Beyond the avenue's anodyne tavernas, halal pizza parlours and the cross-dresser boutique, the Danforth drifts east toward a low-rent stretch of sports bars and thrift shops. Wishful-thinking locals call it the Beach North. Very north.
There, I come across an innocuous storefront eatery, its window full of rubber plants and shade half-drawn. The sign says Jean's Fine Foods Catering. This must be the Thai restaurant that NOW photographer Steve Payne tipped me to months ago -- I'd filed this humble hole-in-the-wall in my must-get-there-someday folder.
Hawker food sold on Singapore's streets reflects the multiculti mix of the country's natives -- a fascinating collision of Thai, Chinese, Malay, Indian and even Portuguese influences. Wouldn't it be great to discover something so cosmopolitan in Toronto?
Malaysian eateries And that is the reason for my trek to the brink of Scarborough. Jean's is the spawn of two Malaysian eateries that are now closed. One, Rasa Sayang -- a tiny 30-seat joint in Kensington Market -- was one of Toronto's pioneering Thai spots. Following its success, married owner-cooks Harry Seow and Jean Seow opened Sawasdee, a 400-seater on Eglinton West near Yonge. Kudos continued.
That half of both restaurants' menus consisted of Malaysian dishes went unnoticed by those caught up in the period's frenzy of Thai-mania.
All this acclaim brought more problems than the Seows cared for -- increased taxes, higher rents and staff to keep in check. The couple closed Sawasdee in 1994 and retired from the business. But a year ago, after becoming what hubby Harry describes as "bored sitting at home watching TV," the team started up Jean's, a low-key neighbourhood eat-in/takeout cafe that also occasionally caters weddings on the side.
No fanfare, no hype, just word of mouth. And the word is good. Very good.
Although Jean's can hardly be called a dive, the space is far from fancy. But that's part of its charm. There are tables for 20 or so at the front, where families with kids in strollers gather for cheap-night-out noshes, and a full, shiny stainless steel kitchen at the back that would shame some upscale eateries. And if it feels like home, that's because it is -- the Seows live upstairs.
From the Thai side of the menu, I start with vegetarian spring rolls ($2 for two), terrific deep-fried rice wrappers stuffed with crisp carrots, cabbage, onion, glass noodles and split yellow peas. To dunk, there's a lovely honeyed-garlic dip. Then six cubes of deep-fried tofu come with a piquant peanut sauce ($3) that's galangal-goosed to create a seductive aromatic undertow.
Wonderful tangle Of several soups, Po Tak ($4.50) finds a fishy lemongrass-scented broth swimming with Thai basil leaves, submerged mussels, diamond-cut squid, two tail-on grilled shrimp and garnished with fresh coriander.
And what's this -- pale pad thai ($7)? Ketchup, used elsewhere, is not missed in Jean's wonderful tangle of wide rice noodles, chicken, bean sprouts and two different sizes of shrimp.
Electric-blue stir-fried Thai eggplant comes nicely contrasted with crunchy green beans and red pepper slivers, while deep-fried bean curd gets offset by chewy black Chinese mushrooms and snappy celery (both $6.50 and, like many other vegetarian specialties available, not listed on the menu).
The Malay street food impresses as well. Mee Goreng sees saucy and slightly curried thick udon noodles mixed with delicious shredded shrimp and chicken. Not the fluorescent-yellow stuff found in Chinese restaurants, subtle Singapore fried noodles features grilled shrimp, green onions, julienned carrot, red pepper, chicken and shards of scrambled egg (both $7).
But if you like your food hot, you're going to have to do some major arm-twisting. The first time I visit I make sure to say I like things spicy. I get timid dishes. Second time I specify very spicy. I get tame. Third time lucky, I order everything the way the cook would make it herself -- it's close, but I still need the extra shot of their superb homemade hot sauce to fire my endorphins.
Finally, remember to pick up a jar of Sambal Ikan Bilis ($4.50) -- a lifetime supply of small salted and dried anchovy pickles -- as well as a bottle of Harry's in-house Malaysian curry paste ($3.75/225 grams) and powder ($3/112.5 grams) before racing home.
Waiting for my take-away in an overstuffed armchair, I've got an unobstructed view of Jean in action. Well, it's more of a blur -- the woman is a dynamo, preparing several orders at once in only a few minutes.
In Internet lingo: she rilly woks!!!!1! As my spread gets bundled -- nine courses for $45 -- I ask Harry if he's heard of Susur Lee.
Varying authenticity "Oh, I know Susur well," says Seow. "Years ago, he and another chef wanted to buy my Kensington Market restaurant. I can't remember his partner's name, but he was a tall German fellow."
Michael Statlaander?!? My head spinning as I ponder that unconsummated co-production, I manage a final question. With over a hundred Thai spots of varying authenticity in town, how can we spot the fakers?
"That's easy," Harry laughs. "Ketchup in the pad thai!"
JEAN'S FINE FOODS CATERING
2326 Danforth, 422-0617 2326 Danforth, 422-0617 2326 Danforth, 422-0617
The couple responsible for two of Toronto's pioneering Thai-Malay restaurants -- Rasa Sayang and Sawasdee -- return with this low-key take-away featuring the street foods of Singapore. Fear not, pyrophobes. Unless they're fired with hot sauce, most dishes come moderately spiced. Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Closed Monday and holidays. Unlicensed. Smoke-free. Access: bump at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: The couple responsible for two of Toronto's pioneering Thai-Malay restaurants -- Rasa Sayang and Sawasdee -- return with this low-key take-away featuring the street foods of Singapore. Fear not, pyrophobes. Unless they're fired with hot sauce, most dishes come moderately spiced. Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Closed Monday and holidays. Unlicensed. Smoke-free. Access: bump at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Mee Goreng, saucy and slightly curried udon noodles mixed with
shredded shrimp and chicken