Review:Toronto:Food Trucks:Food Dudes

A couple of days after Hogtown Smoke, I ventured back to the corner of Sherbourne and Front to take on Food Dudes. An established catering company in Toronto, Food Dudes joined the truck craze a few months back.  I’m learning with food trucks to get there early to avoid longs lines and product shortages if possible. I’m also learning that gas station parking lots are an interesting place to meet people. In this case, I was first in line, narrowly beating out a woman with a large parrot on her shoulder.  They were there for the Mac and Cheese balls.

Food Dudes Menus (subject to change)

Must

Who am I to question a parrot? The Mac and Cheese balls were a great start, served hot and in a shallow pool of fresh, spicy marinara. The crisp outside and  gooey, rich middle was balanced by the tart, acidic and spicy sauce.  The shaved cheese  and fresh herbs filled out the flavor profile.  A fun, balanced dish overall. Based on the parrot’s reaction, I wasn’t alone.

Mac and Cheese Balls

Other than the fact they were round, I wondered why they were called nutella bombs.   I made the mistake of biting into one (I guess the normal protocol is to eat the whole thing at once) and found out.  There was a minor explosion, luckily away from me and on to the ground. The remnants were delicious; a sinful mix of banana bread and nutella coated with corn flakes and garnished with whipped cream and bourbon caramel sauce.  They had an intense sweetness but it was contained in a small morsel and was a funky way to end the meal.

Nutella Bombs

Maybe

The fish taco can be described as Cap’n Crunch meets Captain Highliner.  Served in pairs, these cod tacos were decent.  The coating didn’t have the intensity of sweetness I expected from the cereal and it  provided an appreciated crunch instead of a soggy batter which often come with other fish tacos. Whether it was the shape or the texture they did, however, remind me a little of the fish sticks that went from blue box to cookie sheet to oven that haunted my childhood. The condiments were a bit scarce and a little underwhelming but the sauce was tasty and fresh.

Cap”n Crunch Cod Tacos

The BBQ pork shoulder was served on a cheddar jalapeno biscuit and topped with a southwest slaw providing most of the components of a southern barbeque meal with the added benefit of being able to hold it on one hand. The biscuit was delicious and the other components were decent. The pork was moist but it was more about  the sauce and less about the meat itself. Not a bad sandwich overall, but it was like an anchor in my stomach  and I don’t think I could finish it on a good day.

BBQ Pork Shoulder on Cheddar Jalapeno Biscuit

Mundane

The chicken curry was a bit of a mess. It was served overflowing in an asian-style take out container which eventually leaked out the bottom.  The dish itself was average, lacking any of the extremities of  flavour and spiciness of a good curry.  Call me a purist, but I like a plain basmati rice with a curry.  Instead, this curry was served with a sticky rice which didn’t do much to help.

Chicken Curry

My Take

With exploding balls, tacos inspired by fictional sea captains, anchor-like sandwiches and a mac and cheese eating parrot I felt I was in “Pirates of the Caribbean”.  The mates behind the counter were courteous and the booty was fine. Stick with the staples such as the cod tacos, and you’ll yell yo-ho-ho.  The mac and cheese and nutella balls made me shiver me timbers but the curry was blimey.  With great variety, great service and an established catering business in a hot food truck market (check out http://torontofoodtrucks.ca/), I don’t see Food Dudes sinking to meet Davy Jones’ anytime soon.

Food Dudes on Urbanspoon

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Review: Toronto: Baldwin St: Kinton Ramen

In Toronto, ramen houses are the new black of Toronto, topping popular trends such as sushi bars and taquerias on the foodie fad lists of late.   They are appearing on every street corner with huge variation in both presentation and price.  Kinton Ramen, backed by the emerging Guu empire, is one of the leaders of the pack offering a mid-priced soup with mid-range Guuesque song and dance.

Heeding the warnings of other bloggers and posters, I ventured to Kinton Ramen at the tail end of their lunch hours (about 2:15) to avoid the  rush. I arrived to a restaurant about three quarters full and was seated at the bar near the door almost immediately.  It’ s a modest but pleasant environment without the high decibel levels of its Guu sisters, which is fitting for its location along Baldwin street.

Maybe

I opted for the Shio Ramen in a effort to get a good pulse on their version of the trendy soup. It’s milky looking broth lacked the visual appeal of some of the other noodle soups I’ve had.  If you really like pork, you’ll like this  ramen.  If you like pork more than soup, you’ll like this ramen.  If you think pork is the other white meat…you get the point.  I expected a fragrant broth with multidimensional tastes and flavours but this was trumped by an overwhelming pork taste driven by the shoulder, belly and broth itself. The belly itself was delicious and tender.  The noodles erred on the side of underdone. The seasoned egg was a nice addition but lacked a bit of the flowing yolkiness I usually enjoy with a ramen soup.

Shio Ramen

Mundane

Like spicy tuna sushi, gyoza are one of those things I automatically order on a menu (unless when I’m at Moxie’s or where they want 12 bucks to make 6 dumplings look pretty).  At Kinton, for 3.5  you get 4.   The surrounding dough was tough and chewy. I opened one up to give the filling a fair chance as a stand alone , but the scarce ball of under seasoned ground pork  inside was almost as lackluster as the dough itself. I have purchased store bought dumplings which I’ve  done in a home steamer and fried that have tasted  better.

Gyoza (pork dumplings)

My Take

Kinton Ramen is a decent lunch spot with a reasonable price point  but with the number of other lunch spots along Baldwin St. it wouldn’t be my first choice.  It will be interesting to see if the ramen rage is a phase or a sustainable lunch option moving forward.  The future of places like this will hinge on the sustainability of this trend because, although I did not try any other “sides” it appears that, based on the gyoza, at  Kinton you should stick with the ramen and that ordering anything else might be a crap shoot….literally.

Kinton Ramen  on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:The Annex: Guu Sakabar

The dining scene in Toronto has diversified over the past few years. Gone is the choice between snooty white linen, chain restaurants  or seedy local bars. Diners are looking for more than food, they want an experience which will either complement or overshadow the  food itself.

Guu Sakabar is marketed as an experience gone Gangnam style, characterized by loud music, singing cooks and a modernized version of old school  Japanese dining including removing your shoes to sit at a kotatsu (low Japanese table which puts your head at eye level to your server’s knees).  Some may see it as fun, hip and lively, others may see it an adult Chuck-e-Cheese or a glorified Lick’s.  Most of the dishes are simply prepared and presented. 

Must

The Hokke (mackerel) was a simple grilled fish, lightly seasoned and presented bone-in. No instruction was provided on proper boning technique so it may present an annoyance for some.  The fish was cooked perfectly, moist and flaky and it was a good-sized  portion.  The only issue was it came 10-15 minutes after everything else which made it a little less appealing to eat. 

Hokke (mackerel)

Maybe

The Ebimayo (fried prawns with spicy mayo) were decent. The prawns themselves were a good size, cooked right  but were too slathered in the less than impressive mayo which made them a bit soggy. 

There are a number of maybes on the menu depending on one’s personal taste.  The grilled beef tongue (Gyu Tongue) was a unique dish simply seasoned with salt.  It had a good flavour but has challenging liver-like texture which may not appeal to the masses. The Tontoro (pork cheek), is once again simply  prepared  but may be a bit too fatty for some palates, especially if the fat is not rendered enough.

Ebimayo (prawns with spicy mayo)
Gyu Tongue (beef tongue..partially eaten)
Tontoro (pork cheek)

Mundane

Regarding the experience, the environment is loud and the service is sketchy.  It was very difficult to order extra food, get a drink or even the bill.  I’ve already commented about the mackerel. Some may argue that the organized chaos adds to the fun but to me it’s an annoyance especially if it interferes with the flow of the  meal.  In addition, they have a rather ridiculous reservation policy which can be summarized as “We will only accept reservations when it’s not busy”. 

My Take

A visit to Guu is like landing a gig as an extra on a bad Japanese game show or a B-rated film.  The “fun” atmosphere is loud, chaotic and only adequate for conversation if you’re on a bad first date or with your mother-in-law.  The set-up  is not conducive to organized and efficient service.   There is a wide variety of well-prepared  simple and more exotic  foods in reasonable portions for sharing which appeals to a spectrum of diners (including about a dozen vegetarian options if you don’t include the free smiles, passion and cheers). 

In sum, it’s a good place to go if you have a small group with a variety of  taste, if you don’t care about talking to them too much and  if you have a lot of patience.  Just keep an eye over your shoulder in case you spy Psy eating tontoro in Toronto or there is a random attack  from Godzilla  or Mothra.

Guu Sakabar on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:Ursa

Once upon a time there was a restaurant called Ursa… (after all, an exciting dining experience should be like a good story).

Positioned in the middle of Caju and County General on Queen near Shaw, it’s one of those cloaked foodie joints meaning it’s usually pretty busy without the online fanfare of a Grand Electric or Kinton Ramen (this is foreshadowing…stay tuned).

I was immediately greeted by Lucas, one of the co-owners and great storyteller.  I was seated at the bar and was greeted by Robin, a bartender and equally good storyteller with a love for bourbon and homemade vermouth.  It was quickly evident that both had a extreme passion for food and drink, a passion that I hoped would translate into a great dinner.

Must

Here’s where the story begins. I was told that the elk tartare was phenomenal and that the elk  was singled sourced out of an farm in Kitchener and 7 muscle groups were incorporated into the final product. Impressive! I was warned in advance that it lacked some of the attributes of the traditional tartare including eggs and scallions.  It was presented eloquently  with a cracker, a bitter orange sauce and a piece of charqui (elk jerky). It could of used a bit of seasoning but in the end the meat spoke for itself. It was phenomenal.

Elk Tartare

Before retirement, according to Lucas, Joanne Kates (highly respected Globe and Mail food critic), said that Ursa served one of the best lemon meringue pies in Toronto.  I can’t disagree.  The pie had an abstract presentation, offered in a deconstructed fashion featuring a rich lemon curd, a fluffy meringue and a crust bound with rich duck fat.  Not only was it delicious, it was an adventure and actually fun to eat.

Lemon Tart

Regarding cocktails, there is as much attention to detail towards the drinks as there is the food.  I tried the Red Horn,  signature bourbon cocktail (ask Robin about it…it’s quite a story and has won awards) as well as the daily smashed cocktail (in this case it was a gin/fennel mix which was delicious).

Red Horn Cocktail
Smashed Cocktail

Maybe

For a main, I settled on the lingcod.  The fish was cooked perfectly.  It was served with a lack luster foam when, combined with the cassava and potato, had a monotonous flavour.  The saving grace was the white peach, which offered a sour crunch which offered a needed flavour and texture contrast.  The sage was a nice touch.

Lingcod

Another good story was the Santa Rosa plum salad.  There are only a few hundred of these plum trees in Canada, and Ursa managed to partner with a farmer in BC to get them for the menu.   The salad was beautifully presented and the plums were divine but I was left wanting more.   The salad was under dressed and lacked a bit of the complexity I would expect for a $14 salad.

Santa Rosa Plum Salad

Mundane

I’d consider Ursa  a bit stubborn.  It is next to impossible to find a current menu online since their website is nothing more than a holding page with an address and a phone number.  When you do see the menu, it is quite small. In fact, a couple walked in and out after viewing the menu and only seeing goat, rabbit and lingcod as traditional entrees. On the other hand,  there are both good quality vegetarian starters and mains on the menu which may appeal to some. Others will argue it is expensive for the amount of food but personally I find it pretty comparable to similar joints in the area.

Elusive Ursa Menu- Subject to change Frequently.

My Take

Ursa is like a good picture book.  Both the restaurant’s decor and presentation of the food are very visually appealing , edgy and comes with a great story.    If you don’t like mysteries, however, this may not be the place for you. Even with the menu as a guide, the dishes are a bit unpredictable but at the same time kind of exciting. What I can say is that Ursa is an experience with beautifully presented dishes using unique and quality ingredients and if you get the full experience you may very well live happily ever after….The End.

Ursa on Urbanspoon

The 39 year-old Virgin: Adventures in Barcelona.

Yes, this is my first trip to Europe as I wasn’t privy to travel in my younger years. So, after almost 4 decades, I crossed the Atlantic, landing in Barcelona, Spain. Having spent the better part of two days there, I made the following observations:

1. People in Spain walk slow.
2. Wifi is difficult to find.
3. Everybody wears scarves.
4. A beer and sandwich combo is cheaper than a soda and sandwich combo at the airport.
5. The architecture is fantastic.
6. You need your room key to turn on your lights.
7. You can buy almost anything on the street including beer, umbrellas, street food, flowers etc.
8.The food is pretty good.

Since this is a food blog, I will focus on the latter. The food choices are endless. Every nook and cranny is jammed with small eateries, each promising a special variety of decor, personality and of course, food. The restaurants range from off the menu to choosing off a tray under a pane of glass. I can best describe it as simple. No garnish, no explanation, just the food.

A Tale of Two Tapas.

Ciudad Condal had a long wait but I was seated within 30 minutes.

Their flauta was probably the simplest yet the best thing I ate in the two days I was in Barcelona. Simply, it’s  chorizo inside a small loaf of bread for about three euros. The crunch of the bread followed by the rich chorizo was perfect. I put a little machego cheese inside my second one which added some saltiness as well.

The patatas bravas are Spain’s version of poutine. They are basically potatoes covered in a creamy aioli and hot sauce. Also of honourable mention were the fried Padron peppers, simply prepared with salt and olive oil. The nature of these  peppers are generally mild but a few on the plate pack a hot punch, leading to the term “Unos Picans Otros No” meaning some are hot, some are not. I was lucky to get a few biters.  A great dish was the potatoes topped with fried eggs (Huevos Cabreados).  It is a simple but delicious dish; matchstick fried potatoes topped with soft fried eggs cut table side.

I’m a huge flan fan. The creamy spanish flan was a nice ending  and was not overly sweet despite the abundant caramelized sugar.

The service was fast, friendly and efficient.

Chorizo Flautas at Ciudad
Patatas Bravas
Padron Peppers at Ciudad
Huevos Cabreados (Matchstick Potatoes with Egg-Yum)
Caramel Flan at Ciudad

I’m always drawn by places with good reputations and high Zagat ratings. Tapas 24 fit the category in both regards. Much different than Ciudad Condal, Tapas 24 is situated in a basement just off the beaten path of the tourist section.  It was about 11 pm and the place was packed. When I was seated I noticed a much smaller, yet more expensive menu than Ciudad. It was certainly more run down but was filled with character. I was seated at the bar so I could see the open kitchen which was run old school, with orders called from paper tickets stuck on magnetic boards and run like a well-oiled machine.

I started with the standard patatas bravas which were shaped like fries and looked a bit a bit dismal compared to the chunky potatoes at Ciudad.  It was  followed by the bikini (a bit of an ironic name given it’s a grilled ham and cheese sandwich). In this case if was flavoured with some shaved black truffle which was subtle as opposed to overpowering (it’s a fine line when it come to truffle). However, it was a bit imbalanced since the smoked ham I so enjoy was drowned out by the buffalo mozzarella. It was basically  a nine Euro fancy grilled cheese. I finished with calamares (squid) recommended by a guy who looked and dressed like he should don a red cape and run away from bulls. It was simply presented, seasoned with olive oil and when mixed with the bitter, leaking squid ink provided  a good balance. Not sure it was worth 16 euro, but it was certainly unique.

Tapas 24 Patatas Flauvas
Tapas 24 Bikini Sandwich
Tapas 24 Calamares (Baby Squid)

I didn’t realize Spain would have such good ice cream. In particular was a place called Belgious. Situated in what seemed to be a shady back alley along the goth section of the ramblas (maybe it was also the fact it was past midnight), my broken Spanish saw the word exotic and ice cream together and I was sold. I was able to sample a number of flavours including gin and tonic, szechuan pepper, curry and cannibus..yes cannibus. I ended up settling on a combination of thyme (my favourite spice) and Modena vinegar with raspberries. Delish! No picture though..a bit too shady to pull the Blackberry out.

On another note, there are great markets in Barcelona. I managed to visit two during my travels.  La Concepcio is located not far from downtown Barcelona.  It’s a smaller market with a wonderful seafood selection (the meat and chicken isn’t bad either) . In fact, you don’t even smell the fish despite the fact you’re surrounded by it.   Both offered a wide variety of meats, chicken and some of the best fish I have ever seen. La Boqueria is perhaps the most well-known and busiest market and was certainly bustling when I was there.  Once again, the seafood was amazing, complete with huge oysters and fresh fish butchered on the spot. There was a variety of prepared foods such squid on a skewer and fresh juices.  I quenched my palate with a mango coconut juice for a couple of euros.

Oysters at the Market
Prawns at the Market
Produce at the Market
Squid on a Skewer at the Market

I hit the George Payne bar as well which offers great soccer, confusing drink specials and not so good food.