One of my routines is to hit a food truck at the Sony centre on my way back to the train station. This often means I forfeit the meal on the Via when heading back to London but one can only enjoy so much panko encrusted tilapia. There are different trucks on different days, some of which are difficult to consume, especially if I’m in a rush or don’t want the to burden myself (or the guy beside me) with a pound of pulled pork poutine before a two hour train ride home. La Loteria is a newer food truck which promises real Mexican tacos, a bold statement in a city which had been so tacophilic for the last few years. The truck pays homage to he Mexican game of chance with the same name. Like bingo, it used pictograms with clever riddles instead of numbers. One wins when they have a combination of four pictures in a row, square or each corner.
The menu is simple. You get three tacos for 10 bucks. As for choices, on this day there was no pig tail,cauliflower or beef cheek choices. Instead, it was simply carnita, al pastor and chicken. I ordered one of each. They were served on soft yellow corn tortillas and simply garnished with cilantro and fresh onions. Condiments include green and red salsas. The al pastor tacos were delicious, seasoned with fragrant spices and the right amount of heat. The carnitas were moist and meaty. The chicken tacos were tasty as well but my least favorite of the three. Personally, I like a stringy, dark meat chicken taco and find those made with cubed chicken breast a little bland. I loved the fresh onions and modest use of the cilantro. The limber yet crunchy shells were some of the best I’ve had in Toronto.
Tacos remain one of the staples on many menus and the preferred snack foods of across the GTA. In many cases, they are filled with unorthadox ingredients, coated with cereal or given names like the Gobernador. Most of the time these modifications come with an increase in pesos. If you’re looking for a simple, cheap and delicious taco, this is your place. The carnita and al pastor tacos are delicious. Despite the fact that the rooster. heron, shrimp, deer and watermelon are all depicted on loteria cards (let’s not get any weird menu ideas here), marking a pig card would make me wanna scream “Loteria” everytime.
Waves were made in the city of Toronto when it was finally announced that there would be some relaxation of the strict by-laws that have plagued gourmet food trucks for years. One of the olive branches has been Tasty Thursdays, an initiative “produced” by the city of Toronto. Every Thursday in July and August, Nathan Phillips square comes alive with a variety of tents and food trucks offering an array of snack foods, all for under $7.
By the looks of it, it has been quite successful. There were long lines at each vendor while the regular food trucks and stands lining Queen Street sat there sulking with arms crossed and no lines despite promising the best hot dog in town. It seems street meat falls by the wayside when hungry diners can choose from Indian, Caribbean, Greek, Indonesian. Thai, Malaysia, Mediterranean, fresh salads, Canadian and food truck favourite the Food Dudes. The vendors will switch up in August but promise an equally diverse smorgasbord. As mentioned, the lines were long, especially at the trucks. so I strategically maneuvered around the crowds to find something I wanted while still being able to avoid rush hour two hours later. In the end, I opted for a visit to Hot Bunzz (international with Canadian focus) and Babi and Co. (Indonesian).
The concept is simple; take freshly cooked buns and stuff them with something fun. While in line, I had “food truck fear”,meaning as time goes on and you are paralyzed in line, there is the increased risk of diminishing options. My fear was somewhat realized when the black tape came out and the elk bun was scratched from the menu like a race horse with a last minute injury. That said, when I reached the front of the line I still had three choices.
I opted for the bison short rib and the Wisconsin three cheese with spinach and mushroom. The buns have great eye appeal and were crispy on the outside and soft on the middle, the perfect house for the filling in that it didn’t succumb to possible sogginess. The short rib had a strong coriander flavour and was a tad oversalted but the meat was tender and ample. The spinach was lost in the mushroom and cheese but the filling worked as a whole. In the end, these are a bit more than a snack and bit less than a meal but really nicely priced at 2/$6.
Babi and Co.
This pop-up offers snack food with an Indonesian spin. On this day, it was Mami’s Sate Babi and Babi on a bun. Normally six bucks each, there was a 2 for $10 special. The sate was safe…well marinated strip of pork synonymous with what you would find in most izakaya bars in Toronto. The Babi was well constructed with nicely seasoned pork belly, a crispy yet light bun, sambal mayo for a little kick and pickled cucumber to round it out. Once again, it was safe but struck all the elements of a well-balanced snack. From a value perspective, I think, even with the multibuy discount, the price sits on the upper cusp of acceptable especially when compared to Hot Bunzz.
On another note, the vendors at both tents were very pleasant and the passion was relayed in their food. It was a pleasure to watch the meticulous yet jubilant execution of each snack despite the tight confines of the makeshift shelter.
In a city that prides itself on diversity, the presence of a variety of ethnic street food is noticeably absent. Tasty Thursdays seems to be an effort to address this discrepancy. At the same time, it recognizes the long term battle food trucks have had with the Toronto politicians over selling their wares on city property; a battle which will have some resolution starting August 1st when trucks will be allowed in 5 parks across Toronto. I still chuckle over the fact that this event is produced by the city of Toronto, making it sound like it’s some sort of self-promoting documentary starring the fine folks in city hall who sit on their collective asses stalling on decisions which promote free enterprise (hell, it will even keep food inspectors busy). In a way, maybe it is like a film, with the ultimate intention being an increased awareness of small business and the cornucopia of food they have to offer beyond hot dogs, burgers and big gulps. If anything, when Torontonians hear the term “Hot Bunzz”, they may recognize it as something other than a name Rob Ford may have used to describe Sarah Thomson during a drunken stupor at any given city event.
Not since the days of Shaggy, Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Machine have mobile smokehouses been so mainstream. Case and point, I was at a fundraiser a while back and the line for Urban Smoke was twice that of any other truck that was onsite. Parked comfortably within the confines of a private parking lot (so as not to add to further Toronto city hall controversies) , the staff were busy dishing out some traditional and not so traditional fare. Ten bucks got you one of four choices so I picked up some lunch for myself and a colleague.
The ability to get a hearty soup is a rarity in most restaurants let alone a food truck. The split pea soup was reminiscent of something your French-Canadian uncle J.P. may spend hours in the kitchen whipping up in a magical cauldron. It was thick and savory and filled with chunks of delicious double smoked ham while resisting the temptation to over-salt, a common transgression of many an eatery.
Perfecting the grilled cheese seems a easy trick but its simplicity is often its quandary. Urban Smoke offered two sandwiches; a standard grilled cheese and one featuring nutella and mascarpone cheese as a dessert. Magic is grilling the bread to golden brown while melting the ample filling, a feat that everyone from top chefs to 15 year old latchkey kids have spent generations trying to perfect. Urban Smoke comes close. The secret could very well be seasoning the bread with just a small amount of salt on the outside before grilling the abundant contents within. Simple but extremely satisfying.
The pulled pork was average which is still a compliment considering the number of food trucks, burger joints and smoke houses who lay their foundation on good pulled pork. The meat was tender, partnered with piquant seasonings and the bread was soft and proportional to the filling. The “magic fries” provided a poof that could certainly help Penn and Teller make a rabbit appear but maybe not enough to make David Copperfield’s convertible materialize out of the blue. The slaw added a delicious, tangy crunch.
I took a chance and opted to skip the magic fries in favour of the banana pudding (see picture above). It had a decent flavour but I felt a bit ripped off by the size and the fact it was starting to separate a bit, leaving a bit of an oily pool in the bottom of the glass. It was about the size of a jello shooter and in the end about as exciting as the never-ending handkerchief trick.
Part of the appeal of a food truck should be a quick meal to avoid having to sit down, order, eat and wait for the bill. Although almost inevitable, especially during high volume events such as fundraisers and other events, long waits continue to be an issue with wheel-bearing establishments and Urban Smoke was no exception.
Urban Smoke is a bit of a traveling roadshow, bringing a kind of magic show to each and every parking lot or street side it inhabits. The headliners include a variety of southern BBQ foods including pulled pork and brisket partnered with a few other choices. As a result, it draws big crowds which means big lines and big waits. The staff, however, are quite efficient and personable and maintain a decent flow. If the truck is around (check out torontofoodtrucks.ca for schedules), I would definitely consider a trip for lunch if you have the time and desire to break up a hectic day. After all, after a busy adventure unmasking criminals, I’m sure Shag and Scoob would have been happy to fill up on a few grilled cheese sandwiches following an equally smoky visit to the Mystery Machine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reminiscent of Big Foot or Rob Ford jogging, food trucks are a rather elusive sighting in Toronto. Bound by by-laws which do not allow more trucks to attain permanent residency in the downtown core, they are forced to travel like Nomads making it a bit of a feat to find one that is open on any given day. Check out http://torontofoodtrucks.ca/ for information about food trucks in Toronto.
As I approached the corner of Front and Sherbourne in search of Hogtown Smoke, I caught a whiff of the smoked meat about a block away. I happened to be second in line so I was able to sample some of the brisket right out of the smoker before I even ordered. Although it took a while to get rolling after a minor gas malfunction (which I appreciated because it allowed me to stare at the small menu like an idiot for 15 minutes without a clue what I was going to order)., the window opened and I was greeted by the friendly staff members. Specials included a kimchi grilled cheese and side ribs in addition to the traditional pulled pork, poutine, brisket, po’ boy sandwiches and kicked up grilled cheese. I opted for the ribs, brisket and poutine to get a taste for a bit of everything. The staff joked with the building crowd, apologizing for the delays and asking everybody their names.
St. Louis Side Ribs ($10)
New to the truck, I was a little leery since side ribs are not as forgiving as back ribs and are easy to mess up. They came through by fulfilling the holy trinity of rib triumph; crunchy bark (although a bit salty), a deep pink smoke ring and fall off the bone tenderness. They were supposed to be served with baked beans and slaw but in the lunacy of opening I did not get the slaw so I can’t comment. The beans were very saucy, had great texture and bubbly flavours driven by the unmistakable sassifrassness of root beer. Imagine a baked bean flavoured Jelly Belly jelly bean and you’ve got the taste.
2 lb Pulled Pork Poutine ($10)
This alliterative aliment almost achieves all acclaimed attributes (of a good poutine). Poutine has its own holy trinity characterized by fabulous fries, great gravy and cheese curds. Hogtown almost reached divinity. The fries were a good size, taste and texture (which is tough since poutine fries get really mushy, really fast). The pulled pork got bonus points. It had a huge, juicy pork flavour and good seasoning. My one criticism was the final execution because the curds didn’t melt under the gravy. A small thing, but a traditional poutinist may pou-pou it.
Patron Jalapeno Mango Sauce
Use the Patron Jalapeno Mango sauce in anyway you can. It’s fantastic and can best be described as Big Mac sauce on steroids. I would go as far as baking up six High Liner fish sticks and bring them in a zip lock bag just so I could taste this sauce over and over again.
The brisket sandwich was sliced thin, piled fairly high and served on a good size swirly rye-type bun. At the recommendation of the staff, I topped it with the spicy barbeque sauce and horseradish aioli. The meat was busting with flavour with minimal grit but it was a bit dry. The sauces helped to moisten it up a bit, making it quite a good sandwich.
Not much other than the early service disruption and the fact they forget my slaw!
Hopefully food trucks are here to stay because they provide limitless variety and creative license. Hogtown smoke didn’t disappoint, offering traditional smoke house flavours with modern twists. The ribs approached divinity. The poutine may have reached sainthood. Like many trucks, the biggest issue is execution and speed of service. These are good guys with a good attitude and a good concept. I’d endure minor traffic and a small crowd to come back. Hell, I might even start going to church again.