SIMBA GRILL (375 Donlands, at O'Connor, 416-429-6057) Complete meals for $20 per person ($15 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a bottled water. Average main $9. Open Wednesday and Thursday 2 to 9 pm, Friday and Saturday 2 pm to midnight, Sunday 2 to 9 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Minutes from downtown, East York is the burb that gentrification forgot. This bucolic post-war borough of treeless streets lined with identical bungalows seems hermetically sealed in time - 1957 by my calculation.
But the birthplace of comedian John Candy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and pro wrestler "Whipper" Billy Watson is no longer the white-bread nabe it was 50 years ago. Round these parts these days, you're more likely to encounter rotis than Twinkies.
That's where you'll find Simba Grill, an extremely modest spot located in the plaza just south of O'Connor where the old Donlands movie theatre, now a dance studio, used to be. Sultan Jessani opened the east-side East African eatery three years ago and has attracted a steady South Asian clientele from nearby Thorncliffe Park.
Although Toronto has several East African restaurants, Simba Grill is our sole Tanzanian trat. It serves the food of the former British colony of Tanganyika, a hybrid of African and Arabic influences undercut with the kick of Sub-continental curries.
Don't let the decor (or lack thereof) put you off. Despite its less than luxe digs lit by fluorescent tubes, hung with plastic plants and dominated by a large-screen TV blasting Bollywood music videos, Simba Grill has much to capture adventurous appetites.
On their own, deep-fried lengths of mogo cassava, doughy Zanzibar-style dahl bhajia fritters (both $3.50) and deep-fried rounds of plantain-like potato nylon bhajia dipped in chickpea batter ($5 and labelled "favourite of Nairobi" on the menu) border on bland. But dip them into one of four hot chutneys sour tamarind, desiccated coconut, deceptively tame coriander that builds to a sweaty finish, and salty Chinese-style red chili sauce and the taste buds positively explode.
Simba's samosas come two ways, the first, terrific triangular packets stuffed with minced halal beef flecked with tiny bits of chili, the second a disappointing vegetarian version thick with frozen peas 'n' carrots (both $3.50 for four). Don't forget to counter all that firepower with a side of raita ($2) that's considerably thicker than the Gerrard standard.
Labelled "best in Toronto," Simba's barbecued short ribs ($9/$7.50 Fridays) might not deserve the accolade when compared to Phil's Original's, but they're certainly the shortest, each a quarter-inch thick, cut across the bone like Korean bulgogi and lightly coated with garlic powder, crushed black pepper and a suggestion of cumin. Tasty, too.
Terrific sekela chicken ($8) finds tender cubes of char-grilled white breast basted with a sweet barbecue sauce that recalls teriyaki. But gingery Mishkaki beef ($9) aka Swahili shish kebab is dry and overcooked, as tradition dictates, suitable only for those with a craving for shoe leather. Mains come sadly sided with cardboard store-bought naan ($1.50, alas, no tandoor here), plain white rice, a naked salad of roughly chopped iceberg, carrot and cuke, or frozen fries dusted with cayenne. Some option!
Perhaps the best alternative is Sunday's all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet, when its multi-course thali ($9 á la carte) goes for only eight bucks. Start with soupy lentil dahl studded with nigella and caraway seeds and the occasional curry leaf and follow with mild spinach chickpea curry and as much salad, samosas, pickles, rice and roti as you can stomach.
But no matter which day you visit, be sure to try the Tanzanian ice cream ($4.50), a delicious sugar-free take on Italian cassata topped with chocolate syrup and crumbled pistachio. It's difficult to cut, so use the point of a paring knife to break it up before eating or else you'll end up wearing it.