NEW BILLAN (183 Dundas East, at Jarvis, 416-943-0330) Those who can get past this African eatery's scary exterior and equally intimidating decor - yes, that is a functional bathroom sink in the dining room - will be rewarded with multiculti eats that twist Bangladeshi curries through Somalian-style stews scented with Middle Eastern spice. True Toronto food! Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of watermelon Freshie. Open daily 11 am to 1:30 am. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: short step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Afrofest, Toronto's annual celebration of the African diaspora, happens this weekend (Saturday and Sunday, July 5-6, from noon) in Queen's Park, but don't expect a dashiki-clad Ernie Eves to drop by. His loss. He'd discover free performances by the Drummers of Burundi - attention, Adam and the Ants fans - as well as a market fair hawking African crafts and food. In that spirit, I've been carrying out some culinary sleuthing, checking out the low-rent East African restos in NOW's backyard. This dismal stretch of Dundas is one of the most down-and-out parts of town, home to Fillmore's strip joint and several extremely dodgy watering holes. Crack, anyone?
But since nearby Regent Park is the first Canadian home for many refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, a slew of busy take-aways catering to the community has sprung up along druggie Dundas and south along Parliament. And while these spots' barred windows and bleak decor make the average Spadina dive look like the Arcadian Court, folks inside are friendly once they learn it's food you're looking to score.
The heat on the street hovers in the mid-90s, but inside New Billan the thermostat's set at sweatbox. Though its two dark rooms - one a bare-bones bar, the other slightly fancier, with tables and chairs - are empty, a steady stream of regulars who've phoned ahead claim their Somali takeout orders. A functional bathroom sink sits against one wall.
Talkative owner Hussein Adani (don't get him started on track and field) presents a laminated menu that doesn't hint at its multiculti twists until you get to the fine print. Under generic titles like Chicken Steak (most large-portion dishes on the menu are $7.99), it informs customers that they have a choice of sides: rice, chapati or spaghetti. Since Somalia was under Italian control until the 40s, pasta's appearance here make sense. But unless you're interested in historical re-enactments, pass on Billan's mushy noodles with tinned tomato sauce.
Go for wonderful biryani-style long-grain rice tinted with turmeric and strewn with plump sultanas and soft caramelized onion. The tangy Chicken Steak it sides is equally good. Marinated in lemon juice, vinegar, garlic and cardamom, this thick, boneless meat recalls north Indian dishes minus the heat, almost Middle Eastern in execution. So does cumin-scented Chicken Suqar with its dizzyingly saccharine near-ketchup sauce thick with fresh chopped tomato and coriander leaf garnish. Did we mention the cook's Israeli?
Extremely tender oven-roasted goat ($8.99) may lack the kick of Caribbean jerk but has similar familiar accents of minty thyme and tart tamarind. Leftovers find their way into a South Asian-inspired ambrosial broth dubbed Curried Goat Meat Soup that comes with every meal as a free first course. A traditional complimentary banana can either be eaten for dessert or chopped and added to dinner (perhaps not to the spaghetti).
File these under acquired tastes: paratha pancake Muufo with Beef Muskulo (muscles and beef tendon); overcooked square slices of roast beef that look cut from a brick; and a dreadful Vegi-Dish ($6.99) of sliced bitter melon in sour gravy.
Stick with the chicken or goat, and don't forget to add the house hot sauce, a guacamole-style pickled pepper purée. Extinguish all fires with sugary watermelon juice ($1) that tastes suspiciously of Freshie.
Banadir born again
hard by the new salvation army thrift store, Banadir 2 (272 Parliament, at Dundas, 416-703-8815) is the newest outlet of the Etobicoke Somalian eatery. Decor is minimal - a few soccer photos, a TV by the kitchen tuned to the Speed channel - and English nearly non-existent. Because there's no printed menu, I order the server-suggested "tibbon" with a side of spaghetti ($9).
As I await my take-away, I'm offered a small plastic bowl of steaming soup, a superb translucent golden broth made from the ghosts of root vegetables, its delicious coconut undertone lashed with squirts of fresh lime.
Tibbon turns out to be T-bone, a well-grilled but still tender steak that's been cross-sliced into thin sheets, bones 'n' all. It rides a bed of spaghetti, crisp sauceless spaghettini stir-fried in ghee that's more Cantonese chow mein than Chef Boyardee.
Barbecued chicken ($8) finds a pair of hefty thighs brushed with semi-fiery Ethiopian berbere pepper paste on biryani-esque raisin rice flecked with garden peas, green bell pepper and yellow food colouring. Salad is perfunctory lettuce; tap water comes in plastic tumblers.
a block south, kabul farms (240 Parliament, at Shuter, 416-368-8576) is a combination grocery store, prayer centre and fast food joint. Besides spongy Ethiopian injera and lavash flatbread, the shop also stocks tubs of mellow pickled peppers, creamy labneh yogurt cheese topped with olive oil and black sesame seeds, and a tomato-chili pepper hot sauce that's almost identical to extinct Citron's Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Half the price, too. On the restaurant side, I select a surprisingly spice-free but moist two-pound chicken ($7.99) from the rotisserie, and from the steam table dense Eritrean meat loaf ($7) sided with bitter melon, plain rice and a feta-free pseudo-Greek salad ($7.99). Think goat loaf.
around the corner, the former Hata Hata has morphed into African Village (368 Queen East, at Parliament, 416-603-0905). The former's undistinguished Ethiopian card of dishes like a tired veggie combo ($8.49) of overcooked spinach, stewed pink lentil and anemic potato 'n' carrot curry wrapped in several layers of sour injera remains, but the tiny, breezy storefront has been overhauled with fresh yellow paint and a floor-to-ceiling mirror that verges on classy. I'm not initially impressed with Foul Madamas ($4.99), the Egyptian breakfast staple that's also popular in other Arabic countries. In its styrofoam container it looks like Taco Bell refried beans. But one delicious bite of garlicky mashed fava beans topped with diced Spanish onion, Ontario tomato and hardboiled egg is a revelation, even if it is sided with a kaiser. email@example.com