5 ALARM DINER (555 Church, at Monteith, 416-972-1708) Complete meals for $17, including all taxes, tip and a $4 domestic beer. Average main $8. Open Monday to Thursday 7:30 am to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 8 am to 3:30 am, Sunday 8 am to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: 10 steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Maybe it's the big rubber boots, the uncommonly long hoses or the shiny red helmets, but some folks find firemen unusually hot. If that's your particular bent, then rush over to 5 Alarm Diner, the nine-month old Boystown bote in a walk-up Victorian that's decorated top to bottom in firefighting fetish objets . A hydrant guards the door and a row of toy fire engines race across the exposed brick fireplace's mantle, while movie posters announce the coming attractions Backdraft and Towering Inferno. Overhead, ceiling fans cool figurative flames.
My assistant, the Troubled Balkan, and I have appropriated the white-piped red vinyl banquette that wraps around the retro resto's large front window, allowing us a front row view of both the street and the Alarm's busy Sunday brunch crowd.
"I bet I'm the only straight guy here."
"No you're not, honey," I reply, reminding him of our torrid weekend in Timiskaming.
He's worked up an appetite this morning and hankers after the Chief's Breakfast, a serviceable 6-ounce steak grilled as requested medium-rare and sided with fine red-jacketed home-fries and thick whole-wheat Texas toast. He asks that his two eggs be scrambled - he's funny that way - and gets them fried like an omelette and then sliced. Only he would notice.
Before I'd visited 5 Alarm, I reckoned "beef dip" was something that went on after hours at the Bovine Sex Club. Imagine my dismay when I discover it's a sandwich on squishy supermarket French stick piled with dreadfully dry strips of fajita-style beef (both $7.99). Apparently, you dunks your bun in a bowl of runny gravy (they call it jus in fancier joints) and slurp the whole thing down. Unless you want a splatter motif on your Lacoste polo, I'd request a bib.
Don't forget to ask for 5's fabulous fries with almost everything. They're even more faboo when dipped into the house's garlicky Ceasar dressing served on the side with its Garden Salad - classic iceberg and crunchy bell pepper topped with mandarin oranges ($4.99).
A few days later, the Test Kitchen crew and I return for further scrutiny of the nostalgic noshery's comfort food card. A great 8-inch slab of lasagna ($7.99) comes light on the noodles but heavy on the ground beef and oozing with yummy cheese. Pass on its limp garlic bread (toast with garlic salt, in truth).
Ham and scalloped potatoes ($6.99) takes me right back to my vanilla roots; it's a slightly salty slice of smoked porker flanked by cookbook-correct cheddary spuds and period-appropriate canned peas.
Our server knows not of what he speaks when he recommends the diner's New York strip dinner ($10.49) instead of its marvellous meat loaf ($7.49). Escorted by some of the best buttery mashed potatoes around as well as a traditional lunch-counter tomato garnish, three dense pieces of minced pork and beef get sauced with syrupy sweet gravy that might as well be canned, it's so authentic.
Just as beefy, the 4-ounce house burger ($4.99 with salad or fries) rides a cornmeal-dusted bun layered with red onion rings, romaine and a cross-section of sweet 'n' sour dill pickle. We also thumbs-up the moist lower-fat turkey burger ($5.99 with same).
There's plenty of ground beef, tomato pulp and red kidney beans in 5 Alarm's Firehouse Chili ($3.99), but it's as hot as Elsie Wayne's fashion sense. Still, it's nothing that several healthy shakes of the bottle of peachy Fireman's Blend hot sauce on each table can't fix.