Agave y Aguacate
214 Augusta, at Baldwin, 647-208-3091, agaveyaguacate.blogspot.com.
Stuffed Pickled Poblano Pepper ($9)
Despite the limited kitchen - if you can call three induction burners and a miniature deep fryer that - chef Francisco Alejandri still manages to whip up some of the most stellar Mexican food Toronto has ever tasted.
Take his completely uncooked interpretation of the clichéd chili relleno, here gently pickled poblanos stuffed with creamy made-to-order Nuevo Leon-style guacamole spiked with habanero chili, sharp white onion and lime. He finishes them with fresh marjoram leaves, shredded queso and raw ripe tomato sauce, the sly heat beginning as tiny pin pricks on the tongue before building slowly to a fiery crescendo.
"Mexican cuisine is all about balance," says Alejandri from beneath his trademark fedora. "Simple flavours in harmony. Nothing should overpower the other."
Send the taste buds in the opposite direction with a cup of his Callebault bitter hot chocolate ($4) spiked with a shopping list of ingredients that includes crushed hazelnuts, star of anise and cayenne pepper.
"And sea salt, of course" reminds the cook who's worked the line at some of Toronto's more respectable cantinas, among them Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, Torito and Scaramouche.
Been put off by the inevitable weekend queues at this tiny Kensington food stall? Show up almost any other time and go to the front of the line!
Tuesday to Sunday noon to 7 pm. Closed Mondays, holidays and Tuesdays after long weekends. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: three steps at door, no washrooms.
138 Dundas W, at Elizabeth, 416-205-1155, 372 Bloor W, at Walmer, 416-921-6787; 522 Yonge, at Maitland, 647-340-2112, kenzoramen.ca.
Tonkotsu Ramen ($9.95)
Forget the toxic dollar-store stuff you ate back in the student dorm. These be handmade noodles fit for royalty if Daniel and Jane Park's insanely busy Japanese noodle house's top-of-the-line King of Kings ramen ($11.95) is any indication. Better yet, go for their Tonkatsu ramen, a Hakata-style pork-bone soup thick with chewy pasta in milky broth and dressed with lean slices of barbecued pork tenderloin, sliced scallion, baby bok choy, rubbery kamaboko fishcake and half a runny hardboiled egg.
The proper technique involves piling a little bit of everything on your spoon with the chopsticks provided before noisily slurping it down, though most folks prefer to fall in face first.
Can't stand a lunchtime lineup? Show up just before at the newest Kenzo on Yonge just south of Wellesley and have the joint to yourselves. For about 10 minutes.
Daily 11 am to 10 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor.
373 Queen W, at Peter, 416-593-0917, peterpanbistro.co.
Lunch Pasta Special ($8.95)
When this art deco diner debuted 36 years ago, its low-key launch marked a seismic shift in the Toronto dining scene from stuffy hotel dining rooms for swells to funky indie cafés aimed at a less affluent and much younger crowd. Who knew history was being made?
While it might have fallen off the foodie map of late, the Pan's noonday noodle nosh is still reason enough to return. Cheap pasta primavera this ain't. Instead, chef Ben Grant swirls al dente spaghetti in nutty pesto cream and truffle oil before tossing it with sautéed strips of sweet yellow bell pepper, wilted spinach leaves, portobello mushrooms and caramelized red onion finished with a generous grating of My Market parmigiano. The combo's completed by a slab of house-baked oven-warm focaccia and a saucer of buttery olive oil splattered with balsamic vinegar. You can also get it at dinner with a very good salad for $13.95.
At prices like these, they must be giving the stuff away.
"We started doing the special about 10 years ago," says the Pan's Mary Jackman, whose first murder mystery - set in an art deco diner, of all places - is about to be published in May. "It's a bit of a loss leader, but it's a big draw and brings people into the restaurant."
Monday to Saturday noon to 4 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement.
1426 Bloor W, at Sterling, 647-342-1567, zocalobistro.com.
Broken Bread Sandwich ($10)
Though this Junction Triangle café's chef, Joel MacMillan, considers them "plates of fun stuff that kind of goes together," we like to think of them as cleverly deconstructed sandwich platters, meal-in-one combos where no two bites are ever the same.
There's always bread, of course - thick, rustic slices of St John Bakery's Celtic sourdough and olive loaf,and great hillocks of organic arugula in wild honey poppyseed vinaigrette. Variables include naturally raised Gasparro beef 'n' double-smoked bacon meat loaf laced with bone marrow jus, paired with mashed celery root and red-onion relish or bourbon-roasted acorn squash coupled with lemony parsnip hummus and spicy almonds. There's even a breakfast version with poached free-range eggs, caramelized apples and aged retro cheese-balls rolled in toasted granola. Don't do gluten? Have a rice cake!
Surely, MacMillan must get sick of his signature dish.
"It's more of a challenge, really," says the chef whose prep kitchen is little more than a closet. "We change the menu every three months, so I never have time to get bored."
Wednesday to Monday from 10 am, dinner 5 to 10 pm. Bar till close. Closed Tuesday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement.
416 Snack Bar
181 Bathurst, at Queen W, 416-364-9320, 416snackbar.wordpress.com.
The Smorgasbord ($7.96)
If you're planning on having a bite to eat at Adrian Ravinsky and David Stewart's watering hole, remember to BYOF - bring your own fork - as the west-side resto has been proudly "cutlery-free" since it opened last spring.
"We recommend using your hands, or a Lady And The Tramp-like manoeuvre," says Stewart.
Luckily, the house provides a tiny butter knife when you order chef Jon Vettraino's Smorgasbord charcuterie platter. You'll need it to spread ambrosial chicken liver mousse and raisin chutney on Ace Bakery toasts sided with house-made duck prosciutto and transparent pancetta, pickled heirloom beets and buttery Raclette cheese. Go totally ott with a fatty torchon of foie gras smeared with blood orange jam for an additional $4.43. But why no forks?
"It keeps us true to the snack concept," Stewart laughs. "Otherwise, we might start serving pasta!"
Nightly 5 pm to 2 am. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor.