Banh Mi Boys
392 Queen W, at Spadina, 416-363-0588, banhmiboys.com.
Pork Belly Bao ($3.49)
Toronto's no stranger to ecclectic cantinas, off-the-wall beaneries like New York Subway, Eastern Twist and Hungary Thai. So a take-away stuffing Vietnamese sandwiches with Korean barbecue and Mexican chilies feels right at home, especially on a corner like Queen and Spadina.
While their banh mi get most of the traction, the Boys' steamed house-baked bao are the true stars of the show, a multi-culti mashup of slowly roasted pork belly dusted with five-spice powder and dressed with pickled daikon, Luck sauce and as many sliced jalapeño peppers as you dare.
Watch for the addition to the menu of deep-fried squid banh mi when BMB reopens for good on March 9.
Tuesday to Friday 11 am to 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday noon to 8 pm. Closed Monday, some holidays. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement.
Gale's Snack Bar
539 Eastern, at Carlaw.
Hot Turkey Sandwich ($3.75)
Sorry, Fran, but your venerable College Street diner is not Toronto's longest-running resto.
That honour goes to this extremely low-rent spoon on what was once supposed to be the wrong side of the tracks. Nothing has changed since day one some 85 years ago. A row of wobbly red vinyl stools still faces a faded formica counter, lumpy leatherette booths seem built for midgets, and an AM radio tuned slightly off-station blasts CHUM-dingers direct from the past.
Gale's prices seem equally frozen in time, with toasted westerns going for $1.25 and a basic cheeseburger $1.35. Best of the lot and the priciest thing on septuagenarian owner/chef David Chan's carte (if you can call it that) is his Hot Turkey Sandwich ($3.75). Okay, the bread's white, the gravy's canned and the fries are as frozen as the peas 'n' carrots. But the bird - both tender boneless breast and meaty thigh - is freshly roasted on site daily and more than plentiful.
Finish with a $1.50 slice of house-baked cherry pie à la mode and be immediately transported back to a simpler and significantly cheaper time.
Monday to Friday 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday noon to 5 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: five steps at door, tiny washroom on same floor.
International Student Centre, 33 St George, at College, hotyam.ca.
Vegan Lunch ($4)
Most restos have a manifesto: "Squeeze as much cash out of this sucker as possible, then split."
This once-a-week vegan café run by a U of T co-op has a motto, too, only theirs is more along the lines of "Use locally sourced organics, respect the dignity of others and save the planet while we're at it." Hey, they're students!
Tupperware in hand, nearly 200 of them show up every week for a seasonal meal of braised parsnip soup, raw kale salad, curried sweet potato couscous and broiled baby beets in maple syrup. Still think four bucks is a bit pricey? Every third Wednesday of the month, lunch is pay-what-you-can.
So great has been the response to the weekly event that the gang have opened Harvest Noon, a full-time café on the second floor of the Graduate Students' Union at 16 Bancock. A fiver there gets you a bowl of nutty sunchoke soup, greenhouse greens tossed with apples and beets, and a slice of house-baked Red Fife bread intensified with Mill Street organic lager.
Wednesday noon to 2 pm. (Harvest Noon Monday to Friday 10 am to 2 pm, lunch from noon). Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free.
Ken's Snack Service
40 St George, at Russell, first truck north of College on the west side.
#9 Chow Mein ($3.95)
No one's claiming this Chinese takeout truck permanently parked on U of T's main drag is one of the better Cantonese cantinas in town. Far from it. But the orderly crowd that patiently waits for styrofoam containers brimming with basic fried rice and cornstrach-heavy stir-fries has few complaints, especially when everything on the menu goes for four bucks, plastic fork, packet of salty soy sauce and tax included.
We're particularly partial to the last combo on the lineup, a tasty mix of crisply fried chow mein noodles generously topped with alarmingly red barbecued pork, chewy strips of beef in oyster sauce and a slew of al dente carrots, brocolli and cauliflower. Who cares if its deep-fried chicken ball is 99 per cent Wonderbread? It's filling!
Monday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Saturday, Sunday and holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, no washrooms.
601 Gerrard East, at Broadview, 416-406-9906.
Deluxe Sub ($2.50)
Most know them as Saigon subs, but the correct name of the stellar Vietnamese sandwiches Rose Psam sells from her tiny take-away in Chinatown East are banh mi, and brilliant ones at that.
Imagine the flakiest of French-style buns lavishly spread with butter and sweetened mayo, stacked with tasty Southeast Asian cold cuts of unknown provenance - we're guessing pork or possibly chicken (ish) - and garnished with fresh coriander leaves and strips of gently pickled carrot 'n' daikon. The hardcore go for optional stinky fish sauce and incendiary Thai bird chilies. The former Rose Café even serves a deluxe Deluxe sub for three bucks.
What's the difference?
"More meat!" laughs Psam.
Daily 9 am to 8 pm. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: two steps at door, no washrooms.