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Sometimes it feels like we're desperately chasing trends from around the world. But does the city have a unique flavour unto itself?
Two invasive aquatic species arrived on the shorelines of Lake Ontario last summer: the poké bowl, a salad of chopped fish and toppings native to Hawaii, and the sushi burrito, its tubular cousin.
The former first arrived on the North American mainland in the late 70s, later gaining popularity as the focus of the California-based chain Sweetfin. The latter, the offspring of San Francisco’s top two favourite eats, became a snack staple at Bay Area franchise Sushirrito in 2010.
Those faraway locales and business success stories were quoted by the two dozen Toronto restaurateurs who opened spots devoted to these fishy delights in the summer and fall of 2016. Each one, it seemed, had vacationed on the West Coast or the Pacific islands, picked up on local appetites and, once back home, immediately noticed the same hole in the market.
And so that niche was duly plugged many times over, as 11 poké and sushi burrito restaurants (plus two food trucks) opened, each hoping to stake a claim on virgin territory.
But as projected summer launch dates for white-tiled quick-service lunch counters dragged into fall and temperatures cooled, so did Torontonians’ appetite for the trend, and the lines out front dissipated.
The following January, when beloved New York burger chain Shake Shack mounted a one-day pop-up at Momofuku Daisho in the Shangri-La Hotel, lines of hopeful diners snaked down University and around Adelaide. The almost reached the door of the Burger’s Priest, which was enjoying its own line out the door, presumably due to folks at the back of the Shake Shack line who’d decided to cut their losses. Over one thousand burgers were served to 600 diners at the pop-up.
Two hundred more burger-seeking hopefuls were turned away. No word on how many of them went out for poké instead.
Follow a food writer on social media or chat with a chef and you’ve almost certainly heard a grumble about local diners’ elaborate Instagram set-ups, persnickety Yelp reviews and, above all, fickle attention spans.
“It always seems like the hottest thing in Toronto was something that was hot three years ago in Chicago or Miami,” says Karen Geier, an avid traveller and freelance writer for the Guardian. “Toronto is the type of city that’s big enough to be its own hotbed of innovation.
“We’re so multicultural here, and we have so much access to different cultures – and yet pool bars were the thing one year. Toronto isn’t really the most hospitable place for a pool bar.”
Add pool bars to an ever-growing list that includes ramen, izakayas, cheesecake and frozen treats from Japan, greasy-bag burgers from Shake Shack and In-N-Out (who also visited for a pop-up in 2014), fast food from the Philippines and Taiwan, southern BBQ, SoCal tacos, Spanish pintxos, New York cronuts, rainbow bagels, pie milkshakes – and on and on. If it’s been buzzed about in other cities, you can bet we’re chomping at the bit to chow down ourselves, turning out in droves again and again.
Toronto’s not without its gifted, innovative chefs. So what prompts us to line up for hours to get a matcha soft serve cone or animal-style fries when we could swing a raccoon and hit five great meals?
“There was a lot of hub-a-lub over the whole Shake Shack thing,” says Trevor Lui, owner of Cabbagetown Taiwanese snack shop Kanpai.
“It’s not that I don’t love Shake Shack – but I love it in New York! We don’t need to pay someone to come to this city and make burgers for three hours when we already have 20 burgers that are amazing.”
Those familiar with the ebbs and flows of other local scenes – fashion, art, music – will see a familiar inferiority complex reflected in these ever-changing trends. Sure, we know you, the logic seems to go, but do they know you in London or New York?
”We have a hard time loving ourselves, but we want everyone to love us,” Lui says. “As Torontonians, we’ve always struggled with acceptance.”
He adds that independent restaurateurs, already feeling the pressure of high rents and narrow overhead, might feel that a little more deeply than most. “We have to convince people in our own backyard to come eat at our place. It’s a real struggle.”
Embracing trends that already play well in other cities can make for a tempting proposition precisely because of that financial pressure. If you could immediately summon the hordes to your front door with a headline like “Now you can get (insert food item here) in Toronto,” why wouldn’t you?
“Unless you have good backers, you can’t really make a good go of it [in this industry],” Geier says. “It invites these kinds of prospectors: ‘I went to Miami and found that this kind of sandwich place is popular, so let’s do it here.’ It never rings true.”
Geier would rather see those lines forming outside homegrown, neighbourhood joints – but that doesn’t play as well within what she refers to as the “cropping out the sadness” part of social media: “Who’s going to look at a photo of noodles in a styrofoam container you got from a walk-up window in Kensington?”
The opening day crowd at Shake Shack’s South Lamar Blvd. location in Austin, Texas.>
“Absolutely, we’re having a little poké moment right now,” Brandon Watson says with a dry chuckle over the phone from Austin, Texas. “If you look at everything that’s been happening in North America, that’s an old trend. We’re having an Italian food moment, too. Of course, it’s a few years past when New York had it.”
Watson is the food editor at the Austin Chronicle, and I’ve called him at what seems to be a pivotal moment for his city’s food scene.
Austin, he says, has long had a reputation as a very local-first kind of place, a spot where regional chefs and ingredients are celebrated, and BBQ and Tex-Mex are king.
But over the last year and a half, “we’re sort of seeing the same thing as lot of U.S. and Canadian cities. A lot of these brands that aren’t local are now coming in, seeing Austin as a hot property – brands like In-N-Out and Shake Shack.”
Certainly, he adds, Shake Shack’s two new locations (permanent ones, I might add) have begun outpacing plenty of local restaurants.
“The last couple of quarters, we’ve had an enormous number of closings. I don’t know if there’s a bubble bursting, and those safer concepts – those smaller chains – are swooping in and taking a lot of business from the local chefs.”
Austin, he says, particularly looks toward what’s happening in L.A. “The lifestyle in Austin seems increasingly Los Angeles-y. And it’s not just food – it’s decor, it’s shops. I might get some flack for saying it, but in many ways we’re behind the curve.”
It’s not often I end up chatting with someone so far removed from our food scene, so I can’t resist asking him if he’s heard anything about Toronto.
“Austin is a city that is so, so wrapped up in itself,” he replies. “Anyone in food media, we read all sorts of things, wondering ‘Where’s the next hot city?’ But I don’t think the average Austinite hears about those things. I see our food scene receding, but the average Austinite is like, ‘We’re the food capital of the world!’ But there are murmurings about Toronto, Nashville, Charleston as cities coming up.
“As an editor of a food section, I feel a little jealous, to be honest,” he adds. “I was there when Austin was first regarded as this great emerging food city. I’m jealous of people who are able to tell the stories of upcoming food cities that are a little more electrifying than Austin is now.”
After that conversation, I’m almost grateful for Torontonians’ seeming flightiness. We’re always looking for the next big thing, but at least we’re out there looking.
Big, showy, Instagram-friendly desserts are a trend that resonates more with Torontonians than with other cities, food writer David Sax says.>
“What happens here is not different from what happens in other places – the same forces that drive food trends here are found in cities and countries around the world,” says David Sax, former food writer for the Grid and author of The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy For Cupcakes But Fed Up With Fondue.
While researching the book, which charts the genesis and migration of food trends, he noticed a few patterns that flourished within Toronto’s specific climate.
A prime example, he says, is “the sort of Sweet Jesus comic-book ice cream and dessert trend” of last year. “We tend to be very big and even early in many ways on colourful, Instagrammable dessert trends,” he says. “Part of that has to do with demographic: we’re a city with a large Chinese-Cantonese population, and that resonates with that culture – the Taiwanese toast, the bubble tea places. Those kinds of trends might start here, or grow bigger here, as opposed to other cities where the demographics and populations are different.”
By contrast, there’s our relatively late adoption of central-Texas BBQ – something Sax attributes to the small number of folks moving from the southern U.S. to the GTA.
“People are always asking me, especially people who are in the business, ‘How do we create a food trend?’ You can’t. But you can create things that might be the soil for one to grow in,” he tells me.
“I’m sure you get a press release every day: ‘This restaurant has a Jamaican patty burger, and it’s going to be the next food trend’. People might buy the burger, but they don’t buy the story around it. It doesn’t work, right? It has to respond to a cultural need that people have.”
The question remains: With all this talent, why haven’t we started a verifiable global food trend of our own? Where are all the Toronto-style fusion restaurants serving Double Downs on Jamaican patties, à la Craig Wong? From where Sax sits, it’s only a matter of time.
“The more cultures collide, the more people are open to new ideas and will try new things in all corners of the city. At the Dundas and Ossington restaurants or out in Scarborough, there’s more of a chance of that happening.”
In the meantime, the city continues to stockpile a broad cross-section of international food trends, with many of them becoming slowly absorbed into its fabric.
I ask Sax what divides flash-in-the-pan food items from long-lasting successes.
“There’s a big difference between trends and fads,” he replies. “Fads don’t quite retrain the local appetite in the same way that a trend does. The cronut, the excitement of the summer of 2013, was a perfect example. Everyone was talking about it for a couple of months and then all of a sudden, it was gone.”
A true-blue food trend, meanwhile, is a “longer-term change in the way that we eat and the flavours we have, the things that come into our appetite and sort of settle into the background. The great hipster taqueria trend popped up a couple summers ago in the heyday of Grand Electric and La Carnita. It blew up, and then a couple of years later you could find fish tacos at the SkyDome. But what that did is open up a greater interest in Mexican cuisine.”
What decides that fateful coin flip is good, old-fashioned flavour.
“You’ll go somewhere once to try something that’s trendy. But you’ll only go back if it tastes good,” he says. “How many people have gone to Sweet Jesus, taken a picture with an ice cream cone and never gone back, saying ‘I’ve checked it off my list’? The good stuff sticks.”
Grand Electric’s tacos have gone from hot-ticket item to local staple.>
Diners revisiting Grand Electric five years after opening will be pleased to know there are no longer three-hour waits for a table. It’s more like one now.
It’s still the same boisterous, bourbon-drenched Parkdale taqueria – but the chalkboard menu at the back of the shop has been replaced by paper ones, and a shelf full of verdant plants stands there instead. The tacos, once $3.50, have been hiked to between $3.75 and $4.50. And though the owners are as content as ever to sell you some micheladas and tostones, they’ll also host you at their neighbouring BBQ joint, Electric Mud, and their satellite location (complete with gift shop) in Muskoka, accept small or large catering orders or send a taco truck to your event. And is it my imagination, or have they finally turned the music down?
In short, GE’s grown into itself – and its brand of trendy Mexican has become just as much a part of the fabric of Toronto’s culinary scene as red-sauce Italian and late-night Chinese. Similar sustaining success has followed at Grand Electric’s taco-craze compatriots Seven Lives and La Carnita.
Back in 2011, GE co-owners Ian McGrenaghan and Colin Tooke were unaware of their position on the cusp of a massive fish-taco wave, but it didn’t surprise him that they weren’t the only people who happened on the idea: “Toronto’s not a very big city, as much as people like to think it is.”
Their origin story began after Tooke completed a stint in the kitchen at Big Star, a buzzy Chicago restaurant based on a similar formula – a low-cost taco shack big on bourbon, loud tunes and a strong party vibe. Some familiar with the original were critical of replicating it in Toronto.
“I think we were both inspired by a bunch of stuff, and Big Star was part of it,” McGrenaghan says. “But I could go on forever about the possible inspirations. I think we just wanted to open a fun place that serves tacos.” The fact that Big Star was the only spot of its kind that sprung to mind, he says, suggested a hole in the local market.
In an effort to ward off post-trend backlash, McGrenaghan and Tooke took their business as seriously as possible: “The one constant with any successful restaurant is making sure that people like the food and the servers are nice. At some restaurants those elements are lacking simply because the focus is elsewhere.”
But McGrenaghan also doesn’t begrudge folks for chasing trends, whether as diners or restaurateurs – and I sense from his tone that this is the hard-won perspective from someone who’s been on the inside and outside of a few trend cycles.
“Running a business is hard enough,” he says. “You can look at people following trends and immediately pass judgment. But my view now is, you know what? If you have the balls to open a restaurant, it’s a very hard journey.”
On the topic of Shake Shack, he adds, “If people are lining up politely for a burger and excited to eat it, there’s nothing wrong with that. I would say what’s worse than lining up that long for a hamburger is criticizing people for lining up that long.”
Trendy spots tend to get the shares, but hip fusion can spur diners to explore the real thing.>
It might be easy to paint Toronto’s cherry-picking and trend-chasing as the absence of a concrete culinary identity, but what if we started looking at that as our greatest strength?
“Toronto’s advantage is that the influences come from many directions – not just New York all the time, right?” says Monte Wan of Khao San Road when I drop in to the new location on Charlotte.
“It may not originate here, but we take from Hong Kong, we take from Taiwan, we take from Japan. I think that makes it a little bit more unique. We get it from more directions – Hot Star Chicken, stuff like that. And our chefs travel, too, so they get out there, see these things and want to bring them back.”
Lui agrees, calling our Asian food scene unparalleled.
“Our Koreatown is an untapped treasure. Most Torontonians don’t know K-Town exists or have never gotten out of the car on Bloor to eat Korean food. The Vietnamese food is unreal in this city – unrivalled, unless maybe by Washington, DC.”
From his own anecdotal evidence, he’s confident we’ve learned over time to appreciate the nuts and bolts of global cuisine, even if that’s not always where the Instagram posts with the most likes come from.
“You can go for dim sum at Rol San – 70 per cent of the room is non-Asian, and they’re ordering chicken feet and har gow and siu mai. My dad and grandfather had a Chinese restaurant in Rexdale, and it was chicken balls and beef and broccoli back then. Now it’s so different.”
This multiplicity even garners a little bit of envy from Watson. “[Austin is] an overwhelmingly white city. One of the main areas where our food scene sort of suffers is that there’s not a lot of global cuisine, anything that’s Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, African – you name it. We’re really lacking on that front.”
While it might seem irksome that Toronto diners give Rebozos or Rol San much less buzz than they do La Carnita or R&D, Sax feels that trendier spots push deeper awareness of the real thing.
What naturally follows from, for example, a Mexican food boom is that diners are “going to see a continued evolution not only in Mexican restaurants, but in the flavours that were brought into the appetite. We have fish tacos – now what? Same thing with Chinese food – it’s always been here, but now we’re exploring new flavours and formats. That evolution keeps happening.”
Sax sees a unique local strength in that petri dish of ideas.
“Down on Dundas, Queen and Ossington, those interesting parts of the city, the wealthier parts, flavours that were once kind of European are now becoming much more global.
“You have places like Patois, 416 Snack Bar, Rhum Corner – I could go on and on. One place has Singaporean food, another Jamaican-Chinese, and they’re riffing on it with Western food. They’re not trying to staple together food trends – it really reflects the idea of the city, the way the city eats. People think, ‘Every day, I want to try something different.’ That’s the cuisine of the city.”
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