Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pho Saigon, Newmarket, On

Soup of the Gods

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the influence of one culture on another helps make exceptional cuisine. I also pointed out the French influence on Vietnamese cooking as well. You need look no further than the national dish of Vietnam, Pho. Born of the French stew Pot au Feu and adapted by Vietnamese people this dish can also be traced back to China. The resulting melting pot of ingredients, Chinese noodles in a French style beef broth with south Asian spices and vegetables makes for a very light yet hearty, simple yet complex dish.
Pronounced F–uh it seems to have been invented in the northern part of Vietnam in the early part of the 20th century. Simply noodles in beef broth with meat if affordable and/or available. The dish migrated south after the partitioning of Vietnam into two countries in the mid 1950’s. Perhaps as a way of distinguishing the dish from ones served in communist North Vietnam the democratic south started garnishing their soup with things like bean sprouts, lime juice, hoisin and various herbs. The introduction of Pho to North America further developed it into the soup we know today by introducing different meats such as chicken and shrimp. Purists scoff at this as traditionally a cook was judged on the delicate balance of the broth.

As with Fight Club, the first rule of Pho is there are no rules. You order a bowl of broth and noodles and whatever protein or combination there of you like with it. A popular choice is slices of rare and well done beef. A plate of bean sprouts, lime wedges, basil and a chili pepper are joined by the hoisin, fish sauce and chili sauce on the table. Mix and match, customize your bowl as you see fit. This may bristle some from the north but it’s up to you how you enjoy something. I always add a healthy squirt of hoisin and as much sriracha (chili sauce) as I feel I can handle. A few bean sprouts for crunch and I’m good to go.
Etiquette is also pretty loose. As with most Asian noodle dishes, slurping is allowed if not encouraged. Typically the broth is eaten with a spoon and then the solids are eaten with chop sticks.
For us, the best locally is at Pho Saigon.
The small restaurant in the Quaker Hill strip mall is just about as good as it gets. More than just a soup kitchen they offer noodle and rice dishes as well as appetizers. Shakes from different south Asian fruits like durian and jack fruit are joined by bubble teas.
Just about as addictive as the soup are the spring rolls. The shrimp and pork are tasty and very fresh. We ordered a sampler platter that also included pork spring rolls and egg rolls. The pork rolls are also very fresh tasting and as you can see, the egg rolls are deep fried and very full of meat. The fish sauce is good and goes with anything but the peanut sauce is amazing. It’s absolutely fabulous with the two spring rolls.
From the Rice part of the menu they have this incarnation of Pork Chop, Shredded Pork and Steamed Egg. Again, there's few rules there but generally you use the fish sauce (orange kind) the rice and then augment that with any of the other things. I added some of the shredded pork and a bit of egg. It was fantastic. As well, the pork chop was very tasty. A definite hit.

Also from the appetizer department are the Wings. If you’re a wing lover, you could do worse than visit an Asian restaurant to satisfy your craving. Simply put, most Asian restaurants make great wings. Deep fried and generally plain where these things shine is in the sauce. Most offer a sauce that’s a well rounded balance of sweet, sour and spicy. Pho Saigon’s editions are very hot. Medium is not for beginners. At first you may not think so but get a few in you and you’ll find they pack a wallop. They also have a nice deep, sweet, garlicky flavour, are cripsy yet still allow the chicken to shine through. Some of the best wings I’ve had.

We ventured into the noodles section of the menu as well. The noodle dishes are similar to the Pho but without the broth. The Vietnamese style fish sauce that accompanies is supposed to be poured over and eaten. I added some hoisin and sriracha of course.

You’re greeted with a nice pot of green tea which is always nice.
You can find Pho Saigon at 16925 Yonge St. in Newmarket, Ontario.

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Well that’s all for today. Hope to see you again in the food court.
Pho Saigon on Urbanspoon


Friday, September 24, 2010


Over the last half decade or so the burrito scene in Toronto has erupted. American chains such as Chipotle and Moe’s have joined local upstarts such as Burrito Boyz and Mucho Burrito with much fanfare. Offering up San Francisco or Mission Style burritos opinions of the product has been varied. Comparisons to the great institutions which claim birthrights are constant and much like in San Francisco’s Mission District customer loyalty is strong.

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The Mission style of burrito seems to have been introduced to San Franciscans during the early or late 60’s depending on who’s version of reality you want to believe. No one however disputes what it is. Comprised of an oversized flour tortilla stuffed to the gills with meat, (either the walking or swimming kind) beans, cheese, pico de gallo and Spanish rice. Add ins such as sour cream, guacamole, minced chilies and cilantro (ya, I know but I like it as long as it’s used in moderation) customize the diners experience. Veggie options are available too. Though occasionally fried they’re most often steamed. The resulting steam allows the tortilla to stretch and contain the ample filling. The whole unit is then wrapped in foil to retain heat and provide structural integrity. Properly made it should be impossibly full and not fall apart.
It should come as no surprise then that the small kitchen in the Village by the Grange food court named Mission Burrito has both jumped into the burrito pool and is serving the San Francisco style wrap. Opened in 2008 Mission Burrito is committed to serving fresh quality ingredients at reasonable prices. They’re more than just burritos too. Tacos, quesadillas and even Mexican inspired salads round out the menu.

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So on to the food.
If you order the burrito combo you get a can of pop, chips and pico as well.
The chips were nice and crispy and the pico was very fresh tasting. The dollop of hot sauce on top gave it a nice kick.

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Burrito options include shrimp, steak, carnitas, chicken and veggie. I opted for the carnitas. Slow roasted pork that is seasoned and shredded. I was asked how hot I liked it and I answered “Pretty hot.” That meant a half ladle of hot salsa was added. Now, I haven’t been to San Fran and don’t know what the paradigm is but as far as the local contenders go, it was simply the best burrito I’ve had. I simply unwrapped mine since it should hold together but the “Proper” way is to peel back the foil as you go. The heat was pretty close to perfect. A time release type heat that really grew on me. My mouth was more than tingling when I was finished.

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Though not very convenient for me I do look forward to further visits and samplings from the rest of the menu. Service is from the food court side, not the street.
Mission Burrito is located at 109 McCaul St. in the Village by the Grange food court in downtown Toronto.

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Mission Burrito on Urbanspoon

Well that’s all for now.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sweets of Jerba

 Just a note. This restaurant is now under new management. New name is Taste of Tunisia.

At the northern most point of Africa, jutting out just slightly and about 100 miles across the Mediterranean Sea from Sicily is the Tunisian Republic. About the size of California it’s strategic proximity to Europe has made it, historically, rife for conquest. As we discussed before, conquest is synonymous with great cuisine.
Settled by Berbers, invading (among others) Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French and Germans, brought with them spices, techniques, styles and utensils which have formed the basis for this cuisine that is a culinary marriage between Europe and Africa. The rich and tomato based sauces of France and Italy fuse with African spices like Cumin and Harrissa. Seafood and lamb are featured prominently.

Toronto immigrant Adul El-masari Abderrazak opened D’jerba-la-Douce in 2005. Abdul puts his years of experience in countries like France, Italy and of course, Tunisia to serve up family recipes from his boy hood days on the island of Jerba. With a limited menu Abdul is able to cook everything to order. Right from scratch with organic veggies and halal meat. “An intoxicating menu that fuses the cuisines of North Africa, Southern Italy and France in Toronto’s only Tunisian restaurant.” Completing the experience you can even enjoy the hookah on the back patio.

“So what does Tunisian food look like” you may ask? 
I should point out that I was with a group so all dishes were served family style. I should also point out that while not very  spicy, there certainly was some heat. My mouth was tingling but not burning. 

So without further adieu.
Roughly speaking, from least to most favourite:

Couscous is the national dish of Tunisia. I have to admit, I don’t get couscous. I don’t like it. I don’t dislike it. I don’t get it. That said, I rather enjoyed the presentation here. We got a large platter with lamb chops and grilled chicken thighs. Both the chicken and lamb were good but nothing special and of course, the couscous is couscous.

Another platter with stewed lamb and green beans was brought out to have with the left over couscous. While I thought the sauce was good, the lamb was a bit lost. It was fall off the bone tender though.

Brique is a pastry stuffed with potato, egg and tuna. It’s somewhat similar to a samosa and was pretty good. It would make a nice snack to eat while driving.

A delicious Calamari Djerbieno is served in a tomato sauce flavoured with chilies and garlic. When calamari is over cooked (which is very easy to do) they get rubbery. These were over cooked but the tire like texture never bothers me anyway. This was a tasty dish.

The Grilled Shrimp la Marseillaise are head on shrimp, grilled and smothered in a garlic, tomato sauce. The sauce had a little more spice and the shrimp were earthy and pretty large. This was a great dish. Full of flavour and looked really nice to boot.

The Salad Grill Mushwa was a surprising highlight. A base of hummus like puree made a nice back drop for the eggs, capers and olives.

Last and certainly not least is the Merguese Sausage. Lamb sausages smothered in tomato sauce with french fried potatoes and poached egg. This was absolutely fabulous. I gobbled up as much as I could. Then had more. While I was very happy with the other dishes, this was easily my favourite.

There was also plenty of pita bread brought to the table for sopping up the sauce as the website says, “So it won’t go to waste.” Being a sauce and bread lover, I was all over that. The bread was pretty simple and really was just there for one purpose.

We were served a wonderful mint tea with dinner too. I got it just to try, figuring I wouldn’t care for it and as it turns out, it was very refreshing and a great palate cleanser between dishes.

You can find Djerba-la-Douce at 1475 Danforth Rd in Toronto, Ontario.

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You can also find them on the web.
Djerba Ladouce Cafe on Urbanspoon

Well that’s it for today. Catch ya later.