PRAGUE DELI (638 Queen West, at Palmerston, 416-504-5787). Complete meals for $12 per person, including all taxes, tip and a juice. Average main $8. Open Monday to Saturday 7:30 am to 7 pm. Closed Sunday and holidays. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Long before trendy Queen West became some of the priciest property in Toronto, the now hip strip was the poor part of town, a barren boulevard of dusty used bookstores and Mitteleuropean eateries. These days, only the Stem and Prague Deli survive. Founded in 1968 by the Kral family, the deli has catered to a primarily immigrant community of Czechs, Ukrainians and Finns ever since. Over the years, a new wave of expatriates - escapees from small towns and suburbs - have discovered this charmingly rustic resto and its carbo-loaded card of quintessential comfort food. Now that the temperature has nosedived to sub-zero levels, what better time to stock up on solid country fare that virtually wards off winter?
From the narrow storefront decked out in red-and-white gingham and lacquered rec room panelling, we amble past a display case laden with Old World pastries and house-smoked cold cuts to end up at a crimson-coloured lunch counter. From early in the morning, regulars chow down on till-2-pm inclusive breakfasts (ham, bacon or sausage with two eggs, potatoes, toast and juice, $5.90) or better-than-Mom's blueberry-topped pancakes with syrup ($4).
Prague also features a rotating lineup of lunch and dinner specials. Of them all, my favourite is the deli's superb roasted duck ($8.65), a tender leg, thigh and partial breast of remarkably juicy mahogany-hued flesh freckled with caraway seed. Sided with a considerable portion of doughy dumplings doused in pan juices, it also comes with sweet shredded cabbage. Think sauerkraut in reverse.
Another special, Hungarian Letcho ($6.95) features lengths of mildly smoked sausage swimming in a soupy sauce of shredded bell pepper and tomato swirled with egg. A very meaty lasagna ($7.95) sees several layers of minimally sauced wide egg noodles blanketed with lean ground beef. Both are served with what appear to be buttered hot dog buns. Taking a general stab at health consciousness, Prague's recently launched salad bar ($13/kg) pales in comparison to the over-the-top veggie spread at Le Commensal but features a quite tasty wheat-berry and raisin combo and a deli-delish eggy potato salad.
Those who choose not to dine on fluorescent-lit Formica can easily assemble a rib-sticking repast from Prague's deli and freezer cases. Though labelled "Fine Meat Loaf" ($9.90/kg), the adjective in question refers to the ground meat's dense texture and not to the quality of this otherwise first-rate near-bologna.
Better still, Prague's schnitzel - available in two formats, chicken and veal ($2.99/$3.25) - makes a great instant supper, especially when paired with a 16-ounce tub of smoky puréed spinach ($3.50) and a loaf-like length of frozen dumplings ($2.50). The instructions say to heat the dumplings in a microwave, but I like to lightly brown them in a toaster oven, then slather them with strong Bryndza creamed sheep's cheese ($4.99/8 oz). Swoonsome stuff.
For anyone who wonders about such matters, the difference between Serbian goulash ($4.25/16 oz) and Prague's version ($4.90/28 oz) is that the former is a thick smoky-sweet stew loaded with succulent cubed pork and great swaths of sweet pepper, while the latter is a lighter soup strewn with diced peppers and spuds.
And I've become unapologetically addicted to Prague's marvellous honey cake ($2), 1-inch-thick slices of Christmas-spiced chocolate torte full of crushed walnuts and macerated raisins, each wrapped in a thin milk chocolate shell. Two bucks has never satisfied a jones so effectively.