Happy New Year from your Friends at Toronto Phodown

Eastern Promises

It’s truly been one hell of a year here at Toronto Phodown.

I suppose I’ve always been a glutton for progress, and 2013 certainly improved dramatically as it went along. The progress can be seen in the 100 Dates of Summer series (which will soon wrap up – I promise!), which began after a long, trying Winter and evinces both a culinary and metaphysical transformation.

It can be seen in Eastern Promises, where for the first time in my life I lived outside of North America in a country where English was not the dominant language. I still have very nostalgic and emotionally evocative memories about long MTR rides home after a big exam in Central Hong Kong, many beers, and a bowl of spicy soup with new friends in Wan Chai. Times when every worry I had about work, school, and Toronto couldn’t farther from my mind.

And it can be seen in Chin to Chin, where my brother and I cut a swath through Vietnam, and where I consumed the best pho I’ve ever had. 2013 was a year of many firsts, many high highs and low lows, a time when I figured a lot of stuff out, and of the 32 I’ve seen, one of the most memorable.

To 2014.

Elephant & Castle (King Street)

Date 53: Pre-Megabus Pub Fare (closing up the Mom Series)

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Elephant & Castle at 212 King Street West, Toronto; Call (416) 598-4003

What do we always say is the most important thing?
Breakfast?

Arrested Development made a name for itself by being a groundbreaking comedy. It was absurd, called back pretty much every gag, and was extremely strategic about its black outs. We take a lot of these elements for granted now as they’ve permeated modern television comedy.

But I think a lot of what contributed to its cult following is that it had heart. Really weird heart, but heart nonetheless. There were times when Michael’s family demonstrated true caring for each other and even when they didn’t, you were touched by Michael’s sheer faith that they would come together.

I had to work on the last day of my mom’s trip to Toronto, so she spent most of the day on her own. She said this suited her just fine, but I still felt guilty. And I still do. Before her boarding the Megabus, there was time to meet near my work for dinner. The choices around there aren’t exactly plum, but we decided on Elephant and Castle. Frankly, this is not a place I even noticed before, blending in with the other somewhat cookie-cutter restaurants on this stretch of King. But once we got inside, Mom noted that this is just the kind of place she likes.

I knew what she meant. It reminded me a lot of the type of restaurants we got taken to as kids, in particular an old joint in San Leandro called Harry’s Hofbrau and a “family restaurant” called Elio’s. These kinds of places were clearly not pushing the envelope in any way, but offered a well-executed product at family-friendly prices.

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I have to say that Elephant and Castle doesn’t seem to meet my fuzzy rose-colored children’s glasses view. I was excited when I read the menu as it seemed to make an honest effort of doing English food, with a curry, pot pies, and fish and chips. But in reality, they tried to do too much. I got a meatloaf and it turned out to be small medallions of bacon-wrapped meatloaf with stodgy mashed potatoes.  I’d much rather just have an honest, well-prepared meat loaf. The green beans were nice, though. And Mom reported enjoying her fish and chips.

A restaurant can let you down. And Michael Bluth’s hope for his family was often misguided. But there’s a reason you keep going back.

Even when you fuck up, family is always there for you.

Saigon Gourmet

Date 52: Generic Chinese with Mom, Sean and Anne (pt. 3 of the Mom Series)

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Saigon Gourmet at 641 Dupont Street, Toronto; Call (416) 533-3399

Way back when I was living in Vancouver, my first summer there actually, my dad came to visit. We wound up having dinner with Sean and his family at our favorite restaurant: Golden Szechuan.

It was great to have worlds collide in that way.  And what with Sean and Anne becoming such an important part of my life this year, it only felt right to have dinner with them and my mom when she was in town. With Anne quite pregnant, it made sense to eat somewhere close to their house, and hey, why not make it Chinese again?

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Sean and Anne are fans of Saigon Gourmet – I believe the confusing name stems from the fact that it used to be Vietnamese, then Vietnamese-Chinese, now just Chinese – because the staff is friendly, the quality is reasonably high and it’s extremely close to their house. It serves Americanized Chinese food in the vein of egg rolls, wonton soup, beef with broccoli and General Tso’s Chicken.

I tend to agree with them.

There was a day when I used to dislike this type of food, finding it unauthentic. I’ve come to understand, however, that Americanized Chinese is a kind of authentic fusion, like the Hong Cafes (cha chaan teng) I’m becoming familiar with during my current travels. It’s an interpretation, and a valid one. I think a more important question is, how well is it executed? And Saigon does a good job.

This End Up in Toronto

Date 51: Revisiting This End Up! with my mom (pt. 2 of the Mom Series)

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This End Up, at 1454 Dundas Street, Toronto; call (647) 347-8700

Every time I go to This End Up I like it a little more. As you may recall, my date here with Bryn was memorable, but I left with questions about the concept. I liked it more the second time with my brother Steve. And my mom and I had a blast here this time.

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After a long day navigating Toronto’s tortured public transit system, we wanted nothing more than to have Porchetta & Co. for dinner, a sandwich I loved earlier in the year and one that mom has been drooling over since she saw Bordain try in in the Layover.  After absolutely hoofing it over there, we were sad to find out that they closed 15 minutes early that day.  Perhaps they ran out of pork.  Seems amateur to me.

But I thought This End up, which is just west on Dundas, might sate my mom’s hunger for a good sandwich.  If not, she could drown her disappointment in a stiff drink.  Turns out that although the latter wasn’t necessary, we did enjoy some nice drinks.

Long story short, mom loved this place.  It’s just the kind of casual, affordable type of restaurant she loves.  Her margarita and po’ boy hit the spot.  They also let us substitute a cup of soup for fries at no extra charge.  That day it was a vichyssoise.  Chilled, yet filling, it was the perfect remedy for a long day of walking around in midsummer sun.

My mom’s main complaint when I moved out of Eric and Emily’s was that she wouldn’t get to go back to this restaurant.

At the end of they day, This End Up perfectly characterizes what Toronto’s food scene is doing now.  Casual, well-executed small restaurants who know what they are and don’t try to exceed that.  It reminds me a hell of a lot of Brooklyn, and that’s a very good thing.

Shopsy’s Express on Centre Island

Date 50: Resting on Centre Island with my mom (pt. 1 of the Mom Series)

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Shopsy’s Express, on Centre Island

While I did kinda-sorta blow my mom off for Medieval Times, I’m not a terrible son. And as I get older I’ve started to realize how important family really is.  Or at least I’m trying to not to take it for granted. That’s why I strongly encouraged my Mom to come visit this summer.  She always puts up quite a fight.  And it’s always hard to tell if she’s just worried about being an imposition, or if she just doesn’t want to come.

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Long story short (too late): I got her to come up North.

I like to think I showed her a pretty good time despite being busy at work. Sure, the first night was an absolute disaster (Medieval Times, lost address, etc), but I did manage to make her a nice low carb meal of wild salmon and salad. The next day she visited me at work and we went to see the Way, Way back at the Eaton Centre afterwards.

The following day is when the action happened.  She was insistent she see the lake and take a ferry. To be honest, the trip over to the ferry terminal was a challenge as my mom doesn’t get around like she used to, and there was a gap in the bus service, presenting us with quite the walk. It took an hour and we almost killed each other, but we made it to the ferry eventually.

Now once we got to Centre Island we realized my mom couldn’t walk anymore, so we just posted up at the little Shopsy’s cafe they have there by the waterfront and admired the city views. Mom had a coffee and I had a Cesar and a hotdog with fries.  Both were overpriced, and both did the trick.

This day wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was great to spend some time with a rather important lady.

Eggsmart (Bloor)

Date 49: Brunch at an egg-centric diner with the improv crew (Atakan and Kimbo)

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Eggsmart (Bloor Location), at 864 Bloor Street, Toronto; call (647) 345-5578

Towards the end of July when I started to feel summer was slipping away, I started making more serious attempts at bonding with my improv friends. Throughout the late spring and summer we had a blast in class, but for some reason we didn’t hang out much outside of class.

This was eventually rectified by one of my classic blow-out nights at WVRST just a few weeks ago, but I think a brunch at Eggsmart marked the beginning of this out-of-class bonding trend.

Eggsmart Toronto

I don’t really know what to make of Eggsmart. It confounded me when I first moved here and I thought it was some kind of Ethiopian restaurant based on the Saharan-seeming art it had up (the Koreatown location at least). Turns out it’s just an egg-centric diner with higher prices than you might expect.

I had a mushroom omelet with home fries and the price was about $10. While the home fries were good – well crisped and generously portioned – you expect a little more than two eggs, mushrooms and some potatoes for $10 when you are eating in a diner.

Service was good despite the fact that Kimbo demanded a very specific amount of coffee.

Medieval Times (Toronto)

Date 47: Swordplay, chicken and booze with the work gang at Medieval Times

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Medieval Times, at 10 Dufferin Street, Toronto; call (416) 260-1234

In mid-July, the day my mom arrived for a four-day visit, work decided to take the summer class to Medieval Times. This posed quite a dilemma for me, as (1) I love my mom and wanted to pick her up at the airport, and (2) I’ve wanted to go to Medieval Times ever since seeing it in Cable Guy as a kid, but prior to moving to Toronto it’s always been so far away and so expensive. Now it’s close and free.

I told my mom to get a cab.

Well, that went to hell when she lost my address and I got a frantic call from a cab driver telling me he was at my old address and he had my mom.

It eventually got worked out, but yeah, I’m a bad son.

Medieval Times was as great as I hoped, maybe better. The battle was awesome with sparks flying, horses doing weird prances, and a dangerous Northern Lord coming in to almost ruin everything. I totally got into it despite some very shaky stunt work from a couple of knights.

Medieval Times

I won’t sugarcoat the food – it was not great. The dragon’s blood soup (tomato bisque – liars!) was probably the standout with some actual depth to the stock. Everything else was rather bland, from the simple roasted chicken (the skin was far from crisp) and a boring rib.

Medieval Time Soup

Still, it was more the novelty than the food that matter and I may just be a big kid, but I thought eating with my hands was fun. Everything else was smoothed over by the fact that the firm was paying for drinks (two knight’s cocktails and two double Jamesons, for me).

Chicken at Medieval Times

Overall, you can make the argument that this is really just a place for kids.  And indeed, I saw a bunch of kids absolutely going nuts.  I hope to take my son and/or daughter here one day, should that ever happen for me.

And to cap it all off, our knight won. RED AND YELLOW KNIGHT FOREVER!!

Chipotle, 123 Front Street

Date 45: Chipotle, often solo, but sometimes with colleagues

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Chipotle, at 123 Front Street West #103, Toronto; call (416) 703-0030

I wasn’t sure about counting this one because one of the 100 Date mandates is the meal must be with another living breathing person. Then I realize that there were several times in which I had Chipotle with a colleague, like Jenn, Aiwen, Rachael and Conrad. Also, I probably had Chipotle 30 times this summer, and really it was an important meal for me. So I think it’s worth writing about.  After all, this feature is supposed to be about important meals.

Chipotle first popped up on my radar when one opened in a shopping center across from the Chevy Chase Bank in Rosslyn, Virginia, where I was a bank teller in 2003. Later that year I bought a bunch of burritos on my way home from work for my brother and I to eat while we watched DVDs of Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers right before seeing a midnight showing of Return of the King. I guess I was 22 at the time. My brother was still in high school.

Cut to May, 2013.

My work has a policy of paying for our meals if we stay past nine. Early in the summer, during my rotation in litigation, I usually stayed until eleven or midnight. Hence, I went to Chipotle a lot.

Those were days when I was still getting used to the new job. I was still getting used to a lot of new things. I was tender.

Every night

The walk over to Chipotle at around seven or eight always marked the beginning of the night. Many of the lawyers had gone home by that point, but my night was just beginning.  I’d walk the two blocks over to Front Street, letting my mind clear and wander in a way it just couldn’t during the day.  Then I’d enter the friendly and familiar confines of  Chipotle.  (I’m aware of how absurd this sounds)

I got to know most of the staff there, and was often comped chips and guacamole or a drink.  I tried to explain that I wasn’t really paying for it, and it was really just a transfer of wealth from Chipotle to my law firm, but it didn’t really stick.  I had a month-long flirtation with one of the employees.

My order was almost always a burrito, chips and guacamole and a small drink (coke zero with lots of lemon).

Listen, Chipotle isn’t fine dining by any stretch.  And the salt levels are definitely too high.  But everything is freshly made, the staff is  friendly, and it’s enough food to get you through the night.  I’d usually eat the chips and guac early in the evening and eat the burrito around nine or ten.

I had some truly incredible meals this summer: Mas (la grillade), Wallflower, Pizza Libretto, and on and on.  But Chipotle was the taste of the summer for me.  Sometime during this seemingly endless stream of burritos the summer wore on, I learned a new trade, met new friends, kissed a girl who thinks I’m wonderful, and finally I surprised myself.  Chipotle was a constant during this.

The thing I love about Lord of the Rings is how, as the journey goes on, you lose track of how things began and when you get to the end, you feel like you’ve changed along the characters.

Date 33: Foodwares Market in the Bay with Tom, Rachael, Connie and Aiwen

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Foodwares Market in the Bay, at 76 Yonge Street

About midway through work, some colleagues and I decided to explore some of the lunch options outside of our building. Finding nothing suiting our fancy at the Bay-Adelaide Centre, we made our way to the Bay and eventually decided on the cafe they have in there.

Smoked meat

On offer at what is apparently called “Foodwares Market” is a variety of little stations, serving things from salads to sandwiches. I went with the special that day, a pastrami sandwich with potato salad.

The pastrami was carved to order and the potato salad was suitably tangy. For about $12, I think I could have done better, but not much.

Date 32: Fortuitous Lunch at The Stockyards with Sean and Dougie Fresh

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The Stockyards, at 699 St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto; call 416 658 9666

Continuing my summer farewell tour, I was dropping off some DVDs at Sean’s house this Tuesday when it turned out he was home, and not only that but our friend Dougie Fresh was also in the neighborhood.
After some catching up we decided why not have a quick lunch together? Several options were considered, until we realized that despite its notoriety and close proximity, none of us had been to the Stockyards yet.

Stockyards is well known around town for its BBQ, fried chicken and burgers. Unfortunately the BBQ is never available lunches, but we did try the latter two.

After a short wait, we ported our meals over to the park next to the Wychwood Barns. This was a great idea on a sunny late summer afternoon, except for the last ten minutes when we were pestered by loads of aggressive bees. I focused on the burger, which as is prepared smashed (in accordance with the current trend). In other words, the ball of ground beef is placed on a griddle and then smashed down with a metal device). This is a terrific burger, highlighted by the fact that the beef flavor predominates the sandwich. I think you could quibble with the fact that for $9.50, you’re getting a pretty simple burger and fries, but for the location and the quality of the meat, I think it’s reasonable.

For $14, Sean got pretty good value on his chicken dinner. Four pieces of chicken were absurdly juicy, and he also got a load of fries and some coleslaw. I think the one dig on this chicken is the batter, which I wish had more bite to it.

With quality ingredients, straightforward preparations and a friendly staff Stockyards is becoming a local institution, and it’s easy to see why.