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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A trip to Kensington Market & Chinatown: Highlighting Swatow, Cheese Magic, Goya Salsita & more!

A trip to the Kensington Market and Chinatown area in the heart of Toronto is always an adventure for those of a culinary bent. There are so many options and so much potential, especially for those looking for great food while trying to stay on a budget.

It is impossible, in one blog post, to visit all of the places, restaurants and products/foodstuffs that I would like to highlight in this historic district (now threatened by proposed incursions by retail giants like Loblaws and Walmart...but more on this later) , so today I will make a first foray with a promise to return.

We begin at Swatow, a restaurant just north of Dundas on the east side of Spadina that is my favourite casual Chinese restaurant in the city.  Swatow highlights a style of cooking the originates from the Fujian region, and its extensive menu is full of  very affordable and truly delicious dishes. 

We started with their justly famous Shrimp Dumpling Noodle Soup, a dish I find it difficult to go a week without. The dumplings are, simply put, fantastic and the whole earthy blend of broth, greens and noodles is perfect any time of day (or night, Swatow is a well established late night "after the bars close" destination), or any season. I highly recommend adding heaping spoonfuls of their excellent house table chili flake hot sauce. 

Next we ordered the Beef with Black Bean Sauce and Fried Noodles. The fried noodle dishes at Swatow are all excellent, the very satisfying texture of the perfectly prepared noodles complimenting the various sauces and meat, chicken or seafood. Swatow always has wonderfully moist beef and chicken, never the dry or tough fare that one all too often gets at restaurants of all types. 

Their Lo Mein dishes and beef sizzling plate have also been memorable stand outs over the years, and it is hard to go wrong with any of their soups. Two people can easily eat here for less than $40.

Just down the street from Swatow is the Hua Sheng Supermarket, which specializes in Asian foods and sauces as well as having an extensive fresh vegetable selection. For those looking for it, this supermarket is where one can stock up on the Lao Gan Ma hot sauces that I blogged about before, as well as finding literally hundreds of other options. The prices of meat, vegetables and sauces here are highly affordable and worth the trip.

Often when in Chinatown I like to buy a few of the Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwiches from Nguyen Huong Food. These are an incredible value at $2.00 for regular or $2.50 for large, and are served on a fresh french style bun filled up with pickled vegetables, assorted sliced meats, a pate, sauce and, if you wish, gloriously hot sliced red peppers. If not having them right then and there (though there is no seating, so you have to find a bench or eat while strolling around) I take them home and they make a perfect late afternoon snack or lunch the next day at the park with the kids. 

Next stop was Cheese Magic on Baldwin in the heart of Kensington. Cheese Magic has an impressive selection of cheeses from staples like cheddar (which are truly competitively priced and can be had from $1.60/100 grams) and Camembert, to more offbeat or less common selections. It has friendly staff who are always quick with a sample. Today, we picked up some Canadian Brie, which is terrifically creamy and easily as good as many of its more lauded French varieties, some of the English Smoked Applewood Cheddar, a perennial favourite in my house with its strong, smokey taste and richness, and, on the recommendation of the fellow behind the counter, some of the very boldly flavoured Dutch Aged Beemster cheese. A hard cheese where a little goes a long way, he said it would go perfectly with a heavy red wine...and it did! (I enjoyed it with Castillo de Monseran, a Spanish wine that can be had at the LCBO for only $9.95 a bottle). 

Finally, we made our way to Perola's Supermarket on Augusta, a Latin American grocery store specializing in Latin American essentials and stocking a wide array of hot sauces, which, as you may have figured out, are my thing! 

This is one of the places you can find all four of the Goya Salsita line of hot sauces. All four are complex and delicious, each featuring a specific key flavour and a varying level of heat and smokiness or tang. My favourite is the Pure Fire Ripe Habanero Chiles blend which is, as one might expect, very hot, but also full of rich flavours that do not overpower but compliment, the key to a great hot sauce. I like this one on rice, with beans or as a dipping sauce for steak. A side bowl of it is a perfect accompaniment to a grilled Rib Eye.

This wraps up our first foray into this great part of Toronto, a hub and gem of affordability, diversity and history.

Sadly, retail giants Loblaws and Walmart want to set up shop right on the very edges of Kensington and Chinatown, bringing their usual, stale and faceless blend of corporate blandness and "convenience".  I hope you consider taking the time to read about this and signing the petitions of The Friends of Kensington Market in opposition to it.

Swatow is located at 309 Spadina Ave. Hua Sheng Supermarket is located at 293 Spadina Ave. Nguyen Huong Food is located at 322 Spadina Ave. Cheese Magic is located at 182 Baldwin St. Perola's Supermarket is located at 247 Augusta Ave.

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