Crème de la crepes
For three years now, OCAD industrial design student Amanda Bent has spent her summers under the large umbrella of Kali's Crêpes (13 Baldwin, at McCaul, 416-595-0636), the sidewalk Parisian pancake stand she created to pay her way through art school. Her delicious wraps come with fillings either savoury or sweet - garlicky sun-dried tomato pesto with fresh ripped basil leaves, sugary ripe sliced Ontario peaches in Amaretto cream, strawberries with sour cream and brown sugar - all for five bucks a shot.
Bent warns loyal customers that this might be her last season on the street.
"But first I have to decide what I want to do with my life," laughs the 22-year-old gamine.
Though they lack the visual panache of Kali's, the buttery wraps sold through the front window across from MuchMusic at Café Crêpe (246 Queen West, at John, 416-260-1611) - traditional couplings of ham and Emmental or diced chicken and creamy egg squiggled with mayo ($6.40) - couldn't be tastier.
Just north of Bloor, the gluten-free flapjacks at Crepes a Go Go (1 Bedford, at Bloor, 416-922-6765), made with barley-oat flour, come spread with conventional chocolate plus raw, natural sugar, or tarted up with smoked salmon and cream cheese. Bonus: a super summer quencher of Limonana, the house lemonade.
For nearly a decade, Irene Morales of Jumbo Empanadas (245 Augusta, at Baldwin, 416-977-0056) has been baking some of the most spectacular street food in town. Her delicious triangular Chilean turnovers come in three styles: chicken with sweet red pepper, black olives and hard-boiled egg; beef with peppers, olives and egg plus raisins; and vegetarian with spinach, bell pepper, mushroom, onion and zesty basil pesto. Don't forget to garnish them with Morales's marvellous hot sauce - a relish, really - that packs a lethal punch. Just down the street, El Buen Precio (227 Augusta, 416-597-8716) grills up Salvadoran pupusas, hand-formed cornmeal pancakes filled with ground pork, pinto beans and nippy cheese topped with peppery coleslaw. They're even better with a substantial splash of Jumbo's salsa-like hot sauce.
Because the city's hot dog vendors are required to serve only precooked wieners that they get from the same suppliers, the only difference between the hundreds of carts selling dogs around town is the condiments they offer customers, and even those - with the exception of raw onion - by law must be store-bought as well. We tried the veggie dogs ($2.50) sold by the two popular vendors on the northeast corner of Queen and Spadina and found them identical, although they did have the most extra toppings of all sellers, including poultry seasoning. The tofu dogs ($2) come knife-slashed for quicker cooking at Queen and Simcoe, but the offered fixings are far from extravagant.
There's good reason Ernie's at Gould and Victoria outside Ryerson always wins NOW's Readers Poll for best dog: first-rate tofu wieners from Yves Veggie Cuisine, and the biggest buns on the block, perfect for loading up with sauerkraut, cheese and freshly fried Spanish onion.
Though neither Marcello's nor Terroni, unquestionably Toronto's consummate pizza flingers, bothers with them, several other superlative pizzerias sell individual slices. With two dozen varieties available, Amato (534 Queen West, at Ryerson, 416-703-8989, and others) has the largest selection of pies by the slice, notably its spicy model loaded with unseeded sliced jalapeños. By comparison, new kid Pizzaiolo (624 Queen West, at Markham, 416-507-9944, and others) only offers 16 varieties, including the Soprano (sopressata, sun-dried tomato and Gorgonzola), the deep-dish Godfather and sacrilegious low-carb, low-fat slices.
Pizza Gigi (189 Harbord, at Borden, 416-535-4444) kicks it old-school with its more than 20 thick-crusted types of 'za loaded with pepperoni, mushrooms and unashamedly retro pineapple chunks. Gerrard Spaghetti and Pizza (1528 Danforth, at Rhodes, 416-463-7792) keeps it simple with the peerless vegetarian slice, layered with the house's sweet red peppers and ballistic pickled pepper relish.
The Sicilian Sidewalk Café 's (712 College, at Montrose, 416-531-7755) Aurelio Galipo introduced Italian-style gelato to Toronto back in 1959. Forty-five years later, the tradition lives on in the house's buttery spumone, stracciatella and ladyfinger tiramisu ice creams. Up on the Corso Italia, La Paloma Gelateria (1357 St. Clair West, at Lansdowne, 416-656-2340) offers a spectacular array of ices - zabaglione, cassata and zuppa inglese, a fluorescent, frozen trifle of pink and yellow birthday cake studded with candied cherries, chocolate chunks and slivered almonds dribbled with strawberry.
Like something out of Willie Wonka, Dutch Dreams (78 Vaughan, at St. Clair, 416-656-6959) is famous for its unusual chilled creations, like Moose Droppings (Reese's Pieces mixed with fudge, chocolate and banana), and shocking-pink watermelon sherbet complete with chocolate-covered oats as seeds.
Although it's recently moved to a higher-profile location, Greg's Ice Cream (750 Spadina, at Bloor, 416-962-4734) continues to create ices from all-natural ingredients for its Japanese green tea and legendary roasted marshmallow flavours.
And in the Beach, Ed's Real Scoop (2224 Queen East, at Birch, 416-699-6100) relies on intensity rather than butter and cream when creating current faves Belgian-style Calebaut chocolate, Bordeaux cherry and Tahitian vanilla bean.
And there's a new entry. Open only a month, Kensington Market Organic Ice Cream (69 Kensington, at Baldwin, 416-835-7781) offers just that, especially its fruity Quebecois framboise and just-like-Christmas-cake ginger chai ices.
Food and Wine magazine got it wrong when it recently crowned Carousel Bakery (St. Lawrence Market South, 416-363-4247) the king of Canadian bacon sandwiches. A few stalls over, Paddington Pump (St. Lawrence Market South, 416-368-6955) uses a better kaiser and the same amount of peameal bacon - as we provincials so colourfully call it - but slices it thinner so the meat tastes more of the grill. Optional pickled banana pepper, raw Spanish onion and hot mustard, too. Downstairs, Mustacio (St. Lawrence Market South, 416-368-5241) does a fabulous multi-tiered grilled eggplant sandwich on a large triangle of first-rate focaccia. San Francesco (10 Clinton, at Henderson, 416-534-7867, and others) specializes in two-fisted Old World Italian meatball hoagies, while the Fish Store (657 College, at Grace, 416-533-2822) supplies the late-night crowd with grilled tilapia and monkfish on crusty Italian rolls.
Defying categorization, New York Subway (520 Queen West, at Ryerson, 416-703-4496) combines Indian vegetarian curries with sub shop trimmings and calls its grilled sandwiches burritos. Burrito Boys ' (120 Peter, at Richmond, 416-593-9191) wondrous wraps are closer to global fusion cooking than Tex-Mex.
Is there a more multiculti meal than Saigon subs (banh mi), the Vietnamese sandwich on French bread sold locally in a Chinatown on the fringes of a Jewish-Portuguese-Caribbean market? Of the many outlets, Co Yen (334 Spadina, at Glenbaillie, 416-597-1573) produces the truest translation, mildly spiced tofu pâté dressed with coriander sprigs, daikon and carrot strips and spiked with hot sauce, that sells for a buck and a half. Chinatown East's Rose Café (324 Broadview, at Gerrard East, 416-406-9906) is another Saigon essential, especially when its sub's stuffed with sweet lemon-grass-scented Xiu Mai meatballs fired by minced Thai bird chilies.
Beat the heat with young coconut juice - sold curbside at Chinatown grocers like Tai Kong (310 Spadina, at Glenbaillie, 416-581-0129) - whole coconuts with hairy outer husks removed and tops lopped off so their refreshing juice, high in dehydration-preventing electrolytes, can be sucked out with a straw.
Buns and pastries
Out on the boulevard of broken plates, Athens Pastries (509 Danforth, at Logan, 416-463-5144) produces 6-inch squares of flaky phyllo pastry layered with either spinach (spanokopita), ground beef (kreatopita) or nippy feta cheese (tiropita). Since the 70s, budget-friendly Yung Sing Pastry (22 Baldwin, at McCaul, 416-979-2832) has had a loyal lunchtime following for its meal-in-one Chinese buns stuffed with barbecued pork, curried beef and scrambled tofu. The limited lineup's recently expanded and now includes delicate deep-fried shrimp rolls and an amusing minced veggie dumpling called fun kak. Grab a plastic tray and a pair of tongs at Tac Chong (492 Dundas West, at Spadina, 416-977-1828), a cafeteria/bake shop at the crossroads of Chinatown, and head straight for the self-serve spread of stuffed buns - tuna, chicken, hot dog, vegetarian and gorgeous durian. Don't miss the spicy pork meatball in puff pastry, and five-spiced chicken with sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf.
They all use hand-cut skin-on potatoes to make their fries - these ain't no fancy frites - and the three chip trucks in front of City Hall turn out virtually identical deep-fried spuds. All sell them in small, medium and large versions, yet each has slight variations. Bavarian Bratwurst Wagon 's irregularly cut fries are the cheapest ($3/16 ounces) but are only available gravy-free. Steve's Catering throws in the gravy for free but offers the least for the most ($3.50/15 ounces). The winner is the blue chip truck whose "gravy is always free," modestly dubbed Best in Town ($3.50/18 ounces), which for an additional buck turns them into gooey, cheesy poutine.
Liberty Paan Corner (1430 Gerrard East, at Ashdale, 416-463-9868) and Lahore Tikka House (1365 Gerrard East, at Highfield, 416-406-1668) offer it on weekends, but India Paan House (1427 Gerrard East, at Ashdale, 416-461-8914) offers Indo-spiced grilled corn every day. Charred first to flash-caramelize the young kernels, then slathered with chili-flaked butter and rubbed with a halved lime dipped in cayenne, the piquant cobs' stalks come wrapped in paper napkins to facilitate on-the-go noshing. Wash them down with a glass of Paan House's fresh-pressed sugar cane juice.
Fish and chips
Since it opened early last summer, the queue for Chippy's (893 Queen West, at Gore Vale, 416-866-7474) extraordinary fish 'n' chips has been deservedly long. Using fresh fish - tail-on prawns, a 4-ounce slab of salmon and Guinness-battered scallops dusted with panko bread crumbs -and deep-frying hand-cut Yukon Gold double-cooked frites in vegetable shortening, this west-side take-away raises the bar on after-the-pub grub. But don't forget to put your garbage where it belongs; folks in the neighbourhood have been complaining. Across town, dreadlocked chef Marc White of the east side's White Bros Fish Co. (2248 Queen East, at Beech, 416-694-3474) delivers a stellar fry-up of crisply battered halibut or haddock sided with superb house-made tartar sauce and creamy coleslaw.
Wrapped in newspaper, the fish suppers at Harbord Fish & Chips (147 Harbord, at Borden, 416-925-2225) are as UK-trad as they come in the colonies, while 80-year-old Reliable Fish & Chips (954 Queen East, at Verral, 416-465-4111) has been knocking off knockout noshes since George V was on the throne.
Of the dozens of falafel joints on Bloor and Yonge, Pita Break (565 Yonge, at Wellesley, 416-968-1032) is the foremost purveyor of deep-fried fava bean patties. It trumps its rivals by baking its own double-thick flatbreads in flavours that include pumpernickel and jalapeño. Now settled into its new digs across town, Arabesque (1068 College, at Gladstone, 416-504-8146) fills its hummus-spread whole wheat pita with lemony falafel garnished with garlicky sour kabese pickles, while Akram's (191 Baldwin, at Kensington, 416-979-3116) sells a serviceable $2 version that makes an easy nosh while Market shopping. Though Laila (553 Bloor West, at Bathurst, 416-588-0199) gets extra points for its buy-one, get-the-second-for-half-price deal, there might be a bigger market for its advertised vegan pita pockets (aren't all falafels vegan?) if the rotisserie in the front window didn't hold a spit of mystery meat. Ever wonder why Toronto lacks multiculti street eats more adventurous than hot dogs? According to provincial regulation, licensed carts can only reheat precooked sausages and wieners, since such facilities lack proper refrigeration to handle other meats, such as bacteria-prone ground beef, hygienically.
"The legislation's about controlling the conditions under which food is prepared so we can reduce the incidence of food-borne disease," says Gerry Lawrence, manager of Healthy Environments, the public health department responsible for inspecting the authorized local street food merchants.
Chip trucks and Chinese take-aways on wheels are fully equipped and so considered portable kitchens, but they uniformly offer a limited lineup of fast junk food. The popcorn vendors and chestnut hawkers of yore haven't been seen on Yonge since the 80s, more the victim of cultural change than of government interference. And the bike-pedalling, ice-cream-peddling Dickey Dee's of summers past have been a rare downtown sight ever since he started calling himself Richard.
But there's absolutely nothing on the books preventing anyone from becoming a vegetarian street vendor. So where are our pretzel stands, cupcake carts and falafel trucks? If an art student can do it on the sidewalk, surely others can, too.