TROPICAL HOUSE (149 Baldwin, at Spadina, 416-260-5888) Unpretentious Kensington hole-in-the-wall brings Singapore street food to the Market. Food-court-style seating, but the spicy noodle noshes make great take-away. Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes, tip and a coconut juice. Open daily 11:30 am to 8:30 pm. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
toronto's claim to being the most multiculti metropolis on the planet is no better exemplified than by our broad range of restaurants. Why, we practically wrote the book on pan-global cuisine. But when it comes to street food -- the in-yer-face sidewalk dining that energizes other diverse centres like New York City and Hong Kong -- Toronto's strictly pedestrian. Hot dog, anyone?A true culinary crossroads, Singapore is synonymous with street eats. While Toronto has its share of high-end Singapore-inspired spots -- Susur, Red Tea Box, Matahari (see sidebar) -- we don't have the inexpensive noodle noshes known as hawker food for which that city-state's famous. True, Jean's in the east end has a few hawker-style dishes on its mostly Thai and Malay menu, but until Tropical House opened three months ago in a Kensington storefront, we hadn't seen the real thing.
Meant as a quick appetite fix, hawker food will never be confused with fine dining. Tropical House itself fits the bill: food-court-style seating, McDonald's-style lineup area complete with garish photos posted over the takeout counter and schlock E-Z rock on the radio. But amiable owner/cooks Catherine Neo and Vincent Neo make up for the lack of ambience with warm welcomes and cheap 'n' cheerful, spice-rich grub.
Their fare hasn't got the knock-your-socks-off thermal intensity of some Southeast Asian dishes. It most resembles Vietnamese cooking, where sour collides with sweet, textures crunch or slide and every now and then there's a blitz of chili.
Nasi Lemak ($4.99) finds short-grain rice tinted green with pandam extract -- not food colouring, but a vanilla-flavoured essence -- and piled with two skewers of grilled chicken satay and three gyoza dumplings stuffed with minced pork. Over top, a handful of deep-fried ikan bilis anchovies and whole roasted peanuts throws this typical Singaporean main in even more taste directions.
Most of Tropical House's selections -- like much street food -- are variations on a few basic ingredients. Made with wide rice stick (a kind of noodle), Fried Kuay Teow ($4.50) features sliced canned clams, slivers of Chinese pork sausage and a toss of sprouts, all in a tangy tamarind gravy.
Yong Tau Foo ($5.50, and the most expensive thing here) sees rice vermicelli strewn with deep-fried tofu pockets stuffed with whitefish and some stray chicken satay bits. It's greasy, but good greasy.
Delicious Singapore Curry ($4.20) stars two steamed chicken legs swimming in thick coconut gravy studded with salty black beans and ladled over steamed rice. Cloudy chicken vermicelli soup ($3) brims with slurpable linguine-like rice noodles mixed with chicken, sprouts and bok choy. It makes a great hangover cure, or so I'm told.
More of a pickle, Tropical salad ($1) comes thick with English cuke, grated carrot and canned pineapple chunks, all in sesame vinaigrette. Dolloped with house-made sambal olek hot sauce ($1.20), crisp deep-fried spring rolls ($.70), wontons wrapped around bean sprouts and peanuts, are the perfect snack to get you through Saturday Market shopping. food & drink