SOUL FOOD (582 Lansdowne, at Paxton, no phone). St. Lucia-style takes on Caribbean country cooking done with a subtlety not generally found in the genre. Relaxed family vibe, low-volume tunes and incredibly inexpensive island grub make this laid-back spot jump. Complete meals for $13 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer for $2.50! Open Monday to Saturday noon to 9 pm. Closed Sunday. Licensed. Cash only. Access: one step at door, another to washroom. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
caribbean cooking doesn't just jerk. sure, most of it's hotter than hell, but there's subtlety and shading as well.Open only five months, Soul Food is an easily missed neighbourhood joint. Up until now, its customers have been mostly locals who chow down on fried chicken with french fries ($2.99) -- don't forget the ketchup -- while knocking back Exports ($2.50). That's their tough luck. Instead, they could be scarfing some of the tastiest island grub in town.
Soul Food's certainly not chi-chi. The room's painted in warm saffron tones, sliding glass doors open to an unused concrete patio and a ceiling fan whirs overhead. Tables are black-padded vinyl flanked by café chairs. Leftover Christmas decorations and toys are scattered about. Instead of the requisite Marley soundtrack, the stereo's tuned to laid-back hiphop jams.
The food's just as easygoing. Sided with rice 'n' peas rich with coconut cream and butter, as well as caramelized plantain and creamy cabbage slaw, mains feature restrained spicing. No industrial-strength heat here. Instead, the jerk chicken ($8 large/$5.99 small) strikes a balance not found elsewhere -- moist dry-rubbed chicken contrasts with nutty rice and sweet veggies. Curried goat ($9/$6.99) is equally refined. Think of the beef ribs ($10/$7.99) as very, very short, short ribs, slow-cooked and tender. Pair them with a $3 Heinekin and everyone wins.
What does owner and chef Son -- otherwise known as Dannie, the St. Lucian under the Kangol -- think of the competition?
"They just don't do it right."
Up on the Corso Italia, Port Henderson Jerk Centre (10281/2 St. Clair West, at Glenholme, 416-656-5704) has been in action for a year. A long, narrow storefront painted blinding white and decked out with a few flags, hanging plastic plants and travel posters, this Jamaican take-away does things differently.
Affable Mavis Roberts's rice 'n' peas may be regulation, but her jerk chicken ($7) comes with a sweet barbecue sauce that cuts the thyme- and allspice-intense bird. The curried goat ($8) swims in buttery curried gravy, and though there are lots of bones, there's little fat or gristle. The oxtail -- a dozen bite-sized pieces in a mild tomato sauce -- is just as delish, while steamed porgy (all $8) sees the whole fish in a lemony broth freckled with fresh thyme and onion.
Bob Marley poster? Reggae on the blaster? Then this must be Winark (759 Dovercourt, at Bloor, 416-531-9401), a two-year-old Jamaican eatery named for owner Winston Clark. Chef Lion -- Gregory Grey to his mum -- is clearly not afraid of veggies. His rice 'n' peas includes authentic pigeon peas, while salt fish and ackee -- a fruit whose pulp looks and tastes like scrambled eggs -- gets displayed on a beautiful platter, all glistening hot banana pepper strips, sweet onion and crunchy carrot in light sweet-hot vinegar dressing. The deep-fried fish, however, requires considerable jaw work. Dumplings ($1 each), bland potato-flour fritters, practically explode when dipped in Lion's nuclear hot sauce.
Across the street, Top Taste (758 Dovercourt, at Bloor, 416-531-1474) is another jumpin' JA spot popular with cabbies. A minimally appointed space except for an autographed Mr. Cool poster (me neither), the high-ceilinged room has shelves stocked with hard-dough bread, spice cakes, Ovaltine, water crackers and Michidean patties. No wonder. Until five years ago, when Art and Henrietta Ford took the reins, this was the patty king's headquarters.
Their jerk chicken's ($8.95) the real thing, a chopped half-chicken -- breast meat! -- doused in potent mahogany gravy. On the other hand, plain rice and kidney beans comes topped with mushy frozen veg. But there's plenty for two. Finish with boozy fruitcake ($2.50) spread with vanilla icing ($2.50), a wedge of sweetness that blasts the taste buds to the opposite extreme from heat.
Around the corner, Chandra's Roti (969C Bloor West, at Dovercourt, 416-588-1132) seems like a dreary takeout spot. As Energy92 plays the cheesy Euro-trance version of Bryan Adams's Heaven, the Virgin Mary looks down from behind the counter. But the rotis are good, especially the veggie combos of spinach, squash (Caribbean pumpkin), cabbage and potato (all $7). A bit dull on their own, they really come to life with a shake of Grace's watery tabasco. Aloo pie ($1) can go it alone, a deep-fried turnover stuffed with spicy cumin-scented potato.
Planet Crystal (225 Church, at Dundas, 416-601-9666) takes its handle from the owners' other restaurant, Crystal Seafood, on Vaughan. A big favourite of the nearby NOW office, the dark burgundy-hued room sports a polished bar complete with brass rail, a pool table, a TV permanently tuned to Pulse 24 and a glass garage door that opens to the street with a view of Pizza Pizza. Urban R&B swings on the sound system.
Crystal's jerk chicken neither wimps out nor overpowers, a succulent leg and thigh brushed with mid-range spice. Stew peas (both $9/$7) turns out to be cubes of fall-from-the-bone stewing beef cooked with red bell pepper, kidney beans and gnocchi-like dumplings. Both get sided with very good peppery rice 'n' red beans and vinegary slaw. Wash them down with true island brews like Red Stripe or Dragon Stout ($4.25). We do.
While riding around the west end, I discover a unique one-stop Caribbean grocer: Vaughan Beauty Supplies/West Indian Food Discount/Three Star Bakery (218 Vaughan, at Kenwood, 416-651-9074). I love poking around these little shops, and I'm always on the lookout for something unusual. There, next to bags of Mr. Goudas rice and jars of pomade, I zero in on bottles of incredibly incendiary pickled Scotch Bonnet peppers, called Revenge ($2.99/375 ml). Makes a sweet gift for an enemy -- served email@example.com