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The only thing that makes a great bar better is a great kitchen in the back. Sometimes, of course, the munchies strike after the last call bell rings. We cover both scenarios with some of Toronto’s best new bar – and post-bar – eats.
Barbecue is a heavily regional cuisine – what’s standard in Texas might be sacrilege in Kansas City. But at Jason Rees’s Pork Ninjas pop-up kitchen, which he operates out of the back of Wenona Craft Beer Lodge in Bloorcourt, you can try all of them (all at once on a gigantic platter, if you’re feeling ambitious).
You might know Rees from his brief stint staffing the smoker at Monarch Tavern’s Baju pop-up. But before he hooked up with the Wenona team (also the owners of Tallboys, his favourite local watering hole), the veteran caterer honed his skill at BBQ competitions, where he became familiar with the finer points of every style and began cherry-picking his faves.
His brisket, he explains, is Kansas City-style, smoked for 12 hours with the “burnt ends” (the portion of meat on top of the brisket) then sliced off and returned to the smoker for another half-day.
“(The burnt ends) are these little smoke bombs that are just full of sugar and super-concentrated beef flavour,” he says. “I serve them when you order a brisket platter. Or else people will show up at 5 pm when I open and say, ‘I’ll take all your burnt ends, please.’”
The chicken comes from northern Alabama, where they smoke it, grill it, and drench it in white BBQ sauce (something that, until now, most Torontonians only knew from that episode of Master Of None). “It’s super-regional, and no one serves it here,” Rees says. It’s also mind-–bendingly delicious – the chicken is moist and smoky, with the sauce recalling a looser, tangier ranch.
In a sense, everything here is Texas-style, since Rees serves it without sauce – but if you order the pitmaster’s platter, he’ll plunk a bunch of different house-made sauces down so you can gleefully find your favourite combinations. My picks: a yellow mustard-vinegar glaze, a sweeter BBQ sauce that uses liberal amounts of Black Oak Nut Brown Ale, and a house-made hot sauce.
“Our hot sauce, we go through a lot of it. It’s, like, hundreds of servings per week of hot sauce. The Toronto palate likes a lot of spice.”
Open until 12 am Sunday-Thursday, 2 am Friday and Saturday (“or until we run out of food”).
If you’ve ever known the simple, youthful joys of coming in from a boozy night and raiding your mom’s fridge, you know that sometimes, comfort food makes the best drunk food.
You’ll be happy to know, then, that Swan Dive, one of the newest additions to the Dundas West bar strip, has skipped the usual “we serve everything as long as it’s deep-fried” bar menu for something a little more wholesome.
Co-owner and chef Rebecca Lawton whips up big batches of seasonal soups, stews and dips for their rotating five-item menu, with grilled cheeses and nachos providing the obligatory carb content.
“We just make whatever’s clever, you know? If there’s really cheap fennel, there’s going to be fennel soup,” fellow owner Abra Shiner says.
Lawton’s latest creations: a briny tomato-olive tapenade served with breads and cheeses (they bought too many olives for their martinis, Shiner explains) a seriously satisfying spicy kale chili served with nachos a Guinness stew that I would have tried if the entire batch hadn’t vanished down the gullets of hungry regulars within a day or two. And, yes, though just a couple of months old, the bar already has regulars.
But there’s one thing you can count on whenever you go: the bar is perpetually well stocked with little bowls of free popcorn.
“Our popcorn machine broke a few weeks ago, and so there was a day without popcorn, and people were pretty upset,” Shiner says. “So we went out and bought another popcorn machine. Everyone’s happy again!”
Open until 2 am nightly.
Slamming air hockey pucks and yelling over mid-90s top-40 has a way of making a person hungry. Good thing Little Italy’s Nightowl Toronto keeps the kitchen open late.
The two-floor spot (live music upstairs, a couple of arcade machines below) caters to the student crowd and College Street partiers who want to take a break from $13 vodka sodas with a platter of wings and a drunken go at Big Buck Hunter.
There’s something a bit corporate, a bit clubby about the interior – the neon signs and the mural spelling out the Webster’s definition of “nightowl” in foot-high letters are, maybe, a little too on-the-nose – but when it comes to bar food, its heart is firmly in the right place: meat, dairy and starch, applied liberally.
You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t do at least some of your drinking in the form of a massive spiked milkshake ($12) – there are almost a dozen to choose from. The shakes supposedly each contain a shot and a half of booze, but my pal found the vodka in the cream soda shake almost overwhelming (which, to me, is a good sign).
On Wednesdays, they do all-you-can-eat wings Thursdays are AYCE tacos. But the mac and cheese makes for a good decision any day of the week: it’s ultra-gooey, with a hint of oniony-garlic flavour and a crispy bread crumb topping adding sophistication. Plus, a respectable portion costs $9.99.
Open Wednesday to Saturday until 2 am.
You can’t swing a bag of potatoes without hitting a Smoke’s Poutinerie in Toronto. Peak global gravy saturation seems imminent, but as any local who’s ever gone out drinking knows, Smoke’s is less about outdoing its competition in the food department (cut to a shot of Poutini’s polishing all their “best in Toronto” trophies) and more about selling goofy outlandishness wrapped in a flannel blanket of Canadiana.
Its burrito offshoot, Smoke’s Burritorie, follows the theme. Even though they road-tested the franchise in what operations manager Justin Sorichetti refers to as Toronto’s burrito district (opening up in the former home of Burrito Boyz, no less), Smoke’s brass recently rolled out a phalanx of menu gimmicks that would make not standing out virtually impossible.
Front and centre are the new “wacky burritos,” stuffed with pad thai, chicken and waffles, spaghetti and meatballs, and (of course) poutine. Sorichetti explains they came from diners’ suggestions: “We’ve got a whole bank of wacky burritos to do, but these are the top four requested so far.”
But how do they taste? The sweet-and-saucy pad thai, rolled with rice for maximum carb-bomb impact, ain’t really worth eating if Khao San Road or Pai are open. (After hours, I leave that with you.) But they might be onto something with the chicken and waffle burrito, which includes chopped bacon and a healthy ladling of sauce that looks like melted butter but tastes like pancake syrup.
Just want a regular burrito? How quaint! You can delve into a handful of protein options – chorizo and pulled pork get my vote – scatter it with some novel crispy textures like crushed chips or hickory sticks, and get it wrapped in what might be Smoke’s secret weapon: a great chewy tortilla that blisters beautifully on the grill. But you can also garnish it on the fly with your choice of one of 20 sauces, available from industrial-sized pumps, in case your burrito just ain’t wacky enough.
Open Sunday to Tuesday until midnight, Wednesday and Thursday to 3 am, Friday and Saturday to 4 am.
The Yonge and Dundas of 20 years ago is long gone, having given way to the digital billboards of Dundas Square. Down the street, Hong Shing, a favourite destination of local office workers and night owls since 1995, is catching up.
When they undertook a miniature overhaul, the first thing to go were the white plastic tablecloths. Recently, they turned their attention to the menu. The spot was, as ever, a popular after-hours draw for classic Szechuan, Cantonese and Canadianified eats, but Colin Li, who handles the restaurant’s promotion, says they noticed that clientele’s tastes were changing:
“The management felt that the menu had items and recipes that were really popular 10 to 15 years ago, but due to the trending times, we had to come up with a few more items.”
The restaurant is open until 5 am nightly, and Li estimates the kitchen cranks out five to eight orders per minute during those wee hours.
The far-and-away favourite, Li says, is the spicy deep-fried shrimp, which come crusted in a light batter sprinkled with chili flakes. “I’ve seen people order two full orders of shrimps for themselves.”
But the General Tso chicken, beautifully crisped from the fryer and swathed in a sweet, fire-engine-red glaze, is a close second, and with good reason.
The menu of classic dishes is long, but there’s more than enough room for new additions: marinated “crispy ribs” fried and stirred with garlic, and saucy black-pepper shrimp on a sizzling platter.
Open daily until 5 am.