FINE DINING DOESN’T HAVE TO involve white linens and a line-up of cutlery requiring a user guide.
1. Gourmet ice pops
A month ago, popsicle pioneer Kari Marshall appeared on the doorstep of Jimmy’s Coffee Shop in King West village with her frozen assets: a barrage of gourmet ice pops. Her slogan suggests you “Get popped right in the kisser!” with seductive flavours like strawberry balsamic, Thai coffee, and caramelized bananas and cream ($3).
Marshall tells me between brow wipes, licks, and slurps (quality control) how she was inspired by a road trip to Nashville’s Las Paletas Gourmet Popsicles. The Tennessee popsicle mecca was actually closed, but the notion of such a clever entrepreneurial adventure percolated in her mind for several years. “It’s not like being a car salesman. There’s very low overhead with popsicles and competition is okay,” she tells me as I help load her PT Cruiser with her umbrella and other paraphernalia for her business, Pop Stand.
Marshall is as cheery as her ice pops and I’m happy to learn that she has already found an investor, which means she’ll be able to buy a popsicle machine with an output of 250 ice pops an hour versus the 200 individually molded popsicles she currently takes 8-12 hours to produce. As humidity continues to cling wrap the city, follow Marshall on Twitter (@popstandtoronto) to track her whereabouts. And if you have a panting dog in tow, ask for one of the free banana-yogurt and veggie-carrot broth “pupsicles” for your four-legged friend.
2. Camel sliders
Clipping along Dundas past the Scadding Court Community Centre pool near Bathurst, I stop dead in my flip flops at the sight of the sandwich board advertising camel — a meat I haven’t had since the night I first had camel stew in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt.
Charming Dali Chehimi leans out the window of his shipping container storefront, Casbah, where he’s gained a loyal foodie following. In addition to lamb burgers, the North African take-out joint entices with Tunisian spring rolls, chilled cantaloupe soup, and camel burgs. For $3.50 he makes a tidy “Le Chameau” slider kicked up with homemade harissa sauce (a temperamental Tunisian hot sauce calmed down with mayo), caramelized onions, and a ketchup blended with cinnamon and honey.
The camel meat is sourced from Australian farms, so the market price puts the regular-sized burger at $9.50 on the day I visit. The soft baguette, slim patty, and boost of harissa make a killer combo as the condiments don’t crowd the camel flavour profile (rare beef meets woodsy moose).
The Casbah is usually closed Mondays, but Chehimi is there most days until 7pm. He insists on a return visit to try his preserved lemons and mint lemonade ($3). I will be returning regardless, for the full-sized “Le Chameau”. Just south of the take-out shop, Alexandra Park is an ideal and leafy place to retreat with your nosh, though Chehimi is thrilled to engage in conversation while you eat at the bar stool pulled up to his window.
3. Lemongrass pork banh mi subs
Step aside chain sub shops. Just west of Spadina on Queen, you can find subs nearly the length of your forearm with a whole lot of personality packed inside. The Banh Mi Boys have hoisted the Vietnamese sandwich to a 2012 level by replacing the more traditional bahn mi fillings with the likes of five spice pork belly, braised beef cheek, and duck confit. A generous serving of grilled lemongrass pork ($4.95) is super-spiked with lava-hot Thai red chilies, jalapenos, and Sriracha (Red Rooster) hot sauce upon request. The cooling elements of thinly sliced crisp cukes, pickled carrots, and mayo tame the inferno while cilantro puts the fun in the bun.
Traditional takes of the banh mi generally include a surprise of fatty deli meats, pate, chopped egg, tofu, headcheese, and daikon. Ready to do a banh mi battle? Walk north to 322 Spadina to Banh Mi Nguyen Huong Food Co. where a large banh mi punches in at $2.50 and you can do it old school with the toppings.
4. Spicy lamb skewers and sugar-coated haws
Criss-crossing through Chinatown on my way home from work, I’m lured across the street by the smell and sound of meat spitting on a grill. I queue up at the BBQ Store at 492 Dundas West, east of Spadina. The lanky guy ahead of me orders a fistful of lamb skewers and as I watch the expert dusting of spice and deft hands of the cook turning the meat, I think these are a popular choice for good reason.
At 4 for $5, I’m not surprised to see a line of fans of the lamb patiently waiting behind me. The lamb is sliced in slender ribbons and threaded onto the skewers. The bits of fat and addictive salty spice make for quick and ungraceful eating. Just step away and chow down.
I return in a minute to try the sugar-coated haws. The brilliant red radish-sized fruit is served six on a stick for $3. Unsure of what to expect, I am pleasantly surprised to discover the equivalent of miniature candy apples. The vitamin C and E content of the haw is revered, and apparently cured a concubine of Emperor Guangzong from her digestion ills after her doctor suggested simmering haws in sugar and water, and eating 5-10 before every meal.
Though I am not a concubine, I will also heed the doctor’s advice given the demands I put on my digestive system. Just be careful of the pits! Braver palates might want to try the duck gizzards, octopus balls, sauce pork hoof, or beef tendon balls.
5. Preserved duck egg and taro pastries
Directly beside the BBQ Store, the Butterfly Bakery beckons with intriguing confections. My usual purchase is the barbeque pork steamed buns or sticky lotus pancakes, and though I’ve eaten my way through a lot of the inventory, I decide to stretch my palate perimeter. I’m impressed that this bakery can stuff so many sweet and savoury things into their dough: sweet potato, sticky rice, chicken, taro, red bean paste — it’s all here and many items are less than a buck.
I grab a cafeteria-style tray and peer at the offerings with tongs in hand. The fermented duck egg pastry and the taro pastry make the cut, coming in at $1.20 each. The latter has the firmness of a scone, like a dense sugar cookie, and is available in blue or purple. The duck egg pastry is, of course, the conversation starter and party favour with the triple-dog-dare-you element. Preserved, the egg is motor oil black with a Jell-o Jiggler consistency. Housed inside a flaky glazed pastry it reminds me of the mid-autumn festival moon cakes a Chinese friend introduced me too.
Do I love it? I’m not sure, but I keep nibbling at it because it’s so perplexing. Each bite reveals something different. With a blanket of sweet taro paste on the duck egg, the sweet-savoury pairing makes for a curiously satisfying portable snack. Best with a stiff oolong tea or rosehip brew.