Golden Turtle (redux)

Golden Turtle Ext

Golden Turtle
Address: 125 Ossington; Toronto, Ontario
Date & time of visit: May 8th 2016 + 1:00pm
Price (large): $8.50 CAD

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 5.5 | Beef: 7 | Noodle: 8.5 | Condiment: 7 | Service/atmosphere: 9 | Overall: 7.4

LRW Class Average

Broth: 8.4 | Beef: 7.9 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 8.4 | Service/atmosphere: 7.5 | Overall: 8

Overall Rating: 7.7
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): 0.91

Write-up from Jason:

Stay Golden, Turtle

Things can get lost when you break an experience down into its constituent elements. I recently started watching Netflix’s Stranger Things. The show is highly derivative, drawing from works like ET, Goonies and Super 8. The latter of those films is itself a nostalgia-filtered vision of what it was like to be a nerd growing up in the 1980s. We often condemn the derivative, but I’m not sure that’s fair when it comes to such loving recreations of simpler times (that, in actuality, weren’t that simple).

The same can be said for Golden Turtle, which despite being a less-than-faithful copy of a Saigon pho joint, provides an altogether enjoyable pho experience. With an expert front-of-house staff, breezy open dining room, and patio, Golden Turtle is an inviting destination for a convivial gathering. And that’s really what my last visit was all about.

U of T Law’s premier former legal research and writing (LRW) students and I met this past Mothers Day for a reunion pho lunch. I deeply enjoyed hearing what everyone was up to, and truly, the pho was not the most important part of the lunch. But, this being a phodown, we have to talk about it. You’ll see above that I listed my scores along with the average of the eight students that attended. You’ll also see that, regardless of what you think about my LRW teaching skills, I didn’t pass along much of my pho philosophy.

As I alluded to in my (likely misguided) analogy to Stranger Things, I thought Golden Turtle was lacking when it came to fundamentals (e.g., weak broth, not enough beef, limited condiments) but provided a great overall experience. The students disagreed, finding the service and atmosphere to be Golden Turtle’s weakest point. There are at least two conclusions one might draw from this. Maybe, like legal writing, phodowns are something you learn by doing. And, if we did enough, you’d see more agreement. Or maybe the atmosphere really wasn’t that great, and I let my own nostalgia colour my judgments. For now, the data support both hypotheses.

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Pho Tien Thanh (redux)

Pho tien thanh Toronto.

Pho Tien Thanh
Address: 57 Ossington; Toronto, Ontario
Date & time of visit: October 24th 2015 + 4:30pm
Price (large): $9.25 CAD

Ratings:

Jason

Broth: 6 | Beef: 4 | Noodle: 8 | Condiment: 8.5 | Service/atmosphere: 7 | Overall: 6.7

Angela

Broth: 6 | Beef: 4 | Noodle: 6 | Condiment: 6 | Service/atmosphere: 7 | Overall: 5.8

Overall Rating: 6.25
Quality per dollar (based on large pho): .68

Write-up from Jason:

Vancouver in Toronto

It was a cold, wet autumn day in Toronto. In fact, it felt a lot more like Vancouver. I guess Angela brought the weather with her.

Angela and I worked in the same psychology lab at UBC in the early 2000s. I hadn’t seen her since 2007 or thereabouts. She messaged me a few days before this very Vancouver-like day: She’d be in Toronto this weekend for a conference and wondered if we could do a ‘down. Of course.

I respect Angela because when she solicits advice about travel, she actually uses the advice and then reports back. She was in Vietnam earlier this year and retraced the Chin Bros’ footsteps to both Pho Gia Truyen and Pho Le. She loved both and documented her travels on Instagram. I don’t know why sharing experiences like that – over a year apart – matters so much, but it does.

All this is to say Angela knows pho about as well as anyone. I wanted to take her somewhere good, but I haven’t really been blown away by anything here in Toronto. She was also staying downtown so something relatively close to that, in an area she might want to explore afterwards – the list is thin. Well, Sarah Mac and I had a pretty good time ‘downing Pho Tien Thanh (PTT) a few years back. Why not that?

PTT was relatively empty at 4:30 on a Saturday but filled up in a hurry. There was a line when we left. It’s not so clear why – the pho here has gone downhill. We’re talking alpine, double black diamond downhill.

Pho tien thanh Toronto.

The beef here was the main culprit – as you’ll see from the photo there really wasn’t much of it (an issue in the previous review). And what was there was cut thickly and extremely chewy (a new problem). Angela had a hard time getting through one particular chunk and that should never be the case with tai. The broth didn’t help, coming in a shade below hot and not at all sufficient to cook the meat.

That said, the broth was fine, not too salty but rather watery and unaromatic.

Our only serious disagreement was over the noodles, which I liked for their lack of clumpiness. Angela, however, noted they were several clicks past al dente. I didn’t pick up on this, but I am getting old.

Rounding things out, I was very happy with the condiments. The presence of sawtooth herb (culantro) was a boon, but why three sprigs for two people? That made for a dicey division of condiments but the odds were ever in my favor. Service was a bit slow and while PTT certainly has the hole in the wall vibe down but I’d appreciate a cool fishtank or two. It does get appropriately steamy in there on a cold night.

Ultimately, while the pho wasn’t top notch, the company was: Pho knows no boundaries and neither does friendship.

Pho tien thanh Toronto.

Sky Dragon

Sky Dragon @ 280 Spadina Avenue in Toronto Ontario, call them @ (416) 408-4999

Sky dragon sushi

Background

There are few things more frustrating than missed opportunities.

Working indoors on a fine spring day is one. And then there’s a year’s lost development for the great Marcus Stroman currently plagues both Stroman and the city of Toronto. Shitty push-cart dim sum at the heart of Toronto’s downtown chinatown is just the icing on the cake.

From my experience in Hong Kong, push-cart dim sum is something of a dying art. And it makes sense: unlike revenge, most dishes are best served immediately after they are prepared. Delicate dumplings, several of which contain easily-overcooked seafood, fall into this non-revenge category. So imagine how annoying it would be for a chef to prepare such a dish and then watch it paraded around in a steam cart for the next couple of hours.

I only went to one push-cart dim sum in Hong Kong and it was clear why the concept worked there – it was busy as hell. And while it was excellent dim sum, it was dim sum of the people – the standards executed well and at a great value. It was not the elevated fare you’d get at an a la minute joint. Hell, even Tim Ho Wan, the standard-bearer for affordable quality dim sum operates on a made-to-order basis.

A Proposition

Push-cart dim, despite its inherent limitations, is just fun. You get the excitement of not knowing what’s coming around the corner, harrowing interactions with the push-cart ladies, and the retro HK tea house vibe. But it requires volume. Ever been in a push cart dim sum place that’s not doing so well? It’s just depressing. The same sad items being paraded around and eventually microwaved when some unfortunate soul orders them is neither fun nor tasty. It stands to reason, therefore, that a city can only support an extremely number of push-cart dim sums and the popular ones – whose very asset is their crowd – will push-cart out the competition.

Sky Dragon

Sky Dragon has no problems with crowds as it’s one of the few push-cart dim sums in downtown Toronto. So really, with turnover what it is, there’s really no excuse for it to be so bad. Indeed, I’ve been there on days when diners leave their tables to swarm the carts when they exit the kitchen. The problem here is not freshness, but a kitchen that just doesn’t really care anymore.

Sky Dragon is dim sum that you could easily make at home: go to a Chinese grocery, buy a bunch of frozen dumplings, (over)steam them up, and you’ve got the Sky Dragon experience. Har gao and siu mai are dense and chewy. Spare ribs are slate, gristly and boring. Rice noodle rolls (cheung fun) are gummy.

That said, Sky Dragon does have some nice features. Dragon-perched high above the center of chinatown you really feel like this should be kind of place that houses a dim sum joint. And the push cart ladies are precisely as surly as they should be – a difficult balance to maintain indeed.

Still, until the food catches up you might as well call Sky Dragon “Rhaegal” or “Viserion” – two dragons of immense potential sadly shackled and humbled by a misguided young Khaleesi. Except the Khaleesi in the present scenario is clumsy and overcooked Chinese dumplings. And terrible analogies.

Brooklyn Tavern (Leslieville)

Brooklyn Tavern @ 1097 Queen Street East in Toronto Ontario, call them @ (416) 901-1177

Brooklyn tavern.

It was the beginning of Autumn in Toronto and we were all in denial. I attempted to cope by having brunch at Brooklyn Tavern with a new friend. We had a post-prandial walk down to Woodbine Beach and watched all the other deniers playing in the sand. Ice cream soon followed.

Based on this one visit it’s hard not to conclude that Brooklyn Tavern is a wonderful place to have brunch. We dined on their intimate and garden-like back patio. I can’t imagine it will be much of an option in the coming months, but on that day the weather was perfect for brunch among the flowers and leaves.

Brooklyn tavern.

I opted for the signature Caesar, which features Dillon’s unfiltered gin and a natural Caesar mix. Other than a more subdued flavor, I didn’t detect much of a difference between this and a standard Caesar (the spiciness of the drink overwhelms the other subtleties), so I would probably just go with the standard next time and save a few bucks. My entrée was the carnitas hash and egg over arugula salad ($12), which was delicious and a fair price. The arugula was immaculate, the carnitas clearly homemade and the egg perfectly cooked.

Despite the clearly well-conceived and –executed food program, I was more impressed with the service. On this quiet Saturday afternoon the restaurant was staffed by just a server, bartender and chef. They couldn’t have been more friendly and approachable, and perhaps more importantly – proud of the establishment and what they were doing there. I told them – and it’s true – I’d be in every week if it wasn’t across the city for me.

Easy Restaurant (Little Italy)

Easy Restaurant @ 713 College Street Street in Toronto Ontario, call them @ (416) 535-2222

Easy Restaurant Little Italy

There are presently two Easy Restaurants – one in Parkdale and one in Little Italy. I lived directly above the Little Italy permutation this Spring and regularly witnessed long lines of soon-to-be patrons eagerly waiting to worship at this altar to Southwestern-inspired diner food. So when my mom came to visit, I was primed to take her for an approximate Mother’s day brunch and see what all the fuss was about.

Easy is a reference to the movie Easy Rider. I suppose the unifying theme of this restaurant is the aesthetic of that movie, along with similar films from the 70s. There are also a bunch of movie posters from the Easy Rider era. The cuisine, on the other hand, is composed and pricey (by breakfast standards), belying the grittiness of the movie.

Easy could also be a reference to the service at Easy Restaurant. The servers, exhibiting a high level of experience and professionalism, move fluidly through the room taking orders, refilling coffee, and chatting with customers. They get everything done quickly and well, with a cool and easy vibe.

Breakfast Tacos w Chorizo at Easy Restaurant

Easy is certainly not a reference to Easy Restaurant’s impact on your pocketbook. I ordered the weekday special, which is three breakfast tacos for about $10. It didn’t seem much like a special, as it essentially consisted of three tortillas, eggs, cheese and sauce. The food cost couldn’t be much more than a quarter of the price. The server offered the tempting upgrade of chorizo in the tacos, which I accepted, but bumped the price to $15. I know tacos are expensive in this city, but three breakfast tacos with no sides for $15 is excessive by any accounting. They were good: expertly scrambled eggs, tangy sauce, and fresh (but not house-made) tortillas. But for $15 they needed to wash my car and take out the garbage to be worth the price I paid.

I’m on the fence with Easy Restaurant. On the one hand it’s a fun restaurant with a cool vibe. On the other hand, I’d rather just buy some tortillas at La Torilleria, fry some eggs, and save myself $8 + tip. You know?

Interview with Michael Nusair from Tastyburgers.ca & Michaeleats.com

Burger Commandments

Interview with Michael Nusair from Tastyburgers.ca and Michaeleats.com
Monday, May 12 2014

The Backstory

I became aware of Michael’s work about a year ago when I found his website Tastyburgers.ca. I immediately marked it down as Toronto’s only “burgerdown” an idea as similar in concept and method to Toronto Phodown as they come.

Michael, moreover, in seeking Toronto’s best burger, tugs at my heartstrings in a different manner. Having spent the bulk of my life in the south of the U.S., a love of burgers was fired within me from a young age (for better and for worse). Long story short (too late): Michael is doing important work by performing an in-depth study of the hamburger in Toronto, both seeking to rate each one on his four-point scale and performing a longitudinal study, tracking trends in burger preparation over time. I should also note he’s been a hell of a lot more consistent than my fledgling project, which has become more travel and general food blog than a proper phodown.

The Interview

Toronto Phodown (TPD): Hi Michael, thanks for doing this.

Michael Nusair (MN): No problem!

TPD: What is the genesis of your love of burgers?

MN: I’ve loved burgers for as long as I can remember. I honestly don’t think there was one single “aha!” moment for me, burgers have just always been something I’ve been into.

I will say that there are a couple of things that really got me to start thinking more seriously about hamburgers, and provided the impetus for Tasty Burgers. The first thing is the blog Serious Eats, and specifically their sub-blog A Hamburger Today. I’ll admit that Tasty Burgers is more than a little bit inspired by that site.

The second thing is George Motz’s great book, Hamburger America. Obviously there are no Canadian burger joints in that book, but it’s well worth a read regardless.

Between that book and that blog, and getting increasingly frustrated with the fact that no one was writing about burgers in Toronto in a way that I deemed satisfactory, Tasty Burgers was born.

TPD: What caused you to settle on the 0-4 omnibus Tyrion scale? As you know, I prefer a more specific set of metrics – I could easily see you considering such a thing at some point in Tastyburger’s history (e.g., 0-4 for the beef; 0-4 for the bun, etc). [Editorial Note: At this point I was under the impression that the images Michael uses for his rating scale were those of Tyrion Lannister.  I was mistaken.]

2-5

MN: I feel like, for the most part, I want the review to speak for itself. I do get a little bit frustrated with the four star rating system sometimes, because, for example, some places I gave three stars to are markedly better than other places that got the same ranking. But not better enough for a 3.5.

If anything, though, I’d change the rating system to something even less specific. Like a Siskel & Ebert style thumbs up or thumbs down. Obviously the more specific scale is working for you, but I honestly have no idea what the difference would be between, say, a hamburger that deserves 8.5 out of 10, and one that deserves 8.6.

TPD: Speaking of your rating scale, why the Dink?

MN: That’s actually Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction! Hence the name. (“Mmm-hmm, this IS a tasty burger!”)

Speaking of Game of Thrones though, that show and Tasty Burgers are pretty much exactly the same age. Thrones premiered in April of 2011, and I posted my first review in May. Coincidence?? Yes. Yes it is.

[Editorial note: this is very embarrassing for me]

TPD: I noticed you often defer to the restaurant when choosing a burger to rate, ordering their specialty. While this may certainly be a fair way to go about things, do you ever worry you sacrifice some empirical rigor? For instance, the special at each restaurant may be quite different, whereas ordering a plain burger at each would yield more comparable ratings across restaurants.

MN: Yeah, that was definitely on my mind a lot when I first started the blog. My thinking is that I want to review whatever the restaurant feels is their signature item. There have been a few times where I thought that the signature burger was just too heavily condimented, and in those cases I got something simpler. But for the most part I think it’s probably worth sacrificing a little bit of consistency to provide a more generally helpful review; I think more people are going to want the restaurant’s signature burger, and will be looking to see how that tastes.

TPD: Which of the Ten Burger Commandments is most often broken?

MN: A few years ago I would have said the fifth commandment (“Thou shall not mix onions, garlic, breadcrumbs, and/or any kind of spices into your hamburger”), but I feel like Torontonians have slowly realized over the years that all you need to make a great burger is good quality beef. A lot of older places still serve meatloaf burgers, but very few new ones do. Thankfully.

So now I’d say it’s the third one (“Thou shall not use beef that is too lean”). It’s absolutely insane to me how many places get this wrong. I think a lot of places are under the misguided notion that they should make their burgers leaner so that they can be healthier, which is absurd. I also think that a lot of places like to advertise that they make their burgers out of cuts like sirloin, because it sounds fancier, not realizing that sirloin is probably the worst cut of beef to make a burger out of. Juiciness comes from fat. If you make a burger out of lean beef and cook it past medium (which 90% of Toronto burger joints do), it’s going to be dry ten times out of ten. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact. So it happening so often in Toronto is as upsetting as it is baffling.

TPD: You note the smashed/griddled burger is especially popular right now in the GTA. All else equal, do you prefer a smashed griddled burger or one cooked on an open flame?

MN: I don’t know, they’re both pretty great. I guess I’d say griddled, because it’s so much easier to find a really good griddled burger in the GTA. But there’s something infinitely satisfying about a really thick, juicy, flame-grilled burger made with great quality beef.

TPD: Perfect beverage pairing with a burger?

MN: I tend to order Sprite or 7 Up with the burgers I review, so I’ll say that. But really, any soda will do. A burger, fries, and a soda — is there a finer combination? The answer is no.

TPD: A theme of your reviews is your consistently chiding restaurants for their beef (e.g., the sausage texture of processed meat, overcooking, use of frozen patties, etc). Fresh, non-lean beef, simply prepared seems quite easy to do – why are so many Toronto restaurants failing?

MN: I have no idea! It’s madness to me. It really is. A really good burger is so simple — just get really good quality beef, make sure it is sufficiently fatty (preferably in the ballpark of a 70/30 lean-to-fat ratio, and certainly nothing leaner than 80/20), grind it coarsely without over-handling it, season it with salt and pepper, and then cook it over high heat so a crust forms. That’s it! Don’t mix stupid gunk in there, don’t use lean beef, and certainly don’t use industrially-made frozen patties. This isn’t high-end French cooking. It’s easy enough that every burger joint should be serving a great burger, and yet most don’t. I don’t get it.

TPD: Besides burgers, do you have any other food-related obsessions?

MN: I think I’m just generally obsessed with food. There are few things in life more satisfying than a really great meal.

TPD: Harder to get right, a bowl of pho, or a burger?

MN: I’d say in theory the pho should be harder to get right, but I’ve seen burgers messed up in so many baffling ways that I think I’d have to go with hamburgers. I’ve never had a bowl of pho even close to as bad as the worst burger I’ve eaten. Then again I’ve had maybe a dozen bowls of pho in my life, so I’m probably not the right person to ask.

TPD: Thanks again!

MN: No problem, Jason.

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.

iphone dump 1 097

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?

iphone dump 1 095

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.

iphone dump 1 084

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.