A friend from Brampton took me around to some of his favourite restaurants not long ago. As we were standing in a parking lot outside a Pakistani takeout biryani spot, inhaling some of the greatest rice and chicken and yogurt-based raita imaginable, I began to notice the other businesses around it. There was a Vietnamese restaurant, an Indian sweets counter, a sushi spot, a Keg steakhouse, a Caribbean joint called Gem's House of Jerk, a baby boutique called Mundo do BeBe, a shawarma place, a pizza, subs and Jamaican patty shop, and fittingly, a Dr. Bernstein diet centre.
This was the fourth or fifth retail plaza we'd stopped in that day. Every one of them was every bit as varied. It was overwhelming – even after repeated eating trips through Brampton, Mississauga and Etobicoke in the last few months, I could spend another year exploring and only just begin to scratch the surface.
So let's not call this list the "best" of the region. It is a list of 10 unequivocally, spectacularly delicious restaurants, heavily weighted to regional Indian food. What each place has in common is that they serve cooking so unique and so good that they are very much worth the drive.
Just when you think you really know the GTA, you stumble into a place like Popular Pizza. Popular Pizza is a chain shop, like Pizzaville or Pizza Nova. They do Hawaiian pizza, pepperoni and cheese pizza, Greek pizza – everything that chain pizza shops are supposed to do. But at Popular Pizza, you can get any pizza finished "Punjabi-style": smothered with chopped ginger and garlic, drifts of fresh coriander and red and green chilis. It's a simple thing, but unbelievably effective. And it quite suddenly makes chain-store pizza one of the most weirdly fascinating, fantastically delicious GTA fast-food experiences there is. 499 Ray Lawson Blvd., Brampton, 905-874-4242, popularpizza.net
Kwality Sweets and Restaurant
If you can imagine a bright, family friendly room that feels like Fran's Restaurant, but thrumming with bhangra and Bollywood pop and filled with Indo-Canadians, you've got this Brampton hotspot at least halfway nailed. The Punjabi-style cooking, brightened with punchy raitas, vivid hot-sour pickles, mint-based chutneys and the chat masala spice mix that's built on green mango powder, is the freshest thing about it. Get a thali – an Indian smorgasbord, sort of–and a boneless goat curry, and a few of the giant, puffball bhatura breads. The absolute must-have: the street snack called gol guppa water. (It's also known as pani puri, gup chup and pani ke bataashe, depending where in South Asia you are.) Punch a little hole in the top of the ping-pong shaped puri crispbread. Spoon in some chickpeas. Drizzle in the tamarind sauce, now, lots of it. The spicy water – that's the cool, jade-green liquid – is flavoured with mint and mango spice and just the slightest hit of chili. Use it to fill your shooter to the top. You know what to do now, right? 2150 Steeles Ave. E., Brampton, 905-790-1684, kwalitysweets.com
South Asia has as many takes on biryani, the classic dish of meat cooked in rice, as Italy has types of pizza. Biryani King's Pakistani-style version is stripped down and deceptively simple. It is all about intensely juicy meat and the balance between bright flavours and rich. The chicken biryani is the gateway dish. The meat, coated with yogurt and spices, is poached in oil to keep it moist and decadent. The rice, meantime – long, slender, beguilingly aromatic basmati grains coloured orange from saffron, comes studded with cinnamon bark and whole black peppercorns. Pour on the cucumber-kissed raita to counteract the spice. The mutton version is even better; it's just slightly gamey, infinitely complex. Get the rice pudding for dessert. 40 Gillingham Dr., Brampton, 905-453-1500, no web
The panorama of this takeout samosa spot's sweets counter hits you first – the trays of sticky golden gulab jamun balls, the stacks of feathery jalebi knots, the henna reds and pistachio greens and the deep pink squares that taste like a rose garden and glimmer with silver foil. The place smells even better than it looks. A-One smells like toasting coriander seeds and sweetened condensed milk and caramelizing vegetables. And it smells like blistered, savoury pastry – like the greatest samosas you'll ever have. The vegetable samosas are the knockouts: fat, sweet peas, buttery potato hunks, slow-cooked onions, herbs, whole spices and a geyser's worth of soulful vegetable gravy, wrapped in fresh-from-the-fryer crunch. Oh, and this: they cost just 40 cents a piece. Dip them in the tamarind sauce. Just try to stop at one. 7875 Tranmere Dr., Mississauga, 905-677-9121, aonecatering.me
Zeerah Halal Pakistan & Indian Foods
Much is made of the Karachi-style bun kebabs at this popular Pakistani takeout spot. Bun kebabs are street-snack hamburgers, for lack of a better way of putting it: white bun, ground meat patty, lettuce, tomato, a little bit of spice to remind you they're not McDonald's. I don't understand the bun kebab's appeal, quite frankly. Zeerah's keema naan, though – that is extraordinary. It's puffy, buttery, tandoor-charred bread stuffed with ground, spiced chicken. Another standout: the veal korma, one of the most beautifully spiced curries I've eaten. The sauce is built up from onions and yogurt, whole cloves, red chilis, star anise, a whole lot of oil (it's Pakistani cooking; it's supposed to be oily) and a dozen other flavours I couldn't quite identify. The result is smooth, rich, impeccably balanced, a brilliant counterpart for falling-off-the-bone veal. Have that with an order of rice, a couple breads and a side of okra. And a bun kebab if you absolutely must. 3050 Artesian Dr., Mississauga, 905-569-7916, zeerah.ca
Udupi Madras Café
With a few millennia of vegetarian cooking behind them, the people of Madras and Udupi, on central India's east and west coasts, have learned a thing or two. Like how to build huge flavours out of a legume as unassuming as chickpeas, for instance, or to make exquisite mashed potatoes, and to bake some of the planet's most neuron-tripping breads. This little spot in the shadow of Mississauga's iconic Marilyn Monroe towers does all those things and then some. The channa batura, a chickpea stew served with spicy-puckery mango pickle and chopped onion, is an incredible opener, particularly when you scoop it up with handfuls of steaming, deep fried whole wheat bread. The thali plate is one of the GTA's finest; it's worth ordering extra rava kesari, a sublime carrot, cashew and saffron-based dessert, to go. The dosas, however – enormous, stuffed Indian crepes – are the restaurant's greatest accomplishment. Try the chili onion rava dosa, a lacy, crispy crepe with spices and aromatics in the batter, stuffed with supremely buttery potato mash and frisky chili landmines. You can also get un-spicy versions, or dosas stuffed with chocolate or mozzarella and ketchup (see "Kid's Corner" on the menu) if that's your thing. 265 Enfield Place, Mississauga, 905-277-0010, udupimadrascafe.com
Indian Sweet Master Veg and Non Veg Restaurant
There are just two things that you have to order here. The first is the street-food sensation called chaat papri – Northern Indian and Pakistani-style nachos. Chaat papri is made from deep-fried chips, chili-kissed chickpeas, chopped onion, green chutney, cool, tangy yogurt and mango masala. It is sloppy, tangy, gently spicy and crunchy, silky smooth and deliriously tasty. Have that, and have the fish pakoras. The pakoras' batter is deep brown and crisp and studded with chilis and coriander. The white fish inside it is fat, moist, beautifully seasoned. That's fish and chips, in case you haven't noticed yet. To my mind, they're the greatest fish and chips in the GTA. 503 Ray Lawson Blvd., Brampton, 905-450-2800, indiansweetmaster.com
Uyghur cooking from China's far northwestern corner doesn't get nearly the love around North America that other Chinese cuisines do. Consider though, that two of the predominantly Muslim region's most cherished foodstuffs are charcoal-grilled lamb skewers with cumin, and thick, hand-pulled wheat-flour noodles. If the extraordinary food at Silk Road, a cheap, slightly down-at-the-heels and not entirely hospitable (the service can be brusque) mom and pop in Etobicoke is any indication, it's only a matter of time before Uyghur cooking (it's pronounced WEE-gur) hits it big. The lamb noodle soup, built on wobbly, gently gamey lamb meat and fat, firm, earthy-tasting noodles, is the killer dish here. The clear but complex broth has red chili and pungent black pepper in it, as well as star anise, loads of fresh coriander, smoky, toasted sesame seeds and puckery red goji berries. Reservations highly recommended. 438 Horner Ave., Etobicoke, 416-259-9440, no web.
Anatolia serves Turkish food just like you get it in Turkey: fat, glossy-crusted pide breads, creamy hummus and walnut dip, superb beef and herb-covered lacmajun pizzas. The Iskender kebab, a yogurt-spiked beef dish that comes dusted with sumac and paprika, was so good it nearly brought a Turkophile friend of mine to tears. The unexpected star, though: the paper-thin skinned manti – pasta dumplings stuffed with lamb and topped with mint and citrusy sumac. They could put many an Italian nonna to eternal shame. There is Pernod-like iced rakı to drink, as well as sour cherry juice, and baklava for dessert. The service
is polished and extremely friendly. 5112 Dundas St. W., Etobicoke, 416-207-0596, anatoliarestaurant.com
Chef and owner Lillian Ow cooks real-deal Sing-Malay food at this nearly 20-year-old Mississauga institution, with all the sweets, sours and funky, fishy flavours that make the polyglot island nations' cuisines such a profoundly addictive force. The popiah, spring rolls of a sort that come stuffed with refreshing sweet yam, poached shrimp and hoisin sauce, are a gentle way to start a meal here. The beef rendang, a wicked-savoury curry, is also excellent. The rojak, a green mango, pinapple and cucumber salad that's tossed with dried jellyfish and peanuts, gets deep-savoury pong from fermented shrimp paste; the taste is well worth acquiring. The desserts are all fun, no funk. Try the boboh cha cha (it's sweet potato mixed with palm sugar and coconut milk). And if you're trailing children, do not skip the ice kachang, a gaudy-coloured shaved ice assemblage that's just exotic enough to help you forgive the ensuing sugar craze. 1177 Central Parkway West, Mississauga, 905-281-0860, lioncityrestaurant.ca