Welcome back to My Local Eats, a guest post series in which foodies from around the world share their favorite things to eat and drink. Today we’re swinging over to Toronto (not too far from my hometown!) and hearing from Maria of the Happiness Experiment.
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This past August, while enjoying a warm summer’s night on a Toronto patio, I met a girl from Ireland. She was serving my table, and I was immediately curious about her story when I heard her accent. In her twenties and fresh out of school, she and her boyfriend had recently arrived to Canada on a two-year work visa. Wondering why they picked Toronto, of all cities in the world, to spend their typically European gap year (Can North America adopt this as a widespread rite of passage already?), she easily traced their decision back to food. Never having personally thought of Toronto as a destination for foodies, I was surprised by her answer. She explained that, unlike her home, where culinary variety is hard to come by, Toronto offers the opportunity to try many different cuisines in one city. Having lived just outside of Toronto my entire life, I realized that I had taken my ability to eat my way around the world without leaving home for granted. Before meeting this waitress, it hadn’t occurred to me that some cities do not share this luxury. Friends, I’d like to introduce you to some of my favourite eateries situated in one of the most multicultural cities in the world: Toronto.
Roasted garlic: Whole cloves of garlic served with crostini, a sauce of goat cheese, sun dried tomatoes, and pine nuts
Osso Bucco, located 40 minutes outside of Toronto in Brampton, a suburb of the city, is well worth the drive. (If you’re visiting Toronto without access to a car, it’s also accessible by public transit. From downtown, you can bus there in just over an hour.) It is my absolute favourite restaurant, taking into account everywhere I’ve eaten around the world, including the trattorie and ristoranti of Italy itself.
Being of Italian descent has resulted in extreme pickiness when it comes to Italian food, particularly pasta. Growing up, I consumed significantly high volumes of penne and tomato sauce, learning to distinguish the good from the bad before I could speak. Consequently, I am a tough critic of Italian food. Having lost faith in all of the “Italian” restaurants that I’ve been to outside of Italy, which fail miserably by comparison, I refuse to go to all but one: Osso Bucco, where the pasta is worth pulling pennies out of mall couches and my best friend randomly proposing to a stranger for (true stories). The textures of the pastas are perfect, the sauces are rich, and the portions are – in true southern Italian style – beyond generous.
Just as important as the food, the service is impeccable. I’ve been regularly visiting Osso Bucco since it opened years ago. Although there have been new additions to the family, the original staff remains, excitedly welcoming me whenever I walk through their doors. In fact, my best friend and I have eaten there so many times that we are referred to as “the Bucco girls,” a title that we wear proudly. The people behind Osso Bucco will do anything to accommodate their patrons. I basically make my own dishes whenever I go. Having tried almost all of the pasta on the menu, I shamelessly request to transform the available options. For example, chicken fusilli with rosé sauce instead of parmesan cream and shrimp instead of chicken for the same price as the menu’s version is not an outrageous request here. One time, they even made penne with pesto for me; meanwhile, a pesto pasta dish was nowhere to be found on their menu. For those who crave real Italian food paired with genuine Italian hospitality, Osso Bucco is a must.
Where to find it:
La Carnita, a Toronto Underground Market (TUM) success story, combines Mexican flavours with sheer inventiveness. You may not find their taco and tostada creations throughout Mexico, but you will certainly be impressed by their unique spin on Mexican street food. La Carnita’s expansive foodie following and quick progression from a popup to a brick and mortar are testaments to its deliverables. Anyone who follows the Toronto food scene knows of La Carnita. Their flavour combinations are explosive. Not stopping at the food, their drinks are as creative as their urban fare. Just as much a part of La Carnita’s concept as its edible offerings, the street art that adorns the lively restaurant sets the tone for an electric night in Toronto.
Where to find it:
Lisa Marie’s Italian inspiration stops at the word “cicchetti,” found behind its bar and across its menus. It would be a disservice to the passion and originality spilling from each dish to simply file this restaurant under the label of any particular cuisine. I can best describe it as an unparalleled gastronomic gem created by the talented and imaginative Matt Basile.
Matt is a Toronto street food legend turned restaurateur with a story nothing short of inspirational. A couple of years ago, with a dream of starting a restaurant and without the funds to back it, Matt quit his job to start a popup food company, cleverly named Fidel Gastro’s. Since then, he’s launched one of Toronto’s most beloved food trucks, and has become pivotal to the growing success of Toronto’s street food movement. Lisa Marie is a testament to his many accomplishments in the underground food industry. Less than two years after starting Fidel Gastro’s, Matt opened his dream restaurant this past April. (Given his dedication to his passion for food, I, as the girl behind The Happiness Experiment, am obviously a huge fan.)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with cicchetti, they are best defined along Lisa Marie’s wall: “Kind of like tapas . . . but not.” Cicchetti are small plates, which are fabulous for trying a variety of dishes in one go. You could go to Lisa Marie with a few friends and easily order the entire menu (or, if you’re me, independently eat your way through as much of the menu as your tiny bank account balance will take you, which is pretty far at this place). What stands out most about Lisa Marie’s menu is the creativity behind everything. Matt balances flavours and textures that I never would have imagined blending. Beer battered figs topped with a hint of basil? Philly cheesesteak tostada refreshed with cilantro? Bone marrow doughnuts dipped in drunken cherry jam? Hook. Me. Up!
Beyond the food is the unbelievable staff. This is the type of place that you go to once and can expect to be remembered when you return. I have yet to visit Lisa Marie or Priscilla (Fidel Gastro’s food truck) without being heart-melted by everyone’s genuine enthusiasm to see me. They know my name, they know what I like, and they always know what to suggest. I may have made an impression by ordering two jars of Elvis for dessert, but I have a wonderful feeling that they remember everyone, making all customers feel like the most valued friends in the world. It’s just how they are. If the pictures above didn’t entice you (and how could they not?), visit Lisa Marie for the people. You won’t be disappointed.
Where to find it:
The Food Dudes’ food truck
Dirty VEG fries: Wild mushroom gravy, cheese curds, mozzarella, southwest slaw, smoked garlic aioli, hot sauce, and tempura bits
Nutella bombs: Nutella-filled homemade banana bread with cornflake batter, bourbon caramel, and whipped crѐme
Since 2011, the Toronto food truck community has grown significantly, and one of my favourite trucks on the scene is by The Food Dudes, who first entered the industry as caterers. Their high-quality street fare is artistic. The flavour combinations are stimulating, and the presentation is illustrative of strong attention to detail. For a virtual taste of their creations, I highly recommend checking out their website, which showcases an elegant palette of beautiful dishes.
Not only are The Food Dudes talented cooks, they are great entertainers. If you ever happen to be visiting Toronto at the end of June, The Food Dudes’ annual block party is an event that no foodie should miss. This year’s event was held at MUZIK Beach, a large outdoor patio lined with cabanas surrounding a long, rectangular pool. It featured foods ranging from Islamic couscous to liquid nitrogen ice cream; unbelievably good music from the ’90s to present; and fabulous entertainment in the forms of food art, beer pong, jitz, bouncy Twister (I relived my childhood that night), a free photo booth, and more. Though definitely in the middle of Toronto, I felt like I had been transported to Vegas or Miami. While this is a once per year event, The Food Dudes can be tracked by following @TheFoodDudesTO on Twitter. Their food is absolutely worth stalking their truck for.
Where to find it:
Home of the Brave
Home of the Brave, from the creators of La Carnita, just opened on King W in August. King W flaunts a particular culture of twenty-somethings that have outgrown Toronto’s Entertainment District, but not their stuck-up attitudes. I am definitely not a fan of the area; however, Home of the Brave’s menu was enough to convince me to mentally paper-bag the King W crowd for a TUM alum’s take on American cuisine. Fortunately, Home of the Brave’s atmosphere is nothing like the one just outside of it. The patrons are unlike the typical King W douches. I completely forgot that I was situated in one of my least favourite parts of Toronto. This place is a diamond in the past-prime clubbers’ rough. Similar to La Carnita, the staff is friendly and sociable. The decor is a street-art inspired play on American culture, with “Join or Die” being the central theme, referencing America’s melting pot. Furthermore, the music is incredible! If you love ’90s hip hop as much as I do, Home of the Brave will be your destination until close at 2 am. The music tops that of any club I’ve been to in the city.
As for the food, I join! Few Toronto food establishments boast American cuisine, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. To my satisfaction, I was exposed to dishes with influences from specific states evident in each. The inventiveness weaved throughout the menu is astounding. Amongst the many popular street-food inspired establishments appearing across the city due to the success of restaurants by various TUM alumni, Home of the Brave is a very welcome taste of something different in the heart of Toronto.