Back Of House
1. BACK OF HOUSE
It's at Leslieville's restaurant intersection of Queen and Carlaw, but Back of House has been overlooked since it opened four months ago. That may be because it's a 20-seat restaurant in a garage behind a Chinese restaurant. Owner Charles Crothall keeps it simple with an affordable all-day breakfast (pork belly and eggs with kale!) and sandwich menu (crunchy panko- and quinoa-breaded chicken!), but uses haute cuisine techniques. A seemingly simple cheeseburger ($10) is made with ground sirloin and chuck stuffed with oxtail. It's cooked sous-vide, seared to hold in the juices, then sandwiched in a Brick Street bakery bun with a smear of caramelized onion aioli. Crothall does double duty as the server; hence the name of the restaurant and his ability to keep costs down.
181A Carlaw, 647-703-4840, facebook.com/BOHToronto
2. THE EMPANADA COMPANY
Just a short walk from the 501 streetcar's last westbound stop at the Long-branch loop, this little Chilean takeout empanada shop is popular with last-minute party hosts who need something filling and cheap to heat up in minutes. There are a few bar seats plus a small patio out front for dining in, and three empanadas make a hearty lunch. The menu lists more than a dozen variations (including gluten-free tamales and vegetarian options, like one with grilled veggies and goat cheese), but first-timers should start with the Chilean beef, which features tender and flaky meat braised and spiced with onions, black olives and golden raisins ($3). The leek and prosciutto ($3.25) is a more modern version, bursting with gooey mozzarella, sautéed leeks and salty ham. The Nutella Banana S'mores Empanada ($3.75) is a must - a golden, puffy pastry with a scorched marshmallow on top conceals piping-hot Nutella and banana slices that ooze out like lava.
Where was this at camp?
3. BANH MI NGUYEN HUONG
Home of the $2.50 banh mi, this is one of the busiest places in Chinatown. The Nguyen Huong Food Company (there are several shops in the suburbs) is owned by the parents of the Chau brothers, better known as the guys behind Banh Mi Boys and the new Lucky Red bao shop just next door. While most flock to the banh mi counter, you could try the other prepared foods. Big appetite? Ask for a takeout box of cubed spongy rice cakes. (Think gelatinous and sweet rather than the flavourless coasters found in supermarkets.) They're pan-seared on the flat-top with eggs cooked just enough to still be runny, scallions for a grassy bite and bits of dried pork. At $4 each, they're a steal. Dip them in the accompanying sweet soy sauce for a salty, addictive hit.
322 Spadina, 416-599-4625, nguyenhuong.ca
4. DNISTER UKRAINIAN STORE
Okay, we get that the peameal sandwich is the quintessential St. Lawrence Market meal, but tucked in the far south end of the market's basement is this little Ukrainian deli that's a find for cheap lunches and eastern European snacks and candies. At the back counter are homemade pierogies ($4/dozen) scooped out of plastic containers (the choice serving ware of grandmas everywhere), plump, pillowy and bursting with fillings like velvety and cheesy mashed potatoes and pucker-inducing shredded sauerkraut. Burrito-sized cabbage rolls ($3.50 each) and house-made sausages ($2.89/100g) round off the Ukrainian meal.
93 Front East, unit B16, 416-368-8427, dnister.ca
5. HAKKA NO. 1
Hakka, a subset of Chinese cuisine influenced by India and the Caribbean, is still relatively unknown. Head to this suburban outpost - No. 1's second location - for familiar Chinese dishes loaded with spice, and bubble tea. The menu is lengthy, listing more than 200 dishes, but whatever else you order, you must try Hakka noodles, a simple street food that's essentially thin noodles stir-fried in a light soy sauce with julienned vegetables. The portions are huge, so bring a group, but solo diners can take advantage of lunch deals starting at $6. Chili-chicken is a go-to as well as Manchurian fish that's fried to a crisp, then covered in a sweet and slightly spicy garlicky sauce.
2355 Keele, unit 15, 416-242-8808, hakka1.com
6. LA SALUMERIA
At first glance, this cramped but fully stocked food shop looks like just another place to stock up on pastas, olive oils, deli meats and cheeses, but it's also one of the best sandwich shops in the city. It's not really advertised, but you can grab a fluffy ciabatta or calabrese bun from the bread bin and hand it to one of the workers. Pick any meat and cheese combination from the deli counter and they'll trick out your sandwich with all the fixin's: lettuce, tomato, pickles, cucumbers, mayo and mustard. There are hundreds of possible combinations (the salami selection alone is overwhelming), but the staff is always happy to offer pairing suggestions, like a creamy provolone to go with the sharp, salty taste of coppa. (That softball-sized sandwich costs a wallet-friendly $6.50.)
Remember to grab a can of Brio to complete your lunch.
2021 Yonge, 416-486-8327
7. CINAMON INDIAN BISTRO
A favourite takeout spot for Beach residents since it opened last year, this little 20-seat restaurant boasts a chef who's cooked for Bill Clinton, Giorgio Armani and the Queen. The menu even lists their favourite dishes. Be sure to get extra garlicky naan - made to order as you peer into the kitchen - to sop up all the velvety, spicy but greaseless butter chicken sauce ($12.75). For the record, Her Majesty loves grilled garlic prawns.
1966 Queen East, 416-519-4534, cinamonindianbistro.com
8. AMICO'S PIZZA
This Parkdale pizzeria that's been around since 1978 is more akin to Italian-American red sauce establishments than to rustic Neapolitan spots, and that's why the locals love it. Ask staff at nearby restaurant Chantecler. They can often be found here at 2 am (Amico's closes at 4 am), when their restaurant is done for the night. One thing they order: the lasagne ($12), which Chantecler co-owner Jacob Wharton-Shukster describes as a "mille-feuille" of house-cranked pasta sheets. It's saucy, cheesy, full of meat and big enough for two. Get it with a Caesar salad ($8, also plenty for two) and a plate of fried calamari rings ($9.25) that comes with cocktail sauce for dipping.
9. JACQUES BISTRO DU PARC
Yorkville is an unlikely place to find a good omelet, but this second-floor French bistro has been making some of the best since 1978. Though it's right across from the Bay subway station, you feel strangely secluded and far from downtown when you're eating here. The cozy, narrow restaurant specializes in fluffy omelets filled with everything from potatoes and Swiss cheese to chicken livers and mushrooms. Other plates worth checking out: the juicy roasted pork tenderloin ($26) and the house-made pâté ($12). Bonus: the wines are affordable.
126A Cumberland, 416-961-1893, jacquesbistro.com
10. BAIRRADA CHURRASQUEIRA
This Portuguese chicken place isn't really a hidden gem per se, but the countless patio guides that come out every summer somehow overlook Bairrada's gorgeous private back yard, an oasis of long picnic tables, sangria pitchers, flat-screen TVs and, yes, a little garden with a pond and knee-high artificial waterfall. Watching a soccer match never felt so tranquil. Enjoy what's left of summer with platters of roasted chicken and potatoes, crispy fried cod and mountains of rice.
1000 College, 416-539-8239, bairrada.ca
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