Not too long ago, suburban Toronto was a vast vanilla wasteland that many of us couldn't wait to escape. NWe dreamed of living downtown, maybe in a warehouse but certainly in a non-split-level neighbourhood teeming with multi-culti vibrancy.
Today we do. And as we refugees from the 'burbs unwittingly transform Toronto's inner core into a white-washed landscape of lofts and condo conversions, the post-war immigrants who originally occupied these now-trendy downtown nabes are moving out, rebuilding their communities further and further afield. In places like Thistletown.
I remember Thistletown as a sleepy bedroom community on the banks of the Humber. Saturday mornings, my father used to take me to a plaza there to buy hobby supplies -- for him Lionel steam engines to add to his train set in the furnace room, for me three-in-one customizing model car kits.
Fabulously chaotic Presently, these same strip malls at Islington and Albion Road are home to some of the most diverse and fascinating restaurants and shops in the city. While there's none of the pedestrian street life that makes Spadina's Chinatown or Gerrard East's Little India so fabulously chaotic, this area has more life than any downtown niche boutique or big-box superstore.
Last fall, we pointed you toward Dhaba (999 Albion, 740-6622), a sensational and extremely unusual Indian eatery out here that's gained a considerable following since. If you're going to be making the trek to the wilds of Rexdale -- Thistletown now exists only in memory -- to visit this super spot, it's worth it to schedule some extra time to explore the rest of this culinary corner.
Sure, there's still a drive-through Tim Horton's, a drive-in Dairy Queen and a Pizza Pizza. Look a little harder, though, and you'll find Indian-Jamaican and Korean-Japanese groceterias, Chinese-Indian restaurants, halal butchers, a Punjabi pizza parlour and even Bar Italia (no relation).
Quite a few of the Indian joints are called something-or-other Sweets, after the traditional subcontinental desserts and snacks they sell.
The best of the lot, Brar Sweets is also the most popular. And while its refrigerated display cases overflow with gulab jamun (rose-syruped milk balls), jalebis (pretzel-shaped treats in sugar syrup) and toffee-like barfi, the all-vegetarian spread at the cafe's rear is where the real delights lie.
High turnover There, under heat lamps, waits a first-rate lineup that includes several medium-spiced curries and a slew of raw sides and fiery condiments. And because of the high turnover, it's all very, very fresh. You can eat in for the daily thali ($4.99), but the pistachio-painted, fluorescent-lit room has all the atmosphere of a donut shop, so most customers opt for takeout.
Prices are determined by the size of the container you select for each dish (from $1 for small up to $5.99 for extra-large). As at most Indian restaurants, nearly everything is cooked with ghee (clarified butter), which not only makes the dishes heavy but also negates some of the benefits of a vegetarian diet by upping both their caloric and cholesterol counts.
On the other hand, by the time you get your portable feast home, the ghee will have risen to the top of the polystyrene containers and is easy to spoon off. (This is one of the things that separates Dhaba from its competition: chef P.K. Singh uses no ghee at all in his cooking.)
With a few exceptions, Brar Sweets' lineup stays the same every day. A deceptively dubbed Mix Veg marries a rich turmeric-laced coconut sauce with a stew of inordinately crunchy red and green peppers, carrots, cauliflower and potatoes, all spiked with the occasional hit of caraway or cumin. Meatless chickpea kofta meatballs' spongy texture plays against its satiny smooth sauce.
Paneer, a mild, homemade tofu-like cheese, gets interpreted three ways. First, in what the Brits call "cheesy peas" (but listed as matar paneer in cookbooks), garden peas mix with the main ingredient in an addictive gingery gravy. It appears again in saag paneer, where creamy spinach replaces the peas, and most spectacularly in shahi paneer, where the cheese gets matched brilliantly with a superb tomato curry studded with slivered almonds.
As expected, the roster's rounded out by dark lentil dal, minty oversized chickpea channa, aloo gobi, yogurty raita topped with yellow split peas, and a salad bar. And although it's kept next to the main courses, halva is a not-to-be-missed dessert. Almost too sweet, this intense milk-cooked shredded-carrot closer also contains almonds, pistachios and sultanas, all layered with edible silver leaf. Wow!
Here's another suggestion before you head out Brar Sweets' way: buy more than you think you need. The food's cheap, it's tastier than any Indian grub you'll find downtown, and -- guaranteed -- once it's polished off, you'll wish you'd bought twice as much.
Remember, it's a long way back to Thistletown!
(2646 Islington, 745-4449; 755 Dundas West, Mississauga, 905-848-3933; 199 Advance, Brampton, 905-799-1625)
An Indian vegetarian fast-food chain in the GTA's northwest, what it misses in ambience -- think donut shop -- gets made up for by first-rate medium-spiced veggie curries sold in multi-sized takeout containers. Warning: as at most Indian spots, almost all dishes come heavy with ghee (clarified butter), but by the time you've gotten your feast home, the ghee -- high in calories and cholesterol -- will have risen to the top and is easy to remove. Complete dinners for $8 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open daily 11 am to 11 pm. Unlicensed. Smoke-free. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: An Indian vegetarian fast-food chain in the GTA's northwest, what it misses in ambience -- think donut shop -- gets made up for by first-rate medium-spiced veggie curries sold in multi-sized takeout containers. Warning: as at most Indian spots, almost all dishes come heavy with ghee (clarified butter), but by the time you've gotten your feast home, the ghee -- high in calories and cholesterol -- will have risen to the top and is easy to remove. Complete dinners for $8 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open daily 11 am to 11 pm. Unlicensed. Smoke-free. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
I wouldn't make a trip just to check it out, but if you're in the area and in need of a dosa fix, Madras Dosa Hut's two locations (1123 Albion and 5165 Dixie, both 677-3672) offer amazingly filling meal deals.Served on a stainless steel thali tray, the specialty of the house is a crisp two-foot-wide tissue-thin crepe ($6.20) made from lentil and rice flour, flash-fried in ghee, lined with egg and partially stuffed with an easy- going potato curry. A soupy bowl of yellow lentil curry thick with tomato and pepper pieces acts as a counterpoint, and three chutneys -- coconut, tomato-ginger and tamarind-raisin -- add oomph.
It's a real family place, if a little frayed around the edges. The distorted Bollywood show tunes blasting over the sound system don't help. But for the price, this is a helluva lotta food. SD
Dry turmeric and coconut curry with crunchy red and green peppers