Lorette C. Luzajic on her favourite cheap restaurants in Toronto.
No matter when you visit Toronto, your appetite can find your way around the whole world within a few square miles of the city.
We boast a gorgeous array of upscale restaurants and trendy boutique bars that cater to the most discriminating tastes.
But it’s our underbelly that really sets us apart. The thousands of little holes in the wall bring us authentic cuisine from every corner of the globe, filling our streets with sweet and savoury aromas of BBQ, spices, lemon, garlic, curry, and chillis galore.
Hakka Chopsticks | 2940 Danforth Ave | (647) 352-4888
Way out past the famous stretch of Greek restaurants on the Danforth, into the no-man’s land where the city starts its slide into its sleazy Scarborough suburbs, is Hakka Chopsticks.
It’s nearly never open, and customers on Yelp have complained about microwaved food and cockroaches. But nothing can stop me from making the trek in hopes of finding the doors open and heaping platters of hot and sour eggplant, spicy green beans, Hakka masala fried rice, or Manchurian chicken. This curious cozy wonder world is the land of fusion, with simmering Thai soups, chicken pakora, and paneer and chow mien.
For the uninitiated, this bold blend of Chinese classics with a curried twist may seem like an overzealous culinary experiment in multiculturalism. But Hakka, or Kuhchia, cooking is authentic cuisine from the Hakka people, a Chinese cultural group whose name literally means “guest families.” The wandering Hakka’s origins are unclear, but their migratory patterns have spanned mainland China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago, Peru, Brazil, and India- and their foods reflect this amazing mix of world spices.
Nazareth | 969 Bloor St W | unreliable phone
There are dozens of worthy Ethiopian restaurants in Toronto, most more spacious and brighter than the tiny and crowded cubby tucked just west of Bloor and Ossington. Here, the lineups are just a preamble to the wait for your food and then the bill. The charming women are in no hurry to take your order or see if you want anything else, so don’t go ravenous, and plan on a few hours for dinner.
That said, the traditional east African dishes are beyond delicious. Succulent, spicy beef chunks called tibs complement piles of salty cabbage or collard greens. You’ll share the classic Ethiopian platters using injera bread and your hands, no cutlery.
MiMi | 688 Gerrard St E | (416) 778-5948
You go ahead and order the scrambled eggs and ham soup, or the testicle soup if you dare! Or the stir fried pig intestines with Asian catfish. Most people order the rare beef pho “noddles”. But I always have the exact same thing: the BBQ Pork Do It Yourself Platter.
Aside from the fact that Mimi’s pork is the tastiest Vietnamese-style BBQ in all of Toronto, if not Vietnam, the platter is messy and fun. You get to soak dry rice papers, and once they have become elastic, you stuff them with meat, carrot slivers, cucumbers, bean sprouts, basil leaves, vermicelli, sweet fish sauce, and an array of chilli toppings. Trying to seal them up into tidy spring rolls will be a joke, and you will need forty three napkins.
Ask for an extra order of BBQ Pork and there’s plenty for two or more to share.
Cocina Economica | 132 Berkely Street | (647) 748-4777
This is not a real hole-in-the-wall- it’s pricey, and it’s one of the six of the family of Playa Cabana restaurants, which are big and trendy Mexican style outfits. Still, it’s a whole lot of colourful goodness stuffed into an actual hole in the wall, transforming a raggedy space with bright table runners, rustic clay cookware, and talavera tiles. Vintage photographs from Mexico add an authentic old country ambience.
It’s one of the few places in Toronto to enjoy cocktails made with mescal, a not-as-famous-as-tequila Mexican liquor with a chipotle-like bite. The charm is a little contrived, but so what: you can step away from the concrete jungle into the jumbled bluster of small town Mexico for a fantasy moment, and the chile relleno is to die for.
North East Chinese Restaurant | 476 Dundas St W, Toronto | (416) 591-6880
This is an old-school Chinese restaurant, complete with white plastic disposal table cloths on the big round tables, blinding fluorescent lighting, a TV screen pumping loud news programs in Mandarin, and the vague unease over how in the world the place finagled one of the green “pass” signs from the food safety board.
There really is a faint sewage aroma, mould, and an oily layer on everything, including the air. This place earns its “dive” status squarely, and that’s the word you’ll see again and again on Yelp.
But who cares? If you’re lucky, you’ll get Betty to serve you, a gruff, eccentric lady. She is box shaped and boyish but her bark is worse than her bite: she is strangely maternal, and also sports neon red lipstick. My favourite Chinese dish of all of is spicy eggplant with minced pork, and hers comes soaked in chile oil like soup. There are also hot pots, garlic broccoli, sesame noodles, and dumplings.
They also have $10 beer pitchers, so all is forgiven. Of course, a pitcher guarantees you’ll need to make use of the water closets. One word of advice: hover.
Seor Ak San | 357 Spadina | (416) 977-2788
This cheerful, shiny lime green and orange restaurant is a sanctuary where you can run for cover from germs. It’s an anomaly of Toronto’s Spadina China Town dining scene, because, in stark contrast to North East, the place is so squeaky clean you can literally eat off the toilets. Yes, it’s true that Korean and Japanese restaurants generally have outstanding hygiene, but this one truly goes above the call of duty. If you don’t mind eau de Vim and a lemony Pledge flavour in your food, this hangout for Korean youngsters and hipsters and young hipsters is fantastic.
Every Korean diner has “famous pork bone soup” and Seor Ak San is no exception. Pork bone soup is the epitome of comfort food. If you’ve never had it, think perhaps of Hungarian goulash. The spices are very different but otherwise, they are like cousins.
Two can share the bone soup and be full, but it’s such fun to say “bibimbap” that you should get that too. Bibimbap just means “mixed rice” but is more like mixed vegetables like peppers, sprouts, carrots and cabbage. It comes in a hot stone bowl. Vegetarians can enjoy it with or without a cracked egg, and the rest of us choose chicken or beef bulgogi.
Everything at Seor Ak San comes with a selection of Korean trademark appetizer bowls (‘banchan’), including zippy kimchi, seaweed, or sesame coated glass noodles.
Sneaky Dee’s | 431 College Street | (416) 603-3090
Sneaky Dee’s is a nearly thirty year institution, a haven for misfits and punks and other rowdies. Famous for live indie music upstairs, and the best nachos in the world on the ground floor.
Actually, there is nothing on the menu that isn’t massive and delicious. The fries are the best fries anywhere. The stuffed spud skins are humongous. The black bean soup is really black hummus, thick and filling. The steak rivals that of fancy chains. But the nachos… wow. The things that usually go wrong with nachos do not happen at Sneaky Dee’s. You will never get just one tortilla chip with melted cheese and nothing on the rest of them. The sour cream or salsa does not come in a tiny cup like your pills come in at the hospital, it is generously slathered on top of the heap. Even the jalepenos taste better than anywhere else, so I always order an extra dose for the side.
The joint is covered in obscene graffiti mixed in with some cheesy peace murals, and there will be a racket of heavy metal. If you’re old and stodgy like me and can’t take the unruly youth passing out face down in plates of ketchup (that was me, last century) hit the place up for lunch instead of happy hour.
Gale’s Snack Bar | 539 Eastern Ave | no phone
Gale’s is the epitome of the hole-in-the-wall, and a throwback to times when diners were really greasy spoons.
You may fear falling through a floorboard. Your knees won’t fit under the table. You will wait for your coffee, as there is just Gale (actually, Eda Chan), and sometimes Dad, doing the tables, the cooking, and the clean up. The cash register is one of those old-fashioned things with the cool push keys, so forget about debit or smart phone payment. But if you want a western sandwich for under two dollars- you read that right- come on in. Enjoy a frozen beef patty with a daub of French’s or a melted slice of Velveeta on Wonder Bread, or an open face hot beef or turkey sandwich. Beans and wieners? Check. Homemade apple pie and ice cream? Yours for a toonie.
Gale’s retro menu consists entirely of loss leaders and nothing else, no hidden fees or extras to make up for it. No one can figure it out, except that perhaps she’s a nice soul whose special calling is to offer blue collar or needy families a chance to go out for lunch and the dignity of paying for their meal.
Betty’s on King | 240 King Street East | (416) 368-1360
Betty’s is a sprawling watering hole that is cheerful, comfortable, and a throwback to the days of the speakeasy. There’s even a colourful lounge upstairs that sometimes hosts poetry readings. The walls are covered in eclectic ephemera.
The joint is a hoot for beer after work or late at night, but Betty’s brunch is king. Do it yourself waffles! A fruit bar. A POUTINE STATION. Need I say more?
Hole in the Wall | 2867 Dundas St W | (647) 350-3564
Since so many Torontonians won’t go east or won’t go west, this place is something of a secret to anyone outside of the Junction neighbourhood. Serious fans of live music who happen to live across the tracks may know of it, too, but you won’t notice it walking by. It is, literally, a hole in the wall. The narrow facade is nothing more than a door, and inside are a few tables sandwiched between exposed brick, a long bar, and a tiny area for the band. I like to go at 4PM when it opens, because I can’t deal with crowds, and if there is anyone but you and the waiter, it’s crowded. The place is small but big on atmosphere. I feel like I’ve ducked into an upscale dive in New Orleans. The main deal here is the occasional buck-a-shuck oyster festivities, and an astonishing assortment of whiskeys so you can wax poetic on moss and malt. The menu changes frequently, but every tidbit is made with careful attention to detail. It’s an absolute delight and quite worth an hour of streetcar.