Hot Box Cafe (191A Baldwin, at Augusta, 416-203-6990) Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and a smoothie. Average main $6. Open Sunday to Thursday 11 am to 9 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Access: steep ramp at door, washrooms in basement, uneven surface on patio. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
There's only one restaurant in Toronto like the Hot Box Café, and that's probably a very good thing. For starters, just try wrapping your head around the instructions at the top of the Kensington Market pot-smoking paradise's grungy, finger-stained menu.
"Please ask your server for a copy of the menu."
Say what? Another advises, "One-hour seating maximum, $2 minimum," while a third adds, "This is a restaurant, not your basement." Clearly, Toto, we're not in Canoe any more.
Located at the back of the Roach-o-Rama head shop, and sandwiched between a Portuguese fishmonger's and Patty King, this extremely laid-back joint is furnished with 50s-style turquoise 'n' orange vinyl-upholstered booths that look like a lot of fun until you sink into them so far that the formica-clad table sits at armpit level. Instead of a napkin dispenser, each table is equipped with a vapourizer that allows customers to indulge in the herb without actually smoking it. Take that, anti-smoking bylaws!
Out back, in the walled-in "potio" (grotty grotto, more like), regulars in tie-dyed Ts light up without restriction, some playing chess, others blissing out in the summer sun under a tall shade tree while a chap with a limp mohawk struggles unsuccessfully with an acoustic guitar. Those who haunt the tony terraces of Bymark or Prego Della Piazza - hell, Squirly's! - would be appalled.
The vaguely vegetarian card won't convince them otherwise either. Takeout Stonerwiches are my first Hot Box experiences, pressed panini like the Brain Melt - deli salami, roast beef and havarti goosed with a dill pickle - or a triple-decker of Swiss, provolone and cheddar titled Ganja Lovers Grilled Cheese (both $6.50).
We're far from impressed at home with the Red Hempress ($5.50 with side salad) - thick slices of My Market Bakery's super multigrain bread spread with hemp pesto and layered with roasted red peppers, English cuke and alfalfa sprouts, its advertised goat cheese or tofu option AWOL.
Salads are just as dicey. The Yellow Submarine-referencing Sea Of Green Garden sees a heap of organic mesclun garnished with soft slices of ripe avocado and sprouts in a lemony cream vinaigrette.
But the Hemp Nut Caesar (both $4.20) is embarrassingly inept, another mess of those pre-washed supermarket greens topped with stale croutons and what tastes like no-name dressing.
And don't get me started on the house's not-so nice Niçoise ($6.50), a woeful main that manages to exclude the hard-boiled egg, new potato, green beans, red onion and black olives - stoned or otherwise - but somehow finds room for guacamole and shredded cheddar.
Since few seem to be here to eat, table service is next to nonexistent. Knowing enough to order inside at the open kitchen instead of waiting outdoors for a server who never comes unless you ask, we place our lunch requirements with the cook.
Shortly after, we're sharing a surprisingly good starter of bruschetta ($4.50), toasted Italian loaf dressed with chèvre and ripe tomato that would be even lovelier if they'd used fresh herbs instead of bitter dried.
And though Donovan would approve of HBC's Mellow Yellow smoothie - soy milk sweetened with organic almonds and banana ($4 glass/$10 pitcher) - we're sure the 60s tousled-haired troubadour known for his Volvo commercials would pass on the apparently mint-free Minty Lemonade ($3).
And then we wait. And wait. At the 45-minute mark, we're starting to worry that we're about to be turfed out for exceeding the maximum seating time.
With 10 minutes to go, our lunch gets plopped unceremoniously in front of us. Plated on colourful Fiesta-ware, the Box's tasty Blazing Tuna Melt features "our own special house blend of tuna" and arrives covered with oodles of gooey cheddar.
French toast with strawberries is another delicious shock, four golden slices of eggy challah dusted with cinnamon and dolloped with freshly whipped cream. And I still can't figure out how they fried the two flat eggs that come with the Super Breakfast Special (all $6) along with buttered toast and fabulously smooth Brie when the kitchen appears to consist of only a toaster oven and a sandwich press.
As our server/chef is now taking a break on the potio, we realize it might be a while - if ever - before the bill comes, so we head back inside to pay. The new guy behind the counter can't decipher the handwriting, adding it up several times while chewing on his bottom lip in concentration but still coming to no definite conclusion. With tax and gratuity, I figure the damage to be about $40.
"So, how's 20 bucks sound?" he yawns.
Three days later, I return to slip the kids an additional $20 and explain what went down. They roll their eyes like it's happened before. I don't want them thinking they'd been ripped off by the Man, man.