white professionals living on a subway line.
Paul Taylor, executive director of the food justice non-profit FoodShare Toronto, said the concentration of low-cost international cuisine on the city’s fringes reflects the way non-white immigrants have been historically impoverished by colonialism and racism, and remain marginalized today by lower wages and barriers to accessing credit, among other factors. Urban food explorers should consider these dynamics when they go to discover new restaurants, he argued.
“My hope is that middle-class white folks going on these adventures to the suburbs … are asking themselves bigger questions about how the city is changing.”
Mr. Doss believes in the power of eating thoughtfully as a salve for that kind of shallow cultural tourism. When diners approach a new cuisine with humility, he said, they’re likely to come away with an “ember” of knowledge about the place that made it.
A plate of curries served Sri Lankan-style, with several kinds laid out on a bed of rice, offers a tour of the island in a single meal, Mr. Doss said. The pork you’re eating in one bite is a staple of southern Sinhalese cuisine, while the crab in your next mouthful is a specialty of the west coast, and the stewed cauliflower might come from the heavily vegetarian middle of the country. “Food tells a story of who we are.”
With some of those stories suddenly in danger of disappearing during the pandemic, Mr. Doss seems determined to save as many of them as he can, either with his own money or that of his readers.
In the same Brampton strip mall as Pepper Shack sits one of his “back-pocket favourites,” a Vietnamese lunch counter called Che Thuy Nga, which specializes in banh mi sandwiches (generally served with cold cuts, pickled vegetables, cucumber and coriander on a short baguette). These are “the best banh mi I’ve had outside of Vietnam,” Mr. Doss said. All the cold cuts are made in-house by owners Tom and Tina Vuong.
The Vuongs count themselves lucky – they still have loyal customers who drive from as far away as distant suburbs Oakville and Milton to support them. Not all of their regulars are Vietnamese, either. The recent popularity of their signature dish means they also get “white people,” Mr. Vuong said, a little gingerly, worried about giving offence. (“Is that ok?” he asked.)
But even with its relative good fortune, the restaurant is just barely surviving. The Vuongs shun delivery apps, so driving to Brampton is about the only way for customers to get one of their sandwiches. “We’re trying to hang on,” said Mr. Vuong – another tile in the mosaic Mr. Doss wants to keep in place.
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