Saturday, March 31, 2012

Community Anchor

Perhaps no city can be considered truly great without a vibrant, permanent farmers market. Here in Toronto, fortunately, we have two. Kensington market and St. Lawrence market. To say that these are "Permanent farmers markets" is a bit misleading. What they are is in fact two distinct market neighbourhoods.

To talk about St. Lawrence Market as A market is also somewhat misleading. It's actually 2 markets. As far as farmers markets go anyway. The north, a Saturday only farmers bazaar and the south, a 5 days a week playground nirvana for the food lover.

In November, 1803 the Province of Upper Canada's lieutenant governor Peter Hunter set aside a small parcel of land in what was then known as the Town of York (to be renamed the City of Toronto in 1834) and decreed it would henceforth be set aside as a "Market Block." A wooden building to house the market was subsequently erected and then replaced in 1831 by a larger brick building that would occupy virtually the entire Market Block property. Incorporated into this building was the York Town Hall. In 1849 the first "Great fire" of Toronto resulted in the 1831 brick market building and the original Town Hall that had become de facto the new City Hall being destroyed.
By 1850 the present St. Lawrence Hall began to take shape on the northernmost portion of the ruins of the old brick market building. This magnificent building would quickly become the social center of the young city and home to numerous and varied civic and cultural events. St. Lawrence Hall now sits fully restored and has been designated a National Historic Site. 
In time, a smaller non-descript structure took shape south of the Hall. This latter building has been renovated several times and now there are plans to replaced it with a modern new structure.
A decade after the Town of York was given city status in 1834 the city fathers' who had been meeting in the original Town Hall moved across Front St. into a new City Hall in the "South" Market. A portion of this historic building still stands with the Market Gallery occupying what had been the municipal Council Chambers. 
Over the next 50 years Toronto's first purpose-built City Hall underwent a couple of facelifts. However, by the 1890s a population boom saw the old city offices out grown.  
A move to a new "New" city hall at Queen and Bay in September of 1899 would be the last the St. Lawrence Market would see of city council. Oddly enough that city hall at Bay and Queen streets is now known as "Old" City Hall while it's replacement to the west now bears the title of "New" City Hall.
Back at the historic "South" Market a major renovation in 1904 resulted in only a portion of that original brick building surviving. It can be seen incorporated in the north facade of the "South" Market. A few years later an overhead canopy would be built to connect the north and south markets. It would be removed 50 years later.
One last major renovation took place in 1977 that added two levels of vendors at the south end of the market building plus the addition of meeting rooms, a kitchen and the popular Market Gallery where art work and artifacts related to Toronto's fascinating history are presented.

The south building's busy food court is quite simply a food lovers dream. Seafood, meat, vegetable and cheese vendors (among others) all competing against each other for your food dollar. Below is a sampling of some of my favourite vendors and their wares.

Two things are absolute musts for me, whether or not I'm planning on having a meal, to snack on as I'm wandering. First of all the pepperettes from Upper Cut Meats. These fiery beauties are just the thing to open up the taste buds for the coming onslaught.
Quite often I'll pick up lamb steaks here and do them up on the grill. The marrow from the bone is fantastic.

The other must is a stop at Scheffler's for some anti pasta. Perhaps nothing better from this beautiful bar is the smoked speck and goat cheese. The sharp, rich cheese is a perfect match for the smokey, oily goodness of the speck.
Scheffler's is a grazers paradise too. Sausage, cheese and pates are all available to sample before purchase.

As great as Upper Cut is, Witteveen's is my favourite. The roasted side bacon and pork tenderloins are fabulous. I often grab a hunk and eat it on site. They have a terrific selection which includes one of my favourite pieces of cow. The Tri  Tip. This hunk off the sirloin primal is perfect for fajitas. The super friendly staff are great to just stop and talk meat with as well.
For those spaghetti lovers St. Lawrence Pizza and Pasta makes fresh pasta and sauce. Either from their “To go” case or prepared for you at their counter. They also make their own pizza dough and sauce. Both of which can be order at the counter. Their pepperoni pizza is far ahead of what you’d get at a regular food court. While the pepperoni lacked the pizzaz I’d normally like it had a very nice complementary taste to the cheese. The dough is flavourful and chewy but where this slice really gets its personalitly is the sauce. A good tomato flavour is punctuated with a big garlic hit. Enough to scare off the vampires.
St Lawrence Pasta on Urbanspoon

Sausage King has a beautiful array of sausage. Both fresh and cured. While you’re there picking up some goodies for home try one of their porchetta sandwiches. Served on a kaiser roll with herbed aioli and optional cracklin’s it’s great. Some people find the strong rosemary flavour to be a bit much. Others find the 17 napkin juiciness of it too much. Not me, I love rosemary and find juice running down my arm as I’m eating to be a good thing.

One of the stars of the show at the market is the peameal bacon on a bun at Carousel Bakery. A debate rages wether it’s the best or the offering at Paddington’s Pub. Well, I’ve had both and will take Carousel every time (as did everyone in a group of 10 I visted with as well). On occasion I’ll hit up one of the other vendors for a couple slices of cheddar. Usually I just eat it plain though. Not even any mustard.
Carousel Bakery on Urbanspoon

Speaking of mustard, perhaps THE best mustard on the planet can be found at Kozlik's Mustards. Anton Kozlik has a wide array of the yellow/brown goodness for just about any palate. For me, one stands head and shoulders above all. The Triple Crunch is 3 different seeds blended with some whiskey and vinegar. It's pungent with a great texture. It makes a great substitute in recipes that call for mustard seed.

For my money some of the best pastéis de natas (Custard tarts) can be found at Churasco's. The rich custard is nicely nestled in the flaky phylo pastry. They also make a phenomenal bifana sandwich. Sliced pork tenderloin on a bun with everything (Roasted peppers, onions and the best piri piri sauce I've had). It's cooked to order so takes a little longer but well worth the wait. Every bit as tasty as you can imagine and it's not even their specialty. 
Churrasco of the St Lawrence on Urbanspoon

So there you have it food lovers. A look at one of the great market and food adventures this planet has to offer. An absolute must for any hungry visitor.

You can find St. Lawrence Market (south) at the corner of Front and Lower Jarvis Streets.
View Larger Map

You can also find them on the web, facebook and Twitter.

I would like to thanks Toronto's leading historian, Mike Filey for his help with the historical aspect of this article. Piecing together a time line for the market proved challenging and without Mike I probably wouldn't have got the facts straight.

Well that's all for now. See ya next time in the food court.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Old Town Standard

A lesson to all you guys out there. Listen to your wife. Had I not, I’d have never ended up in one of Old Town Alexandria’s favourite breakfast spot. Extra Perks.
All joking aside, it was a Sunday morning and we had a long drive ahead of us. Mrs. Sippi was in church and I was getting us ready for the road. When she emerged she explained, in no uncertain terms mind you, that we were going for breakfast. She pointed at the church bulletin and said “here.”101_1006
Perks was opened in 2000 by (seemingly mismatched) husband and wife, Phil (Brit) and Kem (Thai) McCombie just off the main drag. The little coffee shop became an instant success and business thrived. It would become the perfect spot to swing by and pick up a cup of coffee and/or a quick bite. Soon, in order to save time, people would fax in and eventually email orders for pick up.
More good fortune would befall Perks when in 2009 the unit next door became available. They blew out the wall, expanded to 64 tables, a full kitchen and reopened as Extra Perks. 101_1003
The outside is really just a storefront. Occupying a good portion of the ground level in a low rise office building. Inside it’s Starbucks meets Denny’s. I mean that in a good way. Simple, functional and clean on the one hand but cozy and warm with a sofa and fire place on the other.  There’s also a section full of goodies imported from “Over ‘ome.”

In the kitchen they’re making as much in house as they can. They get fresh bread daily and even have English “Bangers” made by a local butcher. 

While they do breakfast, lunch, dinner and weekend brunches, we were there for one reason. A good solid breakfast with which to hit the road. On that, EP delivered.

So let’s have a look shall we??

I just had to have the corned beef hash. I don’t much get a chance to have it and it’s something I really like. Mrs. Sippi went straight up. The American breakfast with apple wood smoked bacon.
The hash browns were pretty good but the bacon was outstanding. The eggs, once over were as they should be. The accompanying bread was fresh and very tasty.
Two, once over eggs resting atop a fantastic corned beef hash. The eggs were unfortunately slightly over cooked for my taste. I like a nice runny yolk. Egg yolk with black pepper is a great sauce for a breakfast. These yolks could’ve been runnier but at least they weren’t fully cooked. The hash underneath was crispy as it could be and full of ground corned beef. The salt from the meat was enough to season the whole dish. Done on a flat top (aaah, the flat top) it had a fantastic crust on it that gave way to a melt in your mouth middle. The toast, again was great.
EP,  as you can imagine makes a great cup of coffee. For those that are concerned about such things, “Extra Perks proudly uses Chesapeake Bay Coffee, located in nearby Maryland.  Chesapeake Bay Roasting Company is committed to making this world a better place by lowering their carbon footprint nearly 80% compared to today's traditional roasters.  They also pledge 2% of their sales to their H20 Initiative Program.  Click here to read more.”

So there you have it. Simple yet solid food in a friendly, warm environment.

You can find Extra Perks at 822 N. Fairfax Street in Alexandria Virginia.

You can also find them on the web and facebook.
Extra Perk's Coffee Shops on Urbanspoon
Perk's Coffee Shop on Foodio54
Well that’s all for now folks. The food court is now closed.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Food Fight

If you live around these parts you'll know three things are steadfast. First, death. We're all gonna die. Second, taxes. Lots of 'em too. We all have to pay. And pay. And….well, you get the idea. Thirdly, Toronto city council will screw up a good thing. As with the other two, ALWAYS. Take Toronto's street food scene. For years it consisted mostly of hot dogs and sausages. While among the best in North America I'm told, people can not live on wieners alone. To consider yourself a "World class city" as TO does, a vibrant food culture is a must. Street food always plays a big part in that. The city, at the behest of the people, starving for healthier and more varied options initiated the "Toronto a la Carte" program. A child could see a la carte as a failure long before it's roll out in 2009. Now city council is doing it's best to screw up the next wave of street foods. Food trucks. The burgeoning truck scene is struggling to find it's legs and is in danger of extinction. Over regulation and taxation has many trucks avoiding the big smoke like kids do cauliflower. This time though, things are different.

When last we saw Spiros Drossos he was on the business end of a pizza peel at Chicago Pizza Kitchen. Gone more than a year now, Spiros closed shop and sought greener pastures within the city limits. To keep busy while he explored lease options he set up a food truck. Food Cabbie is a mobile kitchen in a trailer. Able to travel city wide Spiros settled in a private parking lot just outside the downtown core. But a funny thing happened on the way to the pizza kitchen. Food Cabbie exploded. So popular is Cabbie that daily white board specials (tweeted and posted on facebook) routinely sell out. This is becoming standard operating procedure for the few trucks who choose to operate within the city boundaries. Business is booming. So naturally, Toronto city council has to step in and ruin it.

To say that Spiros is upset is an understatement. He has all the correct paperwork to sell food out
of a mobile kitchen. Was told to be on private property and as such worked out a lease agreement on parking spaces. He was issued a license with the address of the parking lot in which he resides. Now the city wants to give him the boot. Citing an obscure (and seemingly contradictory) law that says you can not operate a food truck in a private (or public) parking lot. They're serious too. Threatening with measures up to and including seizure of his trailer. To add insult to injury, the big blue fry wagon boasts that it's been in the same spot for 30 years. On Queen St. E. Right in front of city hall.

Spiros however is not is disheartened. Buoyed by tweets, facebook messages and the local media he (and his wife Helen) have taken up the fight. Not for himself but for all. He's fighting for Thunderin’ Thelma. His competition and parking lot neighbour. He's fighting for the trucks who opt for Hamilton and other suburbs. He's fighting for those who'd like to sell something other than sausages out of a cart. Most of all, he's fighting for us. He's fighting for our right to choose something other than hot dogs.

Food Cabbie does a limited menu and has, as mentioned above', daily specials. Specialty hamburgers, burritos and even Spiros's famous Chicago beef sandwich have all made the white board. They're posted on facebook every morning and a tweet goes out as well. People start phoning the minute they get to their office to reserve lunch.

As is the norm with places I review, just about everything is made from scratch. Spiros probably works 14 hours a day 5 days a week to give customers simple yet tasty food.
His trailer is decked out in a pseudo NY cab theme and is as clean as an operating room. Due to limited space a limited amount of food is cooked daily which ensures everything is as fresh as it can be.

So let's have a look at some of FC's wares.

If you just can't wait for lunch Spiros offers a breakfast burrito. Home made chorizo mixed with potato, refried beans and egg. Red and green hot sauce are complemented with sour cream (upon
request) as a tribute to Mexico's national colours. Grilled on his flat top the burrito is enough to keep you going well through lunch. I found it very tasty but just slightly potato heavy. I also would like to have seen cheese added. These two points are really just minor details and fine tuning. Much like saying you love someone’s car but would prefer it in blue, not red.

A regular Friday special is the Baja fish tacos. Inspired by the famous Rubio's in San Diego, FC's version are basa done on the flat top (not deep fried). Three to an order loaded onto corn tortillas
and topped with pickled cabbage and "secret sauce." These are a nice light lunch and are surprisingly filling. I heard one person remark that they weren't nearly seasoned enough but I for one enjoyed the simplicity of the taco. Basa is also a "Good alternative" according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

In a city that is challenged for Philly cheesesteaks Food Cabbie is a bit of an oasis. Thinly sliced steak is grilled up with onions and green bell peppers. The whole mess is crammed into a hoagie roll and topped with cheddar cheese sauce (not cheese
wiz). It's ooey, gooey and delicious. At least a 4 napkin endeavor. You definitely need to park and eat this bad boy. My general indifference to green bell pepper will have me omit them next time though.

The Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich made from genuine Montreal Smoked Meat is simply amazing. Spiros had an agent smuggle a whole slab from Chenoy’s across provincial boundaries. I went with the classic preparation of meat on caraway seed rye with mustard. The only weak link in this sandwich was the mustard. Not that it was bad, it wasn’t. It’s just that a good pungent, clear your sinuses deli mustard would’ve played against the richness of the meat that much better.

The porchetta is run as a daily special. It’s a fine example of this roast pork sandwich. For those who find Sausage Kings sandwich too herbaceous or moist this is probably the perfect sandwich. The less herbs in the cooking meant for a more clean pork taste and since Spiros tries to keep things a little healthier it’s much less fatty and as such, not as juicy. It’s plenty juicy though. A great sandwich. I ended up picking the bell pepper off but the sport peppers really made the sandwich sing.
The steak on a bun was really nice. Thinly sliced sirloin, flashed on the flat top and served in a nice soft hoagie roll. The tomato and lettuce added some nice texture and flavor. All in all a terrific sandwich.
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Not often you find someone selling hot dogs that didn’t come from a supermarket. But here we have Spiros’ own recipe dog. My benchmark dog is a Nathan’s and these don’t really reach that level. They’re not really supposed to either. Spiros’ healthier version has less fat and salt than Nathan’s. They’re less garlicky as well. All in all though this is a solid dog. It may seem a little lost in that bun but it’s a 1/4lb weiner and is usually topped with chili and cheese or done up Chicago style. I wanted to keep it simple just to get a sense of what the dog tastes like.

So there you have it folks. My first in what I hope will be several more food truck reviews in the city of Toronto.

You can help the cause by signing the petition online. It's a fight well worth taking up.

You can find Food Cabbie (for now) at the south end of the parking lot at Queen St. E. and Mutual.
View Larger Map

Keep up to date with Cabbie on facebook and Twitter.
Food Cabbie Food Truck on Urbanspoon

Well that’s all for now folks, see ya again in the food court.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Chuck Ya

Eccentric English writer Charles Caleb Colton would be lost to the sands of time had he not offered up one of the most famous quotes in history. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." By my estimation The Burgers Priest should be very flattered.

When local restaurateurs Johnny Prassoulis and Bill Koutroubis needed a new challenge they decided to get in on the burgeoning flat top burger craze in Toronto. They approached Burger’s Priest about opening a franchise but were declined. So they decided to reverse engineer another age old adage and took the “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em” mentality and opened Holy Chuck in late summer 2011.

To be fair, Holy Chuck isn’t a Burger’s Priest doppelganger. They too are doing the classic American burger. But the Priest didn’t invent that. He didn’t invent it either but Ray Croc built an empire on it. Sadly lacking in TO, BP merely reintroduced the GTA to it’s juicy goodness. Call it Classic American, California style or “Smashed” burgers as they do around these parts (they’re put on the flat top as a ball then “Smashed” flat with a spatula).  When done properly, it’s the best burger on the planet in my opinion.

You could almost call HC the Burger’s Anti-Christ. Where the Priest has a secret menu, Chuck’s menu is there for everyone to see. Where the Priest has a more hip, edgy vibe, Chuck is more generic and family oriented. Chuck has white board specials as well. BP tries to keep the menu small. HC's "specials" feature burgers like duck or lamb as well as regional burger styles like the Oklahoma burger. Popular in its namesake state and characterized by a layer of sautéed onions cooked right into the patty. Feel like punishing yourself?? HC has the "Go Chuck Yourself" challenge for those brave enough.

So if HC is taking on BP in the flat top burger genre, they better bring their A game. They do. Meat is ground in house and just about every other menu item is made from scratch and the milkshakes are  blended to order.

So how does Chuck’s food stand up?? Well, let’s have a look.

The Holy Chuck Fries are fresh cut shoe string style fries covered with cheese slices, bacon and their chili. Over all I'd say these are okay but broken down my mileage differs. First off, as a fry alone, it's very good. Definite potato flavour and cooked to a gorgeous, rich brown colour. So that's good. I'd prefer real cheddar rather than sliced on my chili fries. So there's problem for me. I thought the bacon was pretty much lost under the chili and thus didn't offer much. I did manage to get a taste of bacon, cheese fries and it was terrific. The chili I'm not a big fan of. Not bad, just not my cup of tea. It seemed to be lacking any heat and didn't bring a big "Chili" flavour. So chili cheese fries would be okay. Bacon cheese fries would be much better but bacon, chili, cheese fries just didn't make it for me. I'll order them naked next time and dip in ketchup. 

The Holy Chuck burger is right in my wheelhouse. 2 quarter pound patties done on a flat top with bacon and sliced cheese. This one comes dressed up with sautéed onions. I had an interesting dilemma with this burger. On the menu it says "No toppings allowed!" The conundrum posed by this is one on which I just can't seem to come to an opinion. Part of me says, "It's my food, I decide how I'm gonna eat it. Not you." The other part understands completely that sometimes you are going for a certain thing and an alteration would screw it up. Kind of like ordering a Hawaiian pizza and subbing bell pepper for pineapple and adding onions. It's just not the same thing anymore. So as is it's a fabulous burger. I'd be interested to add some pickle and mustard and see how it turned out. Only because I thought there was a certain succulence to the burger that wasn't balanced out by something sharper.

A slight row occurred when they unveiled a specialty burger. I won’t tell you the old name out of respect for those who were offended but for now (Aug/12) it’s unnamed.
1345821352767Consisting of 2 patties that are a 50/50 mix of beef and bacon topped with cheese and a ladle of their spicy chili it’s one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. As far as specialty burgers go that is. The patties, loaded in bacon are, naturally, tasty and juicy. The reborn chili (they’ve played with the recipe since I last tried it) had a slight zip to it and was a nice touch on top. The cheese tied it all together. I opted to add fresh, chopped onion and after a bit of experimenting found that mustard was a nice complement as well. Truly excellent all around.

Farmers ThreesomeAnother of their specialty burgers is the Farmers Threesome. What you have here is one cheese topped beef patty. One cheese topped lamb patty. One cheese topped bacon patty. All topped with more bacon and sautéed onions. I found a bit of mustard rounded the whole thing out nicely. It walks the fine line between unctuous and greasy. Salty and over salty. It’s not an everyday burger. Being fatty and salty and all. But for a special treat it’s incredible. Tasty and juicy. Fabulous.

The Depressed Cow is a burger done "Oklahoma Style" which is to say they smash slivered onions right into the burger as they squish it down. A style of burger cooking popular in, you guessed it, Oklahoma. First off, if you don't LOVE onions, don't bother. I love them and found this a bit on the oniony side. Don't order it if you're on a date either as it's one of their more messy burgers. So all in all, it was a tasty burger but not one of my favourites.

Poutine, as you probably remember, is fries with cheese curd and gravy. As is the norm around here they don't make it authentic. It's beef gravy instead of chicken. That doesn't mean it's not tasty though. It's as good as any I've had in this city. I think I'll ask them to hold the parsley garnish next time. It was an odd addition in my books. 

The eye opener, the discovery, the revelation, the Oh! My! God! moment came the first sip I had from my milk shake. Made with whole milk and quality ice cream as it's base I opted for the Nutella and Salted Caramel and it blew me away. Easily the best shake I've had in the city and perhaps ever. Top two for sure. They come ultra thick but melt enough to sip through the straw fairly quickly.
I’ve since sampled a number of them and let me tell you, they’re excellent. The Bacon, Fudge and Seasalt (the bacon didn’t do much for me though), Wasabi, Green Onion and Fresh Ginger (Slight zing from the wasabi), Strawberry Cheesecake and Grandma’s Apple Pie. It seems like you just can’t go wrong with any of them.

You can find Holy Chuck at 1450 Yonge St., Toronto, Ontario.

View Larger Map

You can find them on the web, facebook and twitter.
Holy Chuck on Urbanspoon

Well that's all for now folks. See ya next time in the food court.