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Jun 1, 2010 06:11 PM

The Great Toronto Ethnic Bakery Tour (really, really long)

8 hounds met on a sunny Saturday to explore a few of the many ethnic bakeries that Toronto has to offer. With so many to choose from, we had to narrow it down to a feasible number so we wouldn’t end up in a sugar or carb overload. So we deliberately chose a few spots that had savoury items in addition to sweet. We specifically excluded French pastry shops, as those could be a full tour by themselves. Below is a summary of where we went and what we had. I hope the other attending hounds chime in with opinions, corrections and photos.

1. Columbus Bakery (Columbian)

Our first stop and we were all very hungry. So perhaps we over ordered just a bit…
- carimanolas (fried yucca fritters stuffed with minced beef)
- empanadas (Columbian style -- small and fried, with a corn meal pastry)
- chicharrons (fried pork belly, what's not to love?)
- tamales (filled with big chunks of beef and an entire chicken leg, bone and all) served with an arepa, which we found rather odd (corn on corn), but which kinda worked.
- sweet egg bread with a swirl of arequipe (Columbian dulce de leche)
- giant alfajores
- tamarind filled puff pastry

I’m sure I’m missing an item or two. Pretty much everything here was “yum”. If you go, you must ask for hot sauce, as it’s really tasty and definitely enhances the savoury items. The highlights for me were the carimanolas and the tamales.

2. Doce Minho (Portuguese)

So much to choose from here, so again, we may have over ordered…
- custard-filled donut
- lemon-filled donut
- sweet egg pastry (a squash coloured filling in this adorable little boats made of plain ice cream cone pastry)
- pasteis de natas (of course)
- hankies (light sponge cake filled with a fruit jam (apricot?)
- almond tart (literally a tart shell filled with sweetened slivered almonds)
- a huge chourico (Portuguese chorizo)
- pasteis de bacalhaus (salt cod fritters)
- pasteis de camaraoes (shrimp and cream fritters)
- minced meat croquettes (no idea what these are called)
- coxinhas (cassava fritters stuffed with minced chicken)

The highlight for me was the hankies – so simple, so delicious! The custard donut was quite fabulous as well. Lots of people loved the sweet egg pastry boats, but I think I was too overloaded to appreciate them. I love Doce Minho, and the natas and the pasteis de bacalhaus are regular purchases for me, so I won’t rate them.

3. Panchos (Mexican)

Much smaller bakery, with about a dozen or so sweet options.
- sweet empanadas filled with one of: strawberry jam, pineapple jam, or grape jam
- yoyos – sweet biscuit-like ball, cut in half, filled with jam and rolled in powdered sugar
- a couple of other items that I can’t recall

I think I just don’t care for Mexican baking in general – the theme seems to be dryish, semi-sweet breads either topped with sugar or filled with a jam. The best for me was the yoyo, as the biscuit had a decent texture and flavour of its own. The other stuff was so dry that it was difficult to swallow without a drink. Probably good with a cup of tea or coffee, but difficult on its own. I should mention that the woman working there was as sweet and friendly as could be.

4. Athens Bakery (Greek)

- spanokopita (spinach and feta filled phyllo pastry)
- tiropita (feta filled phyllo pastry)
- kreatopita? (meat-filled phyllo pastry)
- loukoumades

This was the best spanokopita I’ve ever had, and I would go back just for that. The in-house made phyllo is excellent and not oozing butter like most I’ve tried. The filling is particularly spinach-y, which I appreciate, with the feta providing a nice salty note, but not overwhelming the spinach. I’m not a huge fan of loukoumades, but these were pretty tasty dipped in cinnamon.

5. Simba Grill (Tanzanian – not a bakery, but a purveyor of damn fine samosas)

We had to pass here on the way to the next destination, so we picked up a dozen beef samosas to compare against Samosa King. These are Tanzanian style – phyllo pastry and a spicy minced beef filling. No potato or other veggie. These are my favourite samosas in the city, and from what I can tell, the others in the group were pretty fond of them as well. A dozen for $10, carry out only deal. And while we were waiting, we all popped in to Fresh From the Farm, which is across the street.

6. Lebanese Bakery (um, Lebanese)

Odd location in an industrial area. BIG kitchen and a large, clean seating area. They must do a huge lunch business during the week.

- 2 kinds of baklava
- some other sweet that I didn’t try
- mini “pizzas” – one with zatar, one with a spicy veggie mixture, and one that I’m blanking on
- spicy beef pastries
- packages of lahmajoun to go

The little pizzas and the beef pastry had a great chewy dough and tasty toppings. For $.99 each, or 6 for $4.50, they would make a fantastic lunch or snack. The lahmajoun are damn tasty as well, but pack a good spice kick.

7 and 7b. Babu (Sri Lankan) and Mona’s Roti (a surprise stop a few doors down from Babu)

Holy busy place on a Saturday afternoon!

- chicken koththu roti
- beef string hoppers
- hakka chicken
- a variety of barfi
- Mona’s doubles
- Mona’s plain roti (being cranked out fresh by the dozens)

Everything was fantastic from both places. The koththu roti and the string hopper both packed a serious burn, but were both delicious. The hakka chicken, was only "ok" for me, but was particularly good wrapped in Mona’s amazing, fresh, flaky roti. And the doubles were pronounced “damn good”. I didn’t try the barfi.

8. Samosa King (Indian)

We were pretty much done by the time we got here.

- veggie samosas (5 for $1)
- chicken samosas (4 for $1)
- a variety of barfi.

I didn’t try the barfi or the samosas, as I’ve had the samosas many, many times before. For me, their appeal is the simple, cheap snack. Easy to freeze and heat, I often have a dozen or more in my freezer. But the Simba Grill samosas blow them out of the water.

9. Fragrant Bakery (Chinese)

Alas, we were so full that we all agreed to skip this last stop. No. More. Food.

The best part of the day was sharing so many different flavours with like-minded chowhounds. It was a beautiful day, and we ended having the food from Babu and Samosa King in a nearby park under some shady trees. We were all stuffed to the gills after about 5 (6?) hours of eating. We all just took turns buying, and probably ended up spending about $20-$25 each. Not bad for having sampled 40+ items. A really good day. A shout out to davwud for organizing!

Simba Grill
375 Donlands Ave, Toronto, ON M4J3S2, CA

Lebanese Bakery
1790 Birchmount Rd, Toronto, ON M1P, CA

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  1. Thanks for writing up our journey, Jo.

    I agree with most of your recommendations, though I'll say I didn't really care for the tamales at Columbus. I felt like the corn to filling ratio was off, especially given how much of the filling was bone, and just generally didn't love the flavor profile. I also found their alfajores a little 'eh'. Very thick and dry with minimal dulce du leche. I like them a little thinner of cookie and thicker of filling.

    The sweet egg boat things at Doce Minha may be my new favorite food. Not that you'd want to eat a lot of them, given the sweetness, but they were an unexpected delight, as were the perfect doughnuts. I liked most of what we got here, except the meat based snacks; the coxinhas were dry and the meat things were desperately fatty and served much too cold for something with that much fat in them.

    I felt the same as you did about the Mexican place. I think it's a good Mexican bakery, I just don't like that style of baking, unless I have hot chocolate to dip it into.

    The pies at Athens were amazing. I loved the plain feta, but as it was really the phyllo that was the star of the show, the rest of them were also excellent.

    Simba Grill's samosas are my favorite style of samosa, and they were particularly excellent, so I was very happy with that stop. I also picked up a couple jars of the world's most beautiful canned fruit across the street at Fresh from the Fields.

    I'm a sucker for zataar at any time, so I did quite like the Lebanese place. I've been sprinkling a little feta on my lahmajoun and eating them for breakfast. They aren't precisely a breakfast food by North American standards, but they do rather kick start your day.

    The Babu dishes were good, but a little hot for my weak-ass palette. I suck, I know. I did really love the doubles from Mona's, though.

    Samosa King really was kind of eh. I can appreciate the value of cheap snacks, but those samosas were kind of bland and had a bad ratio of filling to shell. They weren't terrible, but there are definitely better (if more expensive) places to get them.

    Simba Grill
    375 Donlands Ave, Toronto, ON M4J3S2, CA

    Athens Pastries
    509 Danforth Ave, Toronto, ON M4K, CA

    1 Reply
    1. re: Jacquilynne

      Thanks for the doing the writeup Jo! And thanks to the other hounds for a very enjoyable afternoon.

      At Columbus I really enjoyed the carimanolas with the hot sauce. I didn’t expect the tamales to be so big when I ordered them. After I received them I understood why the man serving me had asked me twice if I really wanted two to eat in! LOL. They didn’t have any while we were there that day but they do have donuts filled with arequipe that are quite tasty too.

      I loved the sweet egg pastry almost as much as the hanky at Doce. I think the filling in the hanky is actually the same sweet egg paste used in those little boat pastries.

      I’m not a fan of the Mexican baking either. I found everything too dry for my liking. The yo-yo was the best of the selection we got but there’s no way I would be able to eat a whole one by myself.

      I was experiencing my first sugar crash at Athens so I only sampled half a loukoumade. I’ve had them at other places but this one rolled in cinnamon was the best I’ve tasted recently.

      The meat samosa from Simba Grill was fantastic. I’ll definitely be returning for my own dozen soon!

      The baklavas from the Lebanese bakery were disappointing. The walnut one was better than the pistachio one but both were overly sweet. The phyllo in the pistachio one was too dense and saturated. The mini pizzas were tasty, my favourite of the three was the zaatar, followed closely by the meat one and then the spicy veggie one. Another hound and I were thrilled to find them serving unsweetened iced tea there. Yum!

      Will definitely be returning to Babu to sample the rest of their menu. I really enjoyed the hopper, chicken and koththu roti. Mona’s is worth another visit also. I was fascinated watching the roti assembly line. They offer two types of freshly made rotis, the plain one we selected and ones made with dal. They were $2 each and you can buy them individually or in packs. I thought the doubles were good, they would’ve been “damn good” for me if they had a shot of hot sauce added!

      The samosas from Samosa King was disappointing. Too much pastry and not enough filling or flavour. The chicken samosas were actually 2 for $1 and there was minimal chicken in them. We were pleasantly entertained while we were waiting to pay for our samosas by a highly amusing dispute going on between a patron and the staff over the $2 charge on boxes for her large order of barfi. Cheap samosas and a free show. Now that’s a great deal ;-)

      Simba Grill
      375 Donlands Ave, Toronto, ON M4J3S2, CA

    2. Wow. What an awesome report-thanks so much for posting.

      I have been wanting to try Simba's Grill for a while now ever since I noticed it over 6 months ago. Its great to know there are tasty sounding samosas close by :)

      1 Reply
      1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

        If you go to Simba Grill, either call ahead and order your samosas (ask for beef, as there is a veg version that I've never tried) or be prepared to wait a loooong time. They make everything to order, and never let it be said that the kitchen there is fast. We called 45 minutes in advance, and we still had to wait 10 minutes when we got there. :)

        They also have tasty cassava fries, and it's a good place to try ugali with your curry. It's a corn meal paste (though apparently it's often cassava flour in Africa) that you're supposed to roll pieces up to dip and scoop the curries. I definitely prefer rice with my curries, but it's interesting to try.

        Simba Grill
        375 Donlands Ave, Toronto, ON M4J3S2, CA

      2. Great write-up--thanks! What part of town are Columbian Bakery and Doce Minho?

        1 Reply
        1. re: Nelson

          Columbus Bakery and Doce Minho are both on Dufferin. Columbus is south of Lawrence, in the same plaza at Lady York and City Fish. Doce Minho is at the first light south of Eglinton.

        2. Thanks Jo.

          I loved the tamale at Columbus.
          Agree about everything you said about Doce Minho.
          I liked two things about Poncho's. The strawberry empanada and the chocolate donut type thing. All others needed coffee or something to have with them.
          I loved everything we had at Athens and was totally stunned by how much I liked the spanakopita.
          Tanzanian samosas really do rock.
          The Lebanese place didn't cut it for me. I liked most things but didn't love anything.
          Really enjoyed Babu and the addition of the roti was perfect. As I said on Saturday, I love saucy stuff so the chicken hakkah was excellent. I love spicy too so the hopper and koththu roti were hits as well. I really loved the place.
          I was done by then so Samosa King didn't thrill me. I will say that after all the talk about their samosas I can finally give my assessment. They're okay. Not great, not bad. Inexpensive is the draw I'd say.

          You forgot the Pony Malta drink at Columbus. I liked it but that's as far as I'd go. I'd say it was a malted molasses pop.
          There was also that pink fruity drink with the rose water from Babu. Pretty good too.

          All in all a fun day.


          5 Replies
          1. re: Davwud


            the pink fruity dring was probably falooda.

            Regarding Samosa Kink :-), I've had some OK ones there but never a great one. It's completely overblown by some people that cheaper is better.
            You can get much better samosas without a trip tp outer Scarberia.

            1. re: foodyDudey

              No, that doesn't seem to be it. It's possible that the drink but a different version of it. The one we had was Pepto Bismal pink and had chunks of fruit in it.

              You can go to N/W Etobicoke and get better too.


              1. re: Davwud

                Did you look at the second photo lower on the page? That looks a lot like what you had, except for the lack of fruit chunks.

                1. re: TorontoJo

                  Closer but the colour is different. No fruit chunks and ours had no tapioca in it that I know of.


              2. re: foodyDudey

                I asked my Tamil co-worker, it's a variation of a faluda called sahlbet (forgive my poor attempt at transliteration), the pink base is a mix of rose water and milk. I was told you can buy a big bottle of it and it keeps forever in the fridge.

                If you like that, you may also want to try the Egyptian sahlab available only in the winter, although you may need to try different versions to find one you like (each cafe I went to had their own add-ons). You can find the base mix in middle eastern grocery stores, make sure it's made from orchid tubers and not cornstarch and add coconut, hibiscus syrup, currants, pistachios, etc.

                As for the samosas at Simba Grill, you can think of them as Swahili as they can be found all along the central eastern coast of Africa where Africans, Arabs and Indians mingled and traded. Where can one get better samosas without a trip to Scarberia? For big orders I usually hit Sultan of Samosas on O'Connor and would love to find somewhere closer downtown, for both styles. Now if only we could get some chai wallas who deliver in Toronto :)

                If Simba Grill uses cornmeal instead of casava for its ugali, I think I'll take a pass. I googled ugali and was surprised to find it is mainly made of corn since I saw alot of casava being grown on peoples' plots but not much corn if any.

                Thanks Jo for the great write-up. I'll try to post some pics.

                Simba Grill
                375 Donlands Ave, Toronto, ON M4J3S2, CA

            2. Awesome report - I felt stuffed just reading it! Would it be a lot of trouble to link the locations of the various spots on your tour? I'm particularly excited to try the samosas at Simba Grill. Thanks!!

              Simba Grill
              375 Donlands Ave, Toronto, ON M4J3S2, CA

              3 Replies
              1. re: peppermint pate

                Here you go!

                Simba Grill
                375 Donlands Ave, Toronto, ON M4J3S2, CA

                Athens Pastries
                509 Danforth Ave, Toronto, ON M4K, CA

                Lebanese Bakery
                1790 Birchmount Rd, Toronto, ON M1P, CA

                Mona's Roti-Caribbean Food
                4810 Sheppard Av E, Toronto, ON M1S4N6, CA

                Columbus Bakery
                2931 Dufferin St, Toronto, ON M6B, CA

                Doce Minho
                2189 Dufferin St, Toronto, ON M6E, CA

                1. re: peppermint pate

                  And the rest (I hope -- links are being ornery this morning):

                  Embassy Restaurant
                  5210 Finch E, Toronto, ON M1S4Z8, CA

                  Babu Catering and Takeout
                  4800 Sheppard Ave E, Toronto, ON , CA

                  Pancho's Bakery
                  345 Davenport Rd, Toronto, ON M5R, CA

                  1. re: TorontoJo

                    Wow, you covered some serious ground. Can't wait to try some of this stuff. Many thanks!