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.
There's a time-warp feeling at this Lebanese pastry shop: the sign with its area-code-free phone number, the plastic pear tree in the window, the cake boxes embossed with golden crowns. But the rows of Middle Eastern pastries – Toronto's best, by a long shot – are Pâtisserie Royale's most disorienting feature. The wardeh are airy, buttery, shattering phyllo pastry folded into pockets and filled with chopped pistachios. The baklava are all about nuts and butter, without the usual cloying sop of sweet. There are pastries made with dates, honey, marshmallow and rosewater, all superb; you can fill a box for about $20. 1801 Lawrence Ave. E., 416-755-6323.
Sri Lankan takeout shops aren't special-occasion affairs so much as everyday conveniences in Scarborough. Tamil moms and grandmas here track restaurant openings and kitchen changes with blogger-worthy fervour, and this tidy takeout shop is at the top of a lot of go-to lists. There are cases of nuts and crunchy salted lentils, "short eats" of meat wrapped in bread or pastry, and steam trays full of curries, like gently gamey mutton and entrancingly sweet-mellow eggplant. The best bet for first-timers is the chicken biryani: moist tandoori meat served on rice prepared with turmeric, saffron and deep-caramelized onion, with a hard-boiled egg, a pile of candied-tasting anchovies, a breaded cutlet ball of mashed fish and potato, and a salad of red onion, coriander leaves and carrot. It's a riot of ultra-bright colours, tender-crisp textures and punchy, palate-smacking flavours – all for the price of $7. Takeout only. 3268 Finch Ave. E., 416-626-8421.
Babu Catering and Takeouts
The crowds get to Babu at 5:30 a.m. daily, when the first mutton curry and chicken rice are ready, and it's odd to find a lunch or dinner service where the line doesn't snake out the door. The selection is enormous, with 30 feet of steam trays, dozens of curries, a cast of friendly countermen (NB: the silent, straight-faced, bobble-headed motion means "yes" in Tamil body language) and the constant drum of griddle cooks chopping curry, egg, onions and day-old flatbread into kothu roti – a street food delicacy – with marching-band precision in the back. The food is oily (a plus in many Tamil kitchens), the flavours massive. Order the okra, the crab curry with rice and definitely the kothu roti. Culinary immersion at its delicious best. 4800 Sheppard Ave. E., 416-298-2228.
There is one dish of consequence at Suvaiyakam: the string hoppers, sold in denominations of 25. They're Tamil pasta, essentially – rice-flour dough extruded into weaves that look like racquet strings, then steamed. The ones at Suvaiyakam are some of the best ones going. A clear baggie of yellow sothi sauce made from coconut, tomato and carrot comes with them. There's also a gently spicy sambal made with coconut pulp. Pour the sothi all over, then use the hoppers to scoop up the sambal: 100 per cent delicious. Even better, use Suvaiyakam's string hoppers to eat mutton curry from Nantha and the fiery crab from Babu. It's out of this freaking world. Takeout only. 2950 Birchmount Rd., 416-491-8241.
This tiny Malaysian restaurant is almost always crowded. There's low seating for eight if you don't mind staring at the other patrons' thighs. The food, though, is aces: Kuala Lumpur-style noodles, sweets and street food cooked to order by a wife-and-husband duo. Char kway teow are smoky wok-fried rice noodles with prawns, shrimp paste and scallions; the laksa, a yellow, coconut-based curry broth that comes loaded with puffed tofu, perfectly cooked shrimp, fish balls, chicken, and thick egg noodles. If there's any theme to the savoury dishes, it's the high-wire sweet-acid balance, and depth of flavour from curry leaves, umami-rich shrimp paste and condiments like dark Malaysian soya sauce. On weekends, the owners' son, Bryan Choy, makes otherworldly kuih dadar crepes coloured green with the nutty, herbal juice of pandanus leaves on four hotplates out front between taking orders. Be patient; the food takes forever. Saturdays and Sundays a lot of the best dishes sell out by 2 p.m. 8 Glen Watford Dr., 647-340-7099.
Ba Shu Ren Jia
The GTA's best-known Szechuan restaurant gets better with every visit: it's posher lately (they've upgraded from plastic tablecloths) and the service is sharper. And the food, built around impeccably fresh fish, chewy, assorted animal bits (the salted pigs' ears are bucket list bar snacks), and the numbing-burning ma la effect of Szechuan peppercorns and red chilis, is tastier than ever. Must-gets: the lamb with wedges of onion, green pepper and drifts of pan-toasted cumin; flaky river fish in fiery "pungent sauce" (just ask for No. 227); the green beans stir-fried with bits of pork. One night, a friend looked across the lazy Susan piled with Yanjing beer bottles, his forehead sweating, a crazed smile on his Szechuan-numbed lips. "I can't feel my tongue," he told me. I smiled back and kept on eating. 4771 Steeles Ave. E., 416-335-0788.