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Is there a Toronto (or surrounding area) specialty?

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I will be visiting Toronto in September for a wedding and as I always do when I travel, I would like to experience the new place with new food. My question is... what does Toronto have that is either unique to the region or particularly tasty in that region?

For example:

-Southern California has Mexican Food, Chili Burgers/Dogs/Fries and artichoke hearts on pizza.
-Chicago has beef sandwiches, chicago-style pizza and gourmet hot dogs, etc.
-NYC has shawarma, street hot dogs, NY-style pizza, etc.

I've been reading the chowhound boards, but most of the Toronto restaurants I see mentioned look like the usual delicious-but-universal upscale types of eateries. What would a Toronto local recommend to an out-of-towner, for the local experience?

Fast food, hole-in-the-walls, homey-diners, ethnic markets, etc...?

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  1. Toronto is pretty well known for their hot dog vendors, which seems to be your thing. You'll find them all over the heart of downtown.

    1. Peameal Bacon on a bun (Canadian Bacon) at the St. Lawrence Market is the meal people usually recomend.

      The other recomendation (which I do not see mentioned a lot here) is French fries with Gravy from the chip trucks on the street (a bunch are in front of city hall) this is not to be confused with Poutine from Quebec where they put cheese curds on it.. but just good handcut freshly fried potatos lathered in a rich dark gravy... makes my mouth water..

      1. Really awesome Cantonese food.

        5 Replies
        1. re: tjr

          actually that's vancouver

          1. re: clamnectar

            What is stopping Toronto from having really awesome Cantonese food, in your opinion (I never stated Toronto's Cantonese cuisine was the best, and, technically, shouldn't you have referenced Hong Kong, not Vancouver)? Obviously Mexico has better Mexican food than you can find in SoCal, and the best shwarma on Earth is probably not to be found in NYC.

            I'm pretty sure Toronto is also known for having great Cantonese food, as noted by resident experts like Charles_Yu and skylineR33.

            1. re: tjr

              just saying that doesn't distinguish it. my vote's on "peameal bacon"... never seen it anywhere else.

              1. re: clamnectar

                Even Vancouver chowhounders will admit Lai Wah Heen has better dim sum than any place in their city.

                The rest of the Cantonese food, is pretty much on par w/ Toronto. Both cities are great, but the OP is asking about Toronto.

                I would throw a vote in for Caplansky's unique take on smoked meat.

            2. re: clamnectar

              I just took five Vancouver visitors to O Mei last week for their Giant lobster 4 ways and some other Cantonese dishes. They told me they haven't eaten any lobster that good in Vancouver or even Hong Kong!! And they have been around! Since in Hong Kong, they eat at the members only top floor Yung Kee club level ( Michelin Star )

          2. Funnel cake at Canada's Wonderland

            1. Waffles.

              9 Replies
              1. re: Dimbulb

                Waffles? Toronto is known for Waffles? Please clue me in.

                1. re: Dimbulb

                  Southern Ontario produces some of the best peaches and cream sweet corn in the world. It's as simple as food gets, fresh off the stalk. You're best off buying some at a farmer's market and cooking it yourself, but for an interesting variation, you could head to Gerrard Street East on the weekend and you'll find Indian street vendors, grilling corn and squeezing lime juice and a masala of spices and salt, then selling them to people out for a stroll or to shop in the neighbourhood.

                  I really can't associate waffles, funnel cake or even peameal bacon as Toronto specialties, as tasty as they are. The peameal is Canadian, but not specific to Toronto, to my knowledge. I think funnel cake has a German heritage, perhaps introduced to North Americans by the Amish or Mennonite communities. Waffles are definitely not Toronto specialties. They're delish, but came to us via Begium, so they just aren't THE must have while in Toronto items.

                  It's tough to single out a uniquely Toronto ingredient, dish or cuisine, since Toronto is so multicultural. To me, Toronto is known for its Cantonese food, Italian food from certain regions, Indian food, particularly northern Indian, such as Punjabi, Portuguese food, Korean food, Vietnamese food, Ethiopian food, Jamaican and Caribbean islands food, Polish food and Greek food. There are countless other cultures and countries that are well-represented in Toronto's restaurant cuisine, but I haven't singled them out because they are either few in number or else not better than other major world cities (ie. Thai, Japanese, esp. sushi, Mexican, Cajun/Creole, Lebanese, Israeli, Spanish, French, Scandinavian countries, which are wholly underrepresented in Toronto, Indonesian, Chinese cuisines other than Cantonese, such as Shanghainese, Sichuan, Beijing or Hunan, to name but a few). A few honourable mentions can go out to individual restaurants, but they don't represent any sizeable population and aren't standouts from a world-wide perspective.

                  Toronto can hold its own against other North American cities with hamburgers and fries, but I highly doubt that we outclass other cities, particularly not on a world scale, with these offerings, not when our laws dictate that burgers not ground freshly and on-site are to be cooked to medium or well-done.

                  1. re: 1sweetpea

                    For safety's sake, I think burgers done pink should be ground onsite. The problem is, not enough do it onsite to make eating them the right way possible.

                    I do agree with you...waffles? Never have I heard that as Toronto specialty.

                    Toronto is more about the multi-cultural thing.

                    1. re: 1sweetpea

                      You make some excellent points, sweetpea.

                      Peameal is not specifically Toronto, but as far as I've been able to suss out it is a natively Ontario foodstuff. It's not a hugely exciting or legendary thing, but personally, I enjoy it and get my visitors to try it because you won't find it back home. I put it more in a comfort food category than an "oh my God you MUST try this!" category, but personally, I think it's worth doing.

                      I do like your point about peaches and corn, but while they are both awfully good here, I don't think they're necessarily better than elsewhere. I have had better of both in the Midwest or the South, where I have been lucky enough to be closer to the source than I am in Toronto. Of course, you're not going to find the Little India treatment on a street corner in Indiana, either. :)

                      Which brings me to what Toronto really does well, which is the insane collage of different cultures. The OP mentioned ethnic markets, and I think Kensington Market is a really good representation of what makes Toronto special. Spend an afternoon grazing through Chinatown and Kensington (not a market building, but rather a neighborhood), and between the Chinese buns and pastries, dumplings, Vietnamese banh mi and pho, empanadas, tacos, Portuguese grilled sardines, Spanish tapas, West Indian doubles, deli, etc. etc. you'll get a microcosm of Torontonian society. It's not fancy sit-down dining, but it's what I love about our city.

                      And as tjr says, we do have really awesome Cantonese food. :)

                      1. re: Wahooty

                        Wahooty, I think sweetpea was refering to the variety of corn called "Peaches and Cream". Not peaches (the fruit) and corn (the veg).

                        1. re: Tor.hound

                          D'oh! You're right. I am just preoccupied by the fact that I have both peaches and corn in my kitchen right now, and have been enjoying both. :)

                          However, I stand by my comment that I have had better corn elsewhere. Not that our local producers aren't awesome, but I have yet to top the stuff I could buy off of the truck at a fraction of the price in Indiana.

                        2. re: Wahooty

                          BUT the original post used thes as examples:

                          Southern California has Mexican Food, Chili Burgers/Dogs/Fries and artichoke hearts on pizza.
                          -Chicago has beef sandwiches, chicago-style pizza and gourmet hot dogs, etc.
                          -NYC has shawarma, street hot dogs, NY-style pizza, etc.

                          I doubt So Cal invented Mexican food.. (Ithing it was invented in Mexico :-) And there are hotdogs everywhere but Chicago has its spin..

                          So with THIS in mind I think we put up our Street Meat, Street Fries WITH gravy, Peameal Bacon Sandwich & Sweet corn (every street festival has it) as the most "Toronto" then add Cantonese...

                          1. re: OnDaGo

                            While I agree with you to a degree, OnDaGo, I agree with Wahooty's point more.

                            What makes Toronto unique is the collage of cultures that reside side by side, the microcosm of which is Kensington Market. Everything the OP asks for in their final paragraph can be found within that neighbourhood.

                        3. re: 1sweetpea

                          "Toronto can hold its own against other North American cities with hamburgers and fries, but I highly doubt that we outclass other cities, particularly not on a world scale, with these offerings, not when our laws dictate that burgers not ground freshly and on-site are to be cooked to medium or well-done."

                          Good Lord!

                      2. Yes! Just to re-iterate tjr, Wahooty...et al's recommendation. Apart from Vancouver, Toronto do have the best Cantonese food in North America!
                        Toronto is also indeed famous for its Peameal Bacon. However, from a foodie's viewpoint, I really do not see anything special about this piece of salty grilled brined pork loin. Personally, I prefer English Back Bacon.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Charles Yu

                          Up until 12-15 years ago I still remember almost all grocery stores selling english-style back bacon and english-type smoked fish (e.g. kippers).

                          The back bacon and kippers are becoming a rarer and rarer find at regular supermarkets nowadays.

                          It's too bad because these are really good breakfast foods!

                          Especially with some cream of wheat or porridge and crunchy, green new pickles. Sort of like a Western food version of a congee breakfast.

                          I think Canada is losing much of it's traditional English and French-derived food heritage. Even butter tarts and chip trucks, which are probably the strongest populist holdouts, aren't anywhere as common as they were 25-30 years ago.

                        2. Z

                          I'm not sure where you're from and as such don't know what the food scene is like there. As has been stated, the thing that TO has is a world tour of food at it's door step.
                          If you've never had Jamaican food, I'd suggest trying it. Same with Portuguese, Lebanese, Ethiopian or whatever other country you can think of.

                          As for things that are uniquely Toronto there really just isn't that much. A peameal bacon sandwich is certainly something you should try. Also, we seem to have a high concentration of places offering veal sandwiches.

                          Kensington Market is great but make sure you get to St. Lawrence Market (on a Saturday morning if possible) and try the peameal on a bun. Stroll, sample, eat, enjoy.

                          We have lots of great stuff. Just nothing you won't find somewhere else.

                          DT

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: Davwud

                            I agree that you have to take into consideration where the OP is from, because if they are from NYC, London or SF for example it is not that impressive that Toronto is multicultural because it is the same back home for them.

                            With that being said there are a few cuisine in Toronto I would put up against most cities in N. America and expect it to equal or exceed what they have back home.

                            - Cantonese (It can definitely at least come close to Vancouver)
                            - Greek (Only Chicago and Queens offer a similar variety)
                            - Portuguese (Very hard to find excellent Portuguese other than Massachusetts)
                            - Ethiopian (The only place that is drastically above TO is DC and possibly NYC)
                            - Street Dogs (TO has a unique twist with the toppings)
                            - Peameal Bacon (Almost impossible to find stateside)
                            - Jamaican Bakeries (Randy's is the best patty I have had outside JA- but beware of the full service JA restaurants, very disappointing)

                            1. re: Matt H

                              Some great ideas here. I do think that a variety of ethnic foods is what makes Toronto special. One dish that is very Toronto to me is One Love's vegetarian corn soup, now available year-round at their Jamaican cafe at 854 Bathurst St (north of Bloor St).

                              1. re: toveggiegirl

                                agreed, the variety and overall relatively high quality of ethnic offerings makes t.o. stand out - ie. greek may be done better in montreal but montreal doesnt have great korean....that said, to me a unique offering in t.o. is the roasted marshmallow ice cream from greg's - don't know where else in the world i'd find it!

                            2. re: Davwud

                              Wow, first of all. Thanks everyone for the amazing show of responses. I've rarely had this much success with a question on chowhound. I have a lot of stuff to read through here.

                              And I just saw Anthony Bourdain's Canada episode, so I got some shots at the gravy fries - definitely on my list. And a every city has their "street dog", and they're always worth trying.

                              I'm from Los Angeles, so I am very familiar with having the world tour of food at my door step. However, Jamaican, Cantonese, Greek and Portuguese are drawing my attention. LA has those, too, of course, but I've had Greek food in Queens and I know that LA is in short supply of a few things.

                              The only thing I really know about Portuguese is the sausage in Hawaiian dishes, haha, and Jamaican I haven't really looked into much in California. Cantonese I'm sure we have a plenty in Southern California, but there's one thing I know about Chinese food... what survives the trip from China to Americas is always different. "Regional" means both which region in China and which region here, so my interest is sparked.

                              1. re: zmmann

                                Cantonese is especially strong iin Toronto (much better than LA) due to the legacy of politics in HK. The mass exodus of middle/upper class pre 1997 led to an influx of HK'ers to countries with liberal immigration policies (Canada, Australia, etc). One of the most preferred cities was Toronto, lots of cooks and restaurateurs came over as a result.

                                The landscape has changed as economical stability in HK led to these immigrants returning en mass. Luckily, the food culture supporting the previous influx has remained mostly unchanged.

                                1. re: zmmann

                                  Even if you come from a city with a sizable Cantonese population like LA, it would definitely be worth while eating Cantonese in Toronto, because it is really done much better in TO than anywhere else in North America.

                                  Portuguese and Greek are also staples of Toronto cuisine that are a must try in my opinion, so your choice are great.

                                  If you are looking for West Indian cuisine though I would strongly recommend Trini/Guyanese Roti and other specialties like Pelau, doubles, etc..Toronto has a great selection of Roti shops, which is something i know is hard to find in LA. I might be in the minority here, but I always advise against having Jamaican "cooked food" in TO, being Jamaican myself I would hate for you to try Jamaican for the first time and think this is how it is supposed to taste. One must is trying a beef patty from either Randy's or Allans pastry. Jamaican pastries are done very well in TO.

                              2. Being a frequent visitor to Toronto, the first thing that struck me when I first came here as an adult was the numerous donut shops. As a visitor, I thought Torontonians were obsessed with donuts.

                                The thing I remembered from my first visit here as a child was to stay away from the pizza. Even now, I try to stick to that policy.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: GoodGravy

                                  By "numerous donut shops" you probably mean "numerous Tim Hortons", which is really about the coffee and not the donuts. People here are pretty set on their cup of Timmy's.

                                  1. re: mogo

                                    Nope, I actually meant numerous Coffee Times, Tim Hortons, Country Styles and all the mom and pop shops. I actually confused CIBC and Coffee Time because they use the same colors in their signs.

                                    1. re: GoodGravy

                                      I would avoid the donuts in all of those places (although maybe there are some mom & pops shops that actually serve good donuts). In general, Toronto has pretty bad donuts.

                                    2. re: mogo

                                      back in the late 80's and early 90's there seemed to be 3 donut shops at most intersections, i am happy that has thinned out-although our waistlines still show the results of those days....

                                  2. Toronto's tap water is about as good as it gets anywhere. And it's free.
                                    Whether water counts as a food is another question.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Doctormhl1

                                      really? i find the tap water here tastes far worse than vancouver, where i'm from.

                                      how about the proliferation of west indian food establishments? now that i think about it, there's an absolute ton.

                                    2. Butter tarts!

                                      They're not unique to the Toronto area, but they are definitely a Canadian - and maybe Ontario-nian? - treat. (Wikipedia opines that butter tarts are "a characteristic pastry of Canada, considered one of only a few recipes of genuinely Canadian origin.") Butter tarts abound in Toronto. And some PR genius has even designated a "butter tart trail" around Wellington North Township, north of Toronto:

                                      http://www.wellington-north.com/touri...

                                      Zmmann, you should try some butter tarts if they're new to you. They're like pecan-pie tartlets without the pecans, only runnier (ummmm!). They're often embellished with raisins and/or nuts and/or chocolate.

                                      Type "butter tarts" into the search box above - there are a handful of discussions on where to find the best ones in Toronto. Like this one:

                                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/339781

                                      Anne

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: AnneInMpls

                                        Happy to say that Butter tarts are not an exclusive Ontario treat...they can be found across many of our provinces in this great country.

                                        1. re: easily amused

                                          What wonderful news. Canadian butter tarts are among the top wonders of the world - I think they should get special recognition from the UN or the World Heritage Foundation.

                                          I've only ever had butter tarts in Ontario - I've never been able to find them in Winnipeg, but I don't think I looked hard enough. (My last visit was before I had discovered Chowhound. Now that I have ... Manitoba, here I come!)

                                          OH, now I'm really craving a flaky, runny, raisin-y butter tart. Someone up there, please eat one for me!

                                          Anne

                                      2. This has an interesting list.. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian...
                                        Especially the junk food..

                                        1. What about Roti? Ghandi's or Vena's? Obviously it once again falls into the multicultural aspect of the city, but it's great at those places.

                                          Caplansky's is still solid, but not open yet in the new locale, but it has yet to become a "Toronto food"

                                          St. Lawrence or Kensington are definite visits, as is the Danforth. If you want real Chinese options, you might have to venture north of the city to Richmond Hill or thereabouts these days.

                                          And always, the hot dog carts. Some are great, some are terrible.

                                          Sadly, Toronto lacks a real food identity. There's no poutine or Montreal smoked meat like Quebec/Montreal. There's no Japanadog like Vancouver. No Toronto pizza speciality (but lots of pizza joints). And finding quality BBQ in a city full of people who love to grill is surprisingly difficult.

                                          What we do have is a lot of food components. Kozlik's mustard in St. Lawrence, elk farmers in the various farmers' markets, fresh produce from local farms, quality coffee is finally showing up in the city at various green bean merchants, and plenty of mom-and-pop style producers of sauces, baked goods, and ethnic cuisine at markets and festivals can be found. The locavore movement is pretty strong in the city, although not everyone touts it as such.

                                          1. I'm coming to TO on Friday for 8 days with my hubby to celebrate our 25th anniversary. This is a trip I've wanted to make for several years, since I was living in San Francisco (now in NY). I'm excited to explore the range and diversity of cuisines available in TO, and have been impressed by the excellent postings here on Chowhound.

                                            I'm not disappointed if there's no much-touted (hyped) local unique food specialty of TO. I think those in most cities tend to not be the best or most interesting food available there.

                                            1. you know what's occurred to me.... the casual dining/pub food menus always have staples from indian, thai, caribbean, and japanese cuisine -- all those, and the usual burgers and fries. i think that's a big thing in toronto -- chicken satay, spring rolls, pad thai, butter chicken, roti, edamame, jerk, all on the same menu!

                                              5 Replies
                                              1. re: clamnectar

                                                Yea and they all suck when on the same menu!

                                                1. re: deelicious

                                                  Exactly. Just because you can get satay, spring rolls and shepherd's pie at the same place doesn't mean any of it is good. It usually means the opposite. Ex. Pickle Barrel.

                                                  1. re: deelicious

                                                    This is a huge pet peeve of mine. If I see a menu like this, I just walk out. By trying to please everyone they don't please me. Seriously, foodies of Toronto should ban together and burn down the Pickle Barrel and tar and feather the owners. The people and tourists of this city would not be subject to mediocrity.
                                                    I recently had family come into town from Barrie, when I asked where they wanted to go to eat they said " either the pickle barrel or mr. green jeans". Vomit in mouth. They were serious.

                                                    1. re: deelicious

                                                      it may suck, but it's definitely a toronto thing... show a little patriotism and eat the shepherd's pie and spring rolls!

                                                      1. re: clamnectar

                                                        lol!!

                                                  2. Someone mentioned donuts! If you are here before September 7th, go to the Ex and try the Tiny Tom donuts.