I had never been to Canada before. My excuse for the longest time was that there were still plenty of places left to see in the states, so why go through the hassle of renewing my passport. True, America has more than its share of great places to travel, many of which I haven’t seen yet, but my ever growing list of shit to check out has already gone far beyond the border for quite some time. It was time to see the rest of the world. Starting with Toronto.
But I wanted my first trip to Canada to impress the hell out of me. There is no better way to do that than with good cuisine. Dining can make or break a travel experience, and in Toronto, its food markets would be my best bet. Showcasing gourmet cuisines from all over the world, their markets are deeply embedded in the city’s culinary scene, drawing people like me, who will visit a city for no reason other than to eat.
I boarded a Toronto-bound flight on a Friday afternoon with an agenda to eat and discover. My first discovery was the St. Lawrence Market the next morning, and it was a big one.
St. Lawrence Market
Dating back as far as 1803, the St. Lawrence Market is situated in the heart of downtown, and has drawn multitudes of locals and visitors. It has undergone numerous transitions and renovations over the years, currently hosting more than 120 vendors and showcasing all kinds of international fare.
One of its best known signature destinations is the Carousel Bakery, a circus themed vendor of 30 years in the upper level of the main building. Made famous for its Peameal Bacon Sandwich, the bakery is regarded highly by celebrity chefs, top 10 must eat in Toronto foodieblogs, and droves of visitors. It draws lines pretty much every day, prompting me get to the market early Saturday morning before the line started building.
The sandwich has thickly cut pieces of peameal bacon on a buttery kaiser roll, and that’s pretty much it. I ordered one, sat down at a table, unwrapped it, took a bite out of it, and knew right away that it didn’t live up to all the hype. I thought of it the same way I would an egg salad sandwich from Starbucks: Not altogether bad, just above average, perhaps a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. But that didn’t stop other people from flocking to that place and enjoying what is regarded by so many as one of the city’s signature culinary attractions.
Why? Am I missing something, Toronto? What is so special about it? Besides having good ingredients, I didn’t think there was anything about it worth going crazy over. A decent breakfast sandwich, maybe, but worth waiting through a big line? It’s just salted pork on a warm piece of bread. It was almost as overrated as Chicago-style deep dish pizza.
Hoping to have a better second impression somewhere else, I went to Buster’s Sea Cove, a popular vendor of 20 years strong, just around the corner from Carousel. They are well known for their array of freshly grilled fish and seafood, and have just recently outfitted a food truck to sell fish tacos and lobster rolls to the hungry city streets. I ordered a sashimi grade swordfish sandwich off of their daily special menu. Agh, disappointed again. Perhaps it was just that I would have rather they had not cooked the fish (no need to cook sushi grade anything, really), but the fillet was lacking in any impressionable flavor, and nothing else on the sandwich was special either. Just lettuce, mayo, sauce, two grilled pieces of bread.
Disappointed, however, willing to write that off as a misfire. I think I just got the wrong thing at the onset, and would be more impressed with the rest of what is clearly a kickass menu. Buster’s Sea Cove has more than their share of good reviews, and their lobster roll sounds awesome. Unfortunately, I was too full at the time to follow that train of thought any further. I left to spend the morning burning off my calories, hoping for better luck elsewhere.
All that said, St. Lawrence Market showcases some great dining options for the hungry traveler. I am certain I could go back tomorrow and have a completely different experience.
Distillery Historic District
I met my friend Rhonda later that day at the Distillery Historic District, an awesomely restored pedestrian village just east of downtown. It was formerly a whiskey distillery dating back to 1832 that eventually became the largest in the world. With more than 40 vintage buildings, it boasts the largest collection of Victorian industrial Architecture in North America. Over time, it deteriorated and the distillery eventually closed, opening the door for a massive revitalization effort.
In 13 years time, the district was transformed from a neglected urban streetscape to a thriving modern community, housing restaurants, art studios, a brewery, performance theatres, and many other things. With its Victorian-era architecture in tact, the Distillery Historic District is a blend old ideas with new artistic and culinary designs. It would be the perfect place to eat and drink.
Only one spot there can give itself the well-earned title as the “First sake brewery in Eastern North America”. 100% handcrafted in their home brewery, Izumi, The Ontario Spring Water Sake Company is well known for their sake creations. And while I wouldn’t pretend to understand all the precision that they put into their ingredients and fermentation process, there is no mistaking the quality of their work. It is evident as soon as you taste the aroma from outside the door. Rhonda and I sat down at the counter for a tasting flight of their standard items, and they each got sweeter as I shot them in a clockwise manner.
And if Izumi are the experts in sake fermentation, then Soma Chocolatemaker, a micro-chocolate factory just down the street, are the pros at the art of chocolate making. Every batch of their chocolate is made in-house directly from cacao beans, kicking ass from start to finish with a wide array of chocolate truffles, bars, hot drinks, you fucking name it. Rhonda and I sat down face to face at a table, each with our own shot of Mayan Hot Chocolate. It was easily the most loaded, intense chocolate I have ever tasted. Any more than a tiny sip at a time can feel overwhelming. I was certain that it was the making of textbook diabetic, but I didn’t care. There were enough calories in that shot to make a ten year old hallucinate.
We spent the next couple hours exploring the art studios and easing our sugar overload with wheat beer from the Mill Street Brewery. It was a fine day to be outside, with Rhonda telling me about her yoga classes, me talking about all my travel stories, both of us losing track of time. She eventually took off and I went back to my hostel to rest up before the evening.
All my running around was fun, but I needed a drink. The hostel was hosting their weekly bar crawl that night, and at 10:00, one of the employees rounded all of us up. We left as an entourage of at least 60 down a loud, unfamiliar street to an otherwise nearly empty upstairs bar. I had hardly met anybody from the hostel yet, and figured it would be a good chance to have a few beers, mingle around, see if I can figure out who from the ladies is looking to meet a guy. And besides, I am nothing if not a drinker.
I was two beers in when the host herded us outside in a broken up fashion down the street and around a corner. I made small talk with a girl from Ann Arbor and a dude from Cleveland as the host got us all across a big street and grouped us all together. I wasn’t sure what he was doing at first, but realized that the next bar he thought of was on the other side of town, and that we were supposed to pile group by group into taxi cabs parked along side of the street to get there. Right away, I knew it was a horrible idea.
Some of the entourage got into cabs, others didn’t want to pay out more for cab fare, other people were just confused altogether, all the while with the dude trying to explain to us that it would otherwise be an hour long walk. He ran back and forth telling cab drivers where to go, and it just got to be an unorganized mess. I didn’t realize until later that I could have pulled him aside and said something like “Dude, real quick, this is a mistake, right now let’s just get everybody to another bar down the street.” Lesson learned, entourage management works the best by foot or party bus. I looked at my phone. Rhonda was in Kensington on the tail end of a belly dancing show, and wanted to meet for another drink. I left the confusion behind and caught up with her.
We went down the street to a quiet bar with a good patio area, drank good local beer, and lost track of time in the warm breeze of Toronto’s late July summer.
I woke up the next morning with a headache and an empty stomach, and drug my hung over ass out of my hostel bed and down the street to Kensington Market, a popular open street market with an abundance of vendors, vintage clothing shops, local produce, musicians, and a neighborhood watch to remind you that Samus has got your back.
Out of pure luck, I happened to check it out on Pedestrian Sundays, a monthly event in the warm season where they block off the streets and go all out. All the restaurants set up popup tents in front of their storefronts, musicians and artists set up all along the streets, and the entire neighborhood turns into a street fest.
I needed to get something in my stomach, and bought some Jamaican jerk chicken that was worth forgetting. It was undercooked and lacking in flavor, and on a soggy pile of rice. Dammit, these markets clearly have some great food, why can’t I seem to find it?
Per a heads up from Rhonda, I went over to Pancho Y Emiliano, a Mexican restaurant on the south end of the market, and tried their Baja Fish Tacos. They served me two of them, and each had big fish fillets with crispy golden brown batter, fresh vegetables, and a touch of guacamole on a corn tortilla. They were delicious, and made a great last impression of my venture into Toronto’s dining scene.
I need to get back and try this again. While I had a great time exploring the city, and Toronto’s markets and most of their fare were of great quality and variety, I did have my share of misses. Luckily, Rhonda visited Chicago recently and brought me this:
If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that you won’t see me in line for another Peameal Bacon Sandwich. But a lobster roll from Buster’s Sea Truck? Hell yeah.