Toronto's Ethnic Buffet

Toronto’s Ethnic Buffet


The Toronto skyline. CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

When I tell my friends in Toronto how much I love their city, they often say, “Really?” I always assume they imagine I’m just trying to be gracious, or perhaps — with characteristic Canadian modesty — they’re reluctant to acknowledge how easy their city is to love. But they also have a great deal of justifiable civic pride, and a clear sense of why Toronto is such a special and unusual place to live and visit. There’s more to this understated city than many people might realize.

It’s a great walking town, and part of what makes it so much fun to explore is the range and variety of the neighborhoods in which the city takes pride, and which have resisted the homogenization that has occurred throughout so much of New York City — from Yorkville, with its fashionable shops and department stores, to Old Town, where you can find the St. Lawrence Market, an immense covered structure offering a huge selection of foods and crafts, and where, on Saturdays, local farmers sell their produce. Some of the neighborhoods are known for their architectural beauty: the charming Victorian houses along the tree-lined streets of Cabbagetown, originally a working-class Irish enclave; the equally attractive brick mansions and neo-Gothic cottages of the Annex, a district of artists, professors and students who attend the nearby University of Toronto; the brick rowhouses and manicured lawns of Roncesvalles and the mansions of Forest Hill.

                                                                                 Scenes from the Chinatown neighborhood. CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

But when Toronto natives talk about their neighborhoods, or when I rave on about the areas in which I most like to spend time, we’re more often referring to those places populated by a particular immigrant group, or districts in which very different populations live side by side. In Kensington Market, one of the city’s most diverse and fascinating places, this mixture is humorously reflected in the name of a Jamaican-Italian restaurant: Rasta Pasta.

In fact, Kensington Market — within walking distance of the entertainment and business districts and close to most of Toronto’s major hotels — is a prime illustration of how Toronto ticks. Because within just a few blocks, you can get a vivid idea of how smoothly and gracefully the city succeeds at simultaneously dissolving the borders between disparate cultures and preserving what’s best and most valuable about each one. At Nu Bügel, you can sample wood-fired bagels (the sesame is a standout) baked by a family of Venezuelans; a bit farther down Augusta Avenue, two empanada shops are directly across the street from each other, and nearby is a choice of restaurants in which you can enjoy French-Caribbean cuisine, tacos, sushi, and pastries and vegetarian fare at the popular Wanda’s Pie in the Sky. On Baldwin Street, not far from Spadina Avenue, there’s a Middle Eastern grocery, a Jamaican gift store and an Ethiopian spice market. And near the intersection of Augusta Avenue and College Street is Caplansky’s, where the pastrami and corned beef (they’re called smoked meats here) rival any to be had at New York’s legendary delis, or on the Lower East Side.

Wanda’s Pie in the Sky in Kensington Market.CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

As much as, if not more than, any North American city, Toronto celebrates its multicultural heritage. There is an onlinemulticultural calendar devoted to listing the lectures, religious and national holidays, and street festivals sponsored by the city’s range of communities. Often, it strikes me that the city is more successfully integrated than the cities of its neighbor over the border. Of course, even the most naïve tourist has only to glance at the newspapers or catch a few minutes of the nightly TV news to learn that Toronto has its share of poverty, prejudice, gang violence and political scandal; my most recent visit there coincided with the embarrassing revelations and the furor over the drug use of the controversial mayor, Rob Ford. Some complain that Toronto is too proper, too predictable, too staid, that it lacks the joie de vivre of Montreal. But casual travelers and most longtime residents agree that the city’s pleasures outweigh its shortcomings, that its streets are clean and safe and that its people (2.6 million in Toronto; 5.6 million in the metropolitan area) are polite, pleasant and helpful in ways that can sometimes startle those of us who come from somewhere else.

At restaurants in Toronto, I notice racially and ethnically mixed groups of friends even more often than I do in New York neighborhoods celebrated for their diversity. I see a much wider variety of visitors to the city’s excellent museums: classes of children lying on the floor and drawing at the Royal Ontario Museum, which features stellar collections of Asian and Middle Eastern art and of Canadian painting, and at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where popular recent exhibitions have included shows of Ai Weiwei’s work and of ephemera connected with David Bowie’s career. Everywhere, glimpses of residents going about their daily routines — the Sikh policeman directing traffic, the Vietnamese and Filipino reporters broadcasting the TV news, novelists from the Caribbean reading their work at the city’s annualInternational Festival of Authors — testify to the welcome that Toronto has given the immigrants who have sought refuge here.

                                                   A customer gets a high-five at an art and skin-care shop in Kensington Market.CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

At present, Toronto is home to one of the largest Somalian populations outside of Africa; Sri Lankans have settled in the Jamestown neighborhood, while Iranians have established a firm foothold in North York. One paradox of Toronto is that even as the city enables new arrivals to assimilate into Canadian life — people talk about how a certain neighborhood was originally home to immigrants from one area, who then moved on to a more prosperous district, making room for the next wave of people from somewhere else — its ethnic neighborhoods are strongly evocative of their residents’ countries of origin, and the shops (and most notably the restaurants) seem more authentic than they do in other cities to which immigrants have imported their culture and their cuisine.

Consequently, the truth is that what I really like to do in Toronto — besides walking around and exploring — is to eat. There are places to which I return on each visit, new places I discover each time, and others I mean to try, don’t get around to, and vow to return to, on my next trip. The United States customs officer who checked my passport on my return home gave me an odd look when he asked what I’d been doing in Toronto, and I replied truthfully, “Eating.” He scrutinized my passport more closely: I’d come all the way from New York to eat in Toronto? Well, actually, yes, I had.

There are now at least three Chinatowns in the Toronto metropolitan area, but the largest and still the most vibrant is downtown, centered around Spadina Avenue and bordered (roughly) by Queen Street West and College Street. You can browse in shops selling groceries and vegetables, cooking equipment, articles made of straw, stationery and tourist trinkets. Or you can head straight for Mother’s Dumplings and dine on their astonishingly flavorful pork buns, the steamed beef and celery dumplings, the lamb shu mai or the fried long green beans. All the dumplings and noodles are handmade in an open kitchen, and you can watch the cooks prod and pinch the sticky dough into the magical results that you are eating. Across busy Spadina Avenue, bisected by the trolley line, is Pho Hung, where I had the best beef pho that I — never having been to Vietnam — have eaten anywhere, and which Joe Fiorito, a columnist for The Toronto Star and an enthusiastic expert on his city’s history and culture, assures me is the best in town.

All along Spadina are restaurants advertising “dim sum all day” and doing a creditable job of preparing these delicious, bite-size portions of steamed this and fried that. But my favorite place for dim sum is the Lai Wah Heen, on Chinatown’s eastern border, where the Formica tables and harsh lighting have been replaced by the white linens and gentle glow of upscale restaurant design, and where the traditional rolling carts stacked with bamboo baskets have given way to a menu from which you can make the nearly impossible choice between crispy fried pastries stuffed with foie gras and pork; chicken and truffle dumplings; maitake mushrooms and vegetables in a rice roll; deep-fried eggplant and shrimp mousse with garlic, or any of the other dozens of selections on offer, all of them extraordinarily fresh and beautifully presented, though admittedly pricier than one usually expects dim sum to be.

On this trip, my husband, Howie, and I met Toronto friends for dinner in a neighborhood known as the Bazaar, about a 10-minute ride from downtown along Gerrard Street East and populated largely by people originally from India and Pakistan. Arriving a few minutes early, I went on a mini shopping spree. I bought several glittery scarves in the sari shops, and a pashmina shawl and a small rug in a Muslim bookstore, all amazingly inexpensive. From there we went on to the Lahore Tikka House, where the tandoori oven turned out succulent kebabs (lamb, chicken and beef) and baby lamb chops, accompanied by perfectly cooked nan and a choice of biryanis and vegetable dishes. The food seemed closer to what I remember eating in northern India than to anything I’ve tried in Manhattan, or even in the Indian neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. Everything about the Tikka House was appealing, from the cartoons playing constantly (and soundlessly) on a monitor in the soothingly lit baby-diaper-changing room to the drummers who emerged from the kitchen to celebrate a customer’s birthday with a beat that made the room sound briefly like a street festival somewhere in Pakistan.

                                                                                                           Inside Nu Bügel. CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

The next evening, we took a cab to Koreatown, on Bloor Street between Christie and Bathurst, where we had been advised to seek out the restaurant with the longest lines outside. That night the winner of the long-line competition was Tofu Village, where we ate delicious soon tofu, a stew made with tofu, vegetables and (in my case) pork. You can pick your level of spiciness from plain (no spice) to spicy. I ordered mild, which was sufficiently spicy to make me realize that the bar had been set high enough so that spicy must have meant something closer to excruciating. We also ate a wonderful vegetable bibimbap cooked in a hot stone pot, and regretted not having been in the mood for meat as we looked around at the other diners enjoying barbecued beef that comes in long strips, which the waitress cut with a pair of shears.

If I’ve made it sound as if all the interesting restaurants — and neighborhoods — in Toronto are Asian, that’s certainly not the case. Mr. Fiorito took us on a brief tour of his neighborhood, Roncesvalles, a formerly Polish stronghold in which old-fashioned Eastern European bakeries and butchers selling ropes of fragrant, garlicky kielbasa now share the block with hipster coffee spots, German knickknack shops and a fish store, De La Mer, where we were invited to try a sample of the house-cured salmon. Several elderly Polish women had set up stoop sales along Roncesvalles Avenue, and it took all my willpower to persuade myself that a large, framed, hand-done needlepoint image of the Madonna would be impossible to take home on the plane. There’s also a long-established Little Italy, a Greektown and a Portuguese neighborhood, but we simply weren’t in town long enough to try them all.

                                                                                         Fabrics for sale at a fashion shop. CreditIan Willms for The New York Times

So what happened was what always happens: The day before I was scheduled to leave Toronto, I kept hearing about the places I’d failed to visit, things I hadn’t had time to do. Had I taken the slow but charming Queen Street tram from one end to another, a public-transportation tour of the city’s changing neighborhoods? Had I walked the trails and paths of verdant High Park? Had I eaten in Little Iran, up in North York, or visited Mississauga, the near-suburb that has become home for a huge variety of Toronto’s ethnic groups, and where the food — people kept telling me — was even better than it is nearer downtown? Had I been to Markham, where there was a newer Chinatown, and an Indian neighborhood that outdid the Bazaar?

As always, it made me sorry that I was about to leave. And all I could do was to say what I always say: I’ll simply have to do all that, the next time I return.

Correction: March 1, 2014 
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a fish store in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighborhood. It is De La Mer, not Hooked.