How to Not Waste a Calorie in Toronto
Toronto’s food scene mirrors its diverse population. But as a solo female traveler who was on a budget, I chose some affordable eatings in Toronto. And given that I had limited eating time ( and wanted to allocate more calories to chocolate anyway), I decided to visit St. Lawrence Market and the two most popular eateries at Kensington Market.
Classic choices? Yes. Basic? A tad.
St. Lawrence Market
I was fortunate to be able to take a small food tour through St. Lawrence Market. Located in downtown Toronto, the St. Lawrence Market is one of the oldest establishments in Toronto and used to be more than just a market. It was the markets, courthouse and prison system. But overlooking its often unsavory past, we meandered through the two levels of the market and dozens of vendors for over 3 hours sampling signature Canadian dishes and indulging in some of the best quality food that Toronto has.
As someone who spent her early years in the culinary industry, this was the promised land.
Chef Scott was my tour guide and was filled with stories of the market’s nascent beginnings to the happenings today. My tour was tiny, so he was able to give us all personal attention and learn our likes and dislikes. It was me, and a couple from New Zealand/ Australia.
As the hours wore on and our stomachs grew larger, Chef Scott kept us entertained with his personal stories of being a chef ( not to mention some wild drinking stories he had with the late Anthony Bourdain). He was charming and demonstrated his relationship of appreciation with the vendors. He was on a first-name basis with every vendor we stopped at and their employees. He could stand in front of one area and tell you the evolution of the vending spot- but fortunately not much has changed in St. Lawrence Market. It is hard to get an open spot at the here, and some of these vendors have been there for years. It doesn’t look like they are leaving any time soon.
We ate what seemed like everything: peameal bacon sandwiches from Carousel Bakery, oysters at Mike’s Seafood, the camel beef jerky at Whitehouse Meats, maple walnut lattes from Everyday Gourmet, and butter tars from Future Bakery. It was the best potluck I ever attended and didn’t have to bring anything. I almost wish that I had ended with a coffee because I felt like a turkey on Thanksgiving day: stuffed.
I was touched by how Chef Scott remembered that I was focusing on female travel and personally introduced me to several female business owners. I was able to interview them after the tour and will be incorporated into my upcoming book!
It was great to talk to some of the women who are holding up the pillars of this great establishment. Although they all had different origin stories, I asked them what it was like being a woman here in a dominantly male system. Although they all had different histories, they all mentioned that they were often second-guessed by customers or suppliers and seemed to have had to earn their authority in ways where their male counterparts were just understood to be in charge.
Here is a list of the women I spoke with and you should check out their shops!
Thank you to Toronto Food Tours for a true delight.
Kensington Market is as much of a legend as it is a neighborhood. It is close to downtown Toronto and is one of the oldest and most culturally dense in the city. Kensington Market has been inhabited since 1812 and became a dominant immigrant hub in the early 20th century. It has always been a place for foreigners to call home and continue their cultural heritage.
It is also an emblem of Toronto's dedication to locally run businesses. You won’t find a Starbucks hanging out on the corner or a neon KFC sign glowing up the dimly lit streets. Torontonians are so fiercely anti-cooperation around Kensington Market. So much so that when Nike tried to set up shop, the community rejected their presence by tossing red splattered running shoes on its doorstep in protest for the treatment of Nike's global workers. Damn bold.
Today Kensington Market offers a plethora of classic cuisines and modern fusions with locally-run cafes and boutique shops in between eateries.
Rasta Pasta is a loving union between Jamaican and Italian food. Both of these large immigrant populations joined forces and created an eatery where you can get pasta dishes on one side of the door and traditional Jamaican food on the other. Both sides offer an interesting marriage of both with their Jamaican spiced paninis, Dreadlock Lasagna, and Irie Pizza.
Given that I’m gluten-free ( annoying I know. But it’s more annoying for me to be it than you have to read about it), I went for the jerk chicken. The woman asked if I wanted extra sauce, and I motioned for her to ladle it on( I like a 3:1 sauce to meat ratio). The service was fast, and I didn’t wait more than five minutes. It was filling, affordable, and delicious.
After living in Mexico City, it is obnoxiously hard for me to stomach paying more than .50 cents for a taco. But I decided to give Seven Lives a chance as most Canadians implored me to it ( given it is cold so much of the year that anything hot and spicy might taste good).
I went up to a small shop that was too tight to stand and eat in ( already good indication). Most of the Mexican joints in CDMX are on the street and food is eaten standing. I wanted something filling given that I had a light breakfast and one of the worst nights of sleep. I was told these hefty tacos would do the trick.
I enter, and the coffee that I had drunk at Fika hadn’t fixed my mood yet. I stood in line as the customer in front of me swayed back and for, hemming and hawing over what to get.. Their indecision helped me land on fish tacos without cheese ( given that I’m in a city hundreds of miles away from the closest ocean, I still went for it) as I waited for them to make up their mind.
I was greeted by a waiter who had the build of a lumberjack accompanied by an overly chipper attitude. He had the sense of humor of a hockey player who has been hit in the head a few times too many.
He begins to scribble down my info with the most illegible handwriting and asks, “Name, dietary issues, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
It was said with an exceedingly wholesome attitude that has never graced the land of Mexico or anywhere north of Jersey. I stared blankly at him. I needed more coffee for this.
He could probably feel me glaring at him from under my sunglasses and was still unaffected by it.
I retorted back, “Fish tacos, no cheese.”
It was apparent I wasn’t into his jokes and I felt bad and followed up with, “I’m not feeling great.”
“No worries here!” he retorts and stabs my order onto a skewer for the chefs to pick up.
Another entitlement I developed in Mexico was not only amazing tacos but getting them delivered to me before I could finish my slow sentences in Spanish. I waited for about 15 minutes and watched this behemoth 20- year-old summer camp counselor lip-stink to some 80s synth song with the repetitive lyrics “your kiss is on my lips” in a sincere I-can’t- stop-myself kind of way. It was adorable and slightly embarrassing for everyone.
My order finally came and was too hot to eat immediately ( this is where backup snacks come in handy). This gave me time to load up on a nice sampling of their hot sauces ( score one for Gryffindor). The filling of the taco was good but the tortillas were rubbery. They were hefty as promised, and I was good with just the one.