Saturday, June 30, 2012

Balkan BBQ

If you're like me you've probably heard of the "Balkan's" without ever really knowing where they are. Well, they're in S/E Europe bounded (generally) on 3 sides by 4 seas (Adriatic, Mediterranean, Marmara and Black) and on the other by 3 Rivers (Danube, Sava and Kupa). Consisting, of Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina,  Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and it's most well known denizen, Greece. The Balkan Peninsula has seen it's fair share to problems over the last few decades. Civil war and financial hardships have ravaged the region.

That war in what was Yugoslavia offered as much as any conflagration can give. Up to and including genocide. For Ante Ostojic staying in his native Serbia would be dangerous. Ante was married to Lucija who was of Croation birth. For a mixed couple at that time, it was virtually a death sentence. In 1993 The family pulled up stakes and moved to Canada and what is now the GTA. Ante continued plying his trade and opened a butcher shop in Mississauga. Serving the growing number of Yugoslavians who had also fled the decimated area. In 2007 he and his son Mario opened Royal Meats BBQ. The restaurant serves food made fresh from the butcher shop that range from the well known like salads and burgers to the obscure like Chevaps and Karadordeva.

The snazzy restaurant in south Etobicoke has a beautiful patio and a slick, modern feel. The almost night club look and ultra clean environment is spacious and, a rarity in TO, has plenty of parking. It sits prominently on a corner. All about location.

Inside the place looks like a restaurant and butcher shop had a baby. You walk in, order from the meat case like a butcher and then your food gets cooked like a burger joint. Take a seat and wait to be paged while your meat of choice is grilled up. Most of those critter choices come in two large sizes. Half and full pound weights.

So let’s have a look at these Balkan goodies.

They have all the normal burger condiments plus a couple other regional staples. Kajmak is a spread of butter and unripened cheese and Ajvar (shown left). Known as "House Sauce" Ajmar is a relish made of roasted eggplant, garlic and red bell peppers. I don’t get much out of the Kajmak other than a rich buttery flavour. Like there’s something wrong with that. The Ajmar is really tasty. Not spicy but still tasting of peppers it’s terrific. Certainly a nice change.

The Lepinja (They spell it Lepinya) is a staple bread in the region. This fairly large bun serves as the vehicle for all their sandwiches. It has a very soft crust and a pretty hearty texture. It's not overly flavourful but good none the less. More like a canvas than part of the picture in my estimation. I think it could probably use just a bit more salt but I'm not complaining. They serve them buttered and grilled. A nice smoky component is picked up off the grill that just adds to the flavour.

I really love the burgers. These are not the "Classic American Cheeseburger" type. These are larger, much more heavily seasoned and made of pork and veal. They're also done on a grill so it's more like a back yard BBQ type burger. A very nice combination that works well with the seasoning. I get it topped with onion, Kajmak and Ajmar. The flavours really come together very well although the Lepinja was maybe just slightly too big. 

Chevaps are a staple in the Balkans. These meat logs (about 2.5 - 3 oz ea.) of veal and pork are simply seasoned with salt and pepper and really, that's all they need. There's enough flavour in those two meats that simply accenting them, not altering them works very well. I get my sandwich exactly the same as the burger. All in all it tastes great but unfortunately rather unwieldy. Usually you get a crusty bun that provides a sort of exoskeleton or a burger patty that provides some back bone. Here the bun is super soft and the Chevaps have a tendency to roll out. As a result the whole thing is hard to hold on to, hard to maintain structural integrity (usually not a bad thing but in this case it is) and as a result, hard to manage. Sorta like putting Sloppy Joes on Wonderbread.

The Karadordeva, a chicken cutlet stuffed with Kaymak, breaded and deep fried is  renamed Royal Cannon. The Cannon actually kinda resembles the charge packed into a cannon back in the day. This one is cooked to a beautiful golden brown and explodes with ooey, goodness when cut open. It’s got a real buttery, creaminess to it that I loved. Unfortunately I have to deduct points on the breading though. While nice looking and tasty, it doesn’t stick to the meat and thus breaks off. All in all, a very tasty dish though.

The Shopska salad is very similar to
Horiatiki. What we here know as the Greek Village Salad it’s chopped tomatoes, bell pepper, cuccumbers and onion. Topped with feta cheese. In fact, if they had a Greek salad dressing it would be indistinguishable. 

The sweet potato fries were really nice. Back when these things first became popular I wasn't too fond of them. I think they're definitely better when not fresh cut. The fresh cut ones seem to be limp and somewhat flavourless. These ones here were certainly dusted with flour or something to promote crisping. Much better than what I've had in the past here and there.

So there you have it folks, a little taste of the Balkans in a nice friendly setting.

You can find Royal Meats BBQ at 710 Kipling Ave. in Toronto.


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

Royal Meats BBQ on Urbanspoon

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


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Uh Thank ya, Thank ya Very Much.

So rumour has it that a horse farm in the Owens Cross Roads area of Alabama was owned by The King of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley. As the story goes, he was visiting his farm one day and stopped in at the local BBQ joint for some lunch. This is what James Taylor (no not the music guy) was told when he bought the place.
The West Virginia and Pennsylvania raised James is a long way from home. His circuitous life found him living Dauphin Co. Pa on March 28, 1979. At 4am a couple of system failures followed by a stuck relief valve started a chain reaction that would forever put
Three Mile Island in the US lexicon. James journey would continue and by the 90's he was working at Hampton Cove Golf and Country Club on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. It was then he decided to go it alone and bought Big Cove BBQ just down the street.  
A loyal Big Cove customers would eventually join the team and soon after, Jennifer would not only marry James but his BBQ place too.

If I were to open a BBQ restaurant it’s quite possible I’d want it to look exactly like Big Cove BBQ in Huntsville, Alabama. It’s a simple wood shack with big BBQ lettering on the side. It exudes charm. It’s what a Q joint oughta look like in my opinion.

Inside Jennifer’s smiling face greets patrons at the order window. Half a dozen or so tables clutter the dining room and there’s a nice patio outside. As you can imagine, it’s pretty basic and homey inside. Wood pannel walls and what every Q shack should have, a life size stand up of Elvis.

Big Cove first crossed my path when it was named Best BBQ Restaurant in North East Alabama. How could I possibly ignore such praise?? In a region well populated with pitmasters named Gibson, such an honour would have to be well earned. So let’s see how they did.

The pulled pork was pretty good but there were some considerations here. It was slightly dry but since were were the last customers of the day, all in all, somewhat understandable. They should be lauded for not drowning it in sauce to cover that up or over steaming it to keep it moist but turning it spongy. They don’t sauce it at all which is nice and they have nice long shreds of meat so I can imagine that straight off the smoker, this is really good stuff. 

The ribs were, by competition standards, over cooked. They were falling off the bone. I really don’t have a problem with that since I’m not a competition judge. So read into that that they were super tender. They tasted a bit plain but a little bit of the sauce really picked them up. That works well for me since I love sauce.
The accompanying sauce was really nice. A typical vinegar/tomato type sauce you’ll find in north Alabama and done very well here and with a hint of heat. I never did try the white sauce.

The beans were really nice. Both Mrs. Sippi and I gobbled them up. Nice chunks of pork and a good smooth taste. I got almost all the way through them when I decided that a little sauce might be nice with them. It was. The vinegar and spice opened them up even more.

The tater salad was simply amazing. Good chunks of potato, skin on and some garnish. It had a signature taste to it that I just couldn’t put my finger on. I noticed a bottle of squeezable butter flavoured margarine in the cooler and wonder if that was it. It did seem to be a bit buttery. Whatever it was, both of us concurred that it was the best restaurant potato salad we’d had.

So there you have it folks. A good meal in a cool little Q shack where Elvis once ate.

You can find Big Cove at 151 Taylor Rd. in Owens Cross Roads, Alabama. 

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You can also find them on
Big Cove BBQ on Urbanspoon
Big Cove B B Q on Foodio54

Well that’s all for now folks, see ya next time in the Food Court.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Little Taste of Portugal

Cooking has been in Joe's blood since he was a child. At the age of 8 he cooked his first meal for his parents. Salt cod and potatoes. Much like all of us, it took some time to iron out the bugs sorta speak. Joe's first lesson in the kitchen that day?? Soak the salt cod before using. None the less his parents smiled and ate their dinners.
A lot has changed over the years but one thing has remained constant. Eating Joe’s food brings a smile.

These days you can find "Chicken Joe" Lopes at Churrasco Portugril. One part Tasca (A tavern serving sandwiches (less the booze)) and one part Churrasqueira (A churrasco chicken place), Portugril has been serving up Portuguese favourites for nearly a decade now.

Newly relocated to a strip mall in Toronto’s Victoria Park Village Portugril’s bright, inviting fa├žade and great food has become a terrific addition to this neck of the woods. Nicely situated in the middle of residential, commercial and industrial inhabitants. Perhaps the Firefighters down the street are the biggest fans though. It’s not hard to notice them flock from the local hall like ants to a picnic.

Inside the place has a cafeteria feel to it. Bright, clean and all about function. There’s plenty of seating (unlike the last place) and a pretty large, open kitchen area. 

In that kitchen, Joe and his compadres are cranking out Churrasco and Rotisserie chicken along with olive oil roasted vegetables, rice, potatoes and sandwiches. They’re also making their own Piri Piri from scratch. In fact, about the only thing they aren’t making in house is the bread. Which they get fresh daily.

So lets take a look at some of their goodies shall we??

First off let me point out that the sauce isn't a traditional Piri Piri sauce. I spoke with one of the lovely young ladies who worked there and she described it as a "Traditional Piri Piri with stuff mixed in." A perfect description. Flavourizers like onion and chilis are minced and mixed into the sauce as a sort of fortification. It comes in a range of heat levels from mild to "WhoopASS." Very tasty. They sell it by the bottle in the store. It’s well worth it. I have a bottle in my fridge right now.

The Slawpy Joe sandwich is quite good. It's chicken simmered in a slow cooker with some of the medium sauce. It's then pulled like pulled pork. All in all you can't go wrong. It comes on a fresh Papo Secos. This crusty roll is the workhorse of the Portuguese sandwich world. The bun is soft enough that the juicy meat doesn’t squish out the back side of the sandwich. The sauce was spicy enough to carry the sandwich and the slaw on top added crunch and balance.

The Bifana was amazing. The lean pork just sucks up flavour and is of course, very tender. It too comes on a fresh roll. The onion and peppers add some nice flavour texture while the cheese combined with Piri Piri acts like a glue, tying it all together. This is truly and outstanding sandwich.

The chicken is terrific. It would be nice if it were cooked over coals or even better, wood but that doesn't mean it doen't have a lot of flavour. The slow cooking makes for a more succulent meat which is nicely spiced up with the sauce. I opt for hot every time. I love the heat. The rice and potatoes are the typical roast style you find at all Portuguese places. Done perfectly. The veggies were very nice as well.

You can find Portugril at 1733 Eglinton Ave E. in Toronto.

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

Well that’s all for now folks. We’ll see you next time in the food court.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

“Smashed” Burger Showdown

Some call them “Diner style.” Other call them the “Classic American Cheeseburger.” Out west they’re known as “California style.”
Here in Toronto they’re known as “Smashed burgers” for the way raw meatballs are put on a flat top and “Smashed” flat. While some see them as cheap since they come on a simple bun with processed cheese and conventional toppings. However the simplicity of this sandwich is such that if the meat isn't up to par, there's no hiding it.
Led by The Burger’s Priest this style has made a huge comeback in the GTA and along with it the burger landscape in general is getting an upgrade. 
Recently, local food writer Eric Velland offered this list of TO’s top 25 burgers. It cuts a wide swath through burgerdom from the simple Smashed burgers up to and including specimens covered with things like raw milk brie, masala chutney and truffle mayo. Some of them seemly taking days to prepare. Well, those high fallutin’, hoity toity offerings may make some peoples day but I find them lacking soul. Gimmie a good ole greasy cheeseburger (with bacon) from the flat top any day. Good beef, freshly ground and simply seasoned is the best way as far as I'm concerned. After all, it’s a hamburger. It doesn’t aspire to be anything more. 
The Grid, a weekly online magazine trying to capture the pulse of the city from street level has come up with Burger Week. A seven day celebration of all things hamburger. Many local places were offering special burgers with the event culminating with Burger day. 20 Burger-Meisters would offer up their most inventive sliders at an outdoor festival. 
In honour of Burger Week I set out with Mrs. Sippi, JEB, Gus and the Coach to sample four of Toronto's top "Smashed" burgers. Burger's Priest, Holy Chuck, Stockyards and Stacked BBQ.
The rules were simple

~For control, burgers would be ordered as similar as possible (less mitigating factors).
~No "Secret Menu" style burgers.
~The winner was given a 10 with all others falling in behind. On my score card anyway.

I will first offer up my findings and summarize the groups over all feeling. 
In at a very respectable fourth with a score of 8 was Stack Smmmoked. This newly opened smokehouse is doing BBQ and sandwiches.
My thoughts, which I shared with the owner Bill are as follows. The brioche bun was too much. Too big, too much taste and a bit dry. Not stale but just seemed dry. Bill concurred stating he doesn't like it and is working on a different bun. As well, the grind on the meat I thought was way too fine. On that we all agreed. It didn't have a good chew/mouth feel. This is beef after all and it should seem meaty. On taste this one did well. It was certainly juicy enough, coming in at medium well but in retrospect I think a bit more fat would work better. It lacked that certain unctuousness derived from the fat. 
STACK Restaurant on Urbanspoon
In third place, surprisingly, was The Stockyards. I recently anointed them best but this day wasn’t theirs. They put out a great burger but it wasn't the best I've had there. 9 out of 10 was my mark. It just didn't quite have the great crust I found on my previous visits. Gus asked me if he got a "Sub par" burger and I didn't think it was. I pointed out that the other two times I was there I had the only burger on the griddle. They could devote all their attention to it. So more like what I'd had before was "Extra good" perhaps. They were absolutely swamped and were constantly turning over the flat top. 
The Stockyards Smokehouse & Larder on Urbanspoon

In second with a 9.5 was Holy Chuck. Once again they produced a fabulous burger with good taste, texture and a great amount of greasy, beefy, goodness oozing out. Perhaps, maybe, just slightly too much. The juiciness put it ahead of Stockyards however their meat wasn't quite as beefy tasting. 
Holy Chuck on Urbanspoon

The winner, and back as my favourite GTA burger is The Burgers Priest. Awarded the full 10 points. The Priest were totally on top of their game this day. The perfect balance of juiciness like HC and the better beef flavour like Stockyards. The word on the street was that this uptown campus was not quite up the the standard set by the original however, for one day anyway, they might have even been better. Of all the burgers I’ve had from BP, I gotta think this one was the best. It was clear from the first bite who won.
The Burger's Priest on Urbanspoon

As for the group as a whole The Priest was a unanimous winner. There was a split among the other 4 about second place. 2 had HC while 2 others had Stockyards. The big difference would be that the two who picked Stockyards second thought HC fell well short while the two who picked HC second still loved Stockyards. All agreed that Stack was in last but still made a terrific burger. 

Let me close by saying that you can’t really go wrong with any of these offerings and with a little fine tuning, Stack could get right up there at the top.

Well that’s all for now folks, see ya next time in the Food Court.