A couple of nights ago time got away from me as it often does and though it was clearly time for dinner, I hadn’t done much in the way of preparation or even shopping. Fortunately I’ve been pretty good about eating at home so our dining out budget was in really good shape. And so I invited Sage to come with me for some Malaysian food in Scarborough – the easternmost part of Toronto formerly it’s own borough but now absorbed in to the city proper.
For those outside Toronto, Scarborough has a bit of a bad reputation as a place with a bit above the average level of gang activity, wide busy streets and car-centric infrastructure and the poor cycling, transit, and pedestrian options that come with it. While not completely unwarranted, I think this reputation is exaggerated a bit by folks – especially those living downtown. So while some of those things might be true, I also really like a number of things about it.
While there is definitely a car-centric nature to that part of the city, there also are a number of small hubs with “town centres” – small shopping malls with maybe a grocery store, possibly a department store, a lot of other small independent stores, and almost always one or more of the following: dollar store, cell phone store (usually several), discount clothing store, produce market, and Chinese bakery. There is also quite often a food court that contains several standard restaurants but sometimes a hidden gem. (The one next door to us, for example, houses an excellent Indian restaurant with some of the best channa masala in the city and delicious homemade naan and roti.) What, specifically, is in those malls is often a function of the other aspect of Scarborough – tremendous cultural diversity. People from all over the world live in Toronto. However, real estate prices in downtown often mean that only stores and restaurants that cater to the broadest cross section of the city will be there. Just look at the restaurants in Scarborough and you’ll get an idea of the diversity of people who live there: food from Western China with Halal mutton stews and skewers of lamb, fresh fish cooked Singari-style, restaurants from nearly every state of India (Sadly no food that I can find from Andhra Pradesh or a huge Gujarati thali but I’m still looking), Sri Lankan hoppers and lampries bursting with sweet delicious fresh-cooked crab..
Today took us to the area near Sheppard and Midland – an odd little corner of the city that seemed to the border of several different areas. At first glance it’s a bit commercial but perhaps down on its luck.
Look a bit further east and it doesn’t look much better. Just behind a strip mall you’ll find a factory. A Google search tells me it’s a wax factory. On the one hand, factories are not the nicest thing to have around. On the other hand, hooray for manufacturing jobs still in the area.
But looking that way would only tell half the story. Right behind me in that picture appears to be a small village church and cemetery and the road next to it looks more like a country road than a busy suburban artery.
We headed northeast until we got to the strip mall where we found One2 Snacks. From the outside it looks completely unassuming.
And inside it’s very basic. The menu is above the counter, with a few descriptive pictures on the wall. There are a few small counters with low stools if you want to stay and eat but really this is primarily a takeout place and so we ordered Char Kway Teow and Mee Goreng and then went next door to the mall to wander.
There wasn’t much to the mall itself – all of the shops were closed but the food court was open so we found a seat and entertained ourselves for the 20-30 min we had to wait for our food by playing Upwords. As we sat there we looked at the other restaurants which looked equally intriguing.
Maybe we’ll have to make a return trip. Another restaurant outside advertising “Warm Casserole Rice” also caught our eye..
When we got back we picked up our food and walked to a nearby park. There are two things that should be kept in mind when traveling to Scarborough for food. The first is that there are many tiny take out restaurants that have amazing food. The second is that Toronto is a city of parks with a park likely to be a short distance from any take out restaurant you would choose. This is a recipe for an amazing and interesting summer picnic.
We walked past a community centre with a large indoor recreational pool (as opposed to a lap pool) that was getting a lot of use and in to the park. We had headed north which put us in to an area that looked more like a small village than part of Canada’s largest city.
At first we had a bit of trouble finding a place to sit – last time I went here with another friend, we ended up sitting on a concrete wall. This time we looked first near the bocce courts. There were some picnic tables there but it was locked up – they were beautifully groomed so perhaps they were worried that people would disturb them.
We continued on to the tennis courts and there we found what we were looking for, albeit in an odd little space. Next to the fenced in courts was a small 10′ x 10′ separate fenced in area with two unused picnic tables. We sat down at them but as you can see behind me, our meal would be accompanied by the rhythmic “pock!” of tennis balls being hit.
We opened our packet up and were not disappointed. We got a huge quantity of food: six curry puffs (forgot to get a photo – they were about the size of a samosa and a little less greasy with softer pastry. The potato filling was very similar to a samosa but slightly differently spiced. There was definitely more ajwain than I’m used to but that’s fine – I am a huge fan of it.), we also got two bottles of water, and two massive packages of noodles for $24. This was actually too much food for us and we would likely have been fine with one order of noodles.
Here is Sage, along with me in our odd little dining cage. On the left are the Mee Goreng and on the right are the char kway teow.
The mee goreng was a little disappointing – very heavy on the tomato sauce and a bit bland. There were a few shrimp and chicken along with some tofu. The char kway teow, though, was to die for. These were richly flavoured with lots of onion, garlic, and seafood. We got two kinds of noodles (you get a choice of rice noodles, vermicelli, or both – we picked both). We both liked the rice noodles much more so next time (you bet there’ll be a next time!) we will get only the rice noodles. When we go to restaurants from cultures known for spicy food we always ask for it very spicy and this restaurant didn’t disappoint. While somehow the mee goreng absorbed the heat along with much of the flavour leaving us with almost a spaghetti dish, the char kway teow was flavourful and really hot. (in a good way). We ate everything but left most of the mee goreng – next time I think I’ll replace it with curry laksa soup instead which looks delicious.
The trip there and back was surprisingly fast. This is one of the things that I find really interesting about the city: you can totally change your surroundings and feel like you’re in a whole different city (or country!) with just a short transit trip. For example, if I ride on the subway for 30-40 minutes I’m downtown at the CN tower in the tourist heart of the city. Go a little further – only 45-55 minutes away by transit and you’re at this place. Go 30-40 minutes by bike and you are next to the lake surrounded by birds.
On the trip back there was a very upset toddler on the bus. She was clearly exhausted and at her wits end. While she was almost asleep, she would still summon all her resources and scream “I WANT TO PULL IT” – we thought she wanted to pull the stop request cord even though their stop came much later. She was remarkably tenacious. But what I really appreciated most was how patient everyone was. The parents clearly knew that this child was tired and irrational and really couldn’t be reasoned with and so, unlike many folks, didn’t scream back or escalate. They spoke calmly to her. I don’t know about the other riders but that turned the tension level down a whole bunch. So much of the stress of those moments is waiting and worrying that the parents will scream at the kid or worse, hit them and that always, for me anyway, is far more bothersome than the kid. Eventually the mom encouraged the kid to climb in to her arms. She took a couple of steps up/down the aisle and within a minute or two she was completely asleep with her head leaning on her mom’s shoulder.
Not long after that we were at the station, only a short ride from our own home where we, completely satiated, fell asleep our own selves.