My Favourite Things in Toronto

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After four summers of working in Toronto, I’ve learned some things. I spent my first summer figuring out the layout of the city, the second summer learning about the main destinations, the third summer visiting the destinations and the fourth summer writing about everywhere I had been. I figured the way to make the most of the money I spent to commute to Toronto was to immerse myself in the city while I was there. I have been able to share my knowledge of the city with friends and family by bringing them to my favourite places or sometimes, as the case may be, to BlogTO’s favourite places. Now that I’m going to be away from the city for a while, I thought I would share some of my favourite places in Toronto so you too can go to some of the best places in the city. Advance warning, as I am not BlogTO and most of my adventures have been self-funded, I am not an authority on the best and worst of all things in Toronto. These are just some of the places I have frequented and enjoyed. Also, as I am not BlogTO, I’m hoping that today won’t be the first day in the history of I’m on a Journey that I receive an influx of comments saying that I suck and this post is awful. (Seriously, you should see the trolls on their Best Of lists.) Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a list of some of my favourite places in Toronto.

Best Bakery: Bunner’s Bake Shop, 244 Augusta Ave or 3054 Dundas St W
Bunner’s makes vegan and gluten free desserts that definitely don’t sacrifice flavour. I recommend their cinnamon buns and the soft serve ice cream.

Best Bar: Cold Tea, 60 Kensington Ave
I liked this bar so much, I made it the subject of a blog post. It’s a great place to go to if you want to hang out in a more laid back environment. It’s also a great place to bring friends to if you want to impress them with your knowledge of little known Toronto bars or if you want to terrify them by bringing them to a bar you can only access by walking through a sketchy looking mall after hours.

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Best Brewery: Bellwoods Brewery, 124 Ossington St
Though I love the beers at Mill Street Brewery and Amsterdam Brewery, and I love the atmosphere at Steam Whistle Brewery, Bellwoods is my new favourite because their beers can’t be found anywhere else. In the summer, the pub area is open, turning the entire brewery into a patio looking out into Ossington.

Best Burger: The Burger’s Priest, 463 Queen St W and other locations
This is a hotly debated category, owing to the number of places in Toronto with good quality, inventive burgers. I had the best overall eating experience at BQM at Queen and Spadina, but I’m giving the award to The Burger’s Priest because I’ve never eaten a burger like the one I had with both a beef patty and a deep fried, cheese-stuffed portobello mushroom. make sure to check out their secret menu before you go.

Best Burrito: Burrito Boyz, 218 Adelaide St W and other locations
Everything I have had at Burrito Boyz has been great. They have a wide range of meat and fish options as well as an impressive assortment of vegetarian options. When I want something more filling my go to is the veggie soy. All of their locations offer vegan guacamole by request. Erica and I may or may not have run through the streets of Toronto one time so we could make it to Burrito Boyz faster.

Best Coffee: Jimmy’s Coffee, 191 Baldwin St
I always have great service and great coffee at Jimmy’s. The barista at the Portland location is great, but nothing can beat the patio at the Kensington Market location. While you’re at their Baldwin St location, consider stopping by Tom’s Place to buy some three for one suits.

Best Cookies: Wanda’s Pie in the Sky, 287 Augusta Ave
Bunner’s is hard to beat for vegan cookies, but Wanda’s definitely has my favourite traditional options. Ask the servers for their recommendations. I’ve found you can’t go wrong with any of them. See the lead photo for a picture of a beautiful cookie.

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Best Food Truck: tied between Buster’s Sea Cove and Gorilla Cheese
Buster’s Sea Cove has two to four tacos on offer from their truck, including fish, squid and shrimp. Their food is always fresh and perfectly spiced. The only thing better than their food truck is their St. Lawrence Market location. If you like fish, try their lobster bisque.

Gorilla Cheese is my favourite food truck, but I couldn’t put them alone in this category because they come from Hamilton. All of their grilled cheese sandwiches are awesome but my favourite is the Zesty Mordant, a grilled cheese with jalapeños and Doritos.

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Best Izakaya: Guu Izakaya, 398 Church St
A crazy atmosphere, gigantic glasses of Sapporo and great Japanese bar snacks make Guu Izakaya a place you have to check out. Inside is always loud because each group that enters the bar is greeted with cheers by the kitchen staff and hosts. The wait can be long if you go later on a Friday or Saturday ( or if you go on any day, actually) but it’s worth the wait to be there when the place gets loud.

Best Japanese: Fin Izakaya, 55 Eglinton Ave E
Though Fin is a bar like Guu Izakaya is, there as more emphasis on shareable main dishes than  on bar snacks. Go for the food rather than the bar atmosphere. It was only half full when I was there at around 7:00 on a Thursday. Order anything and everything that’s stone grilled.

Best Lunch: Urban Herbivore, 220 Yonge St (Eaton Centre)
Urban Herbivore has great options for a take out lunch, especially if you work in the Financial District or around the Eaton Centre. The sandwiches tend to have a strange taste if you get tofu or tempeh in them, but I’ll put up with some strange tasting tempeh if it means I can get a vegan sandwich at lunch. The lines can be long and the sandwiches don’t come quickly, but the portion sizes are worth the wait. The sandwiches and salads are enormous. Go on Thursday and get a half sandwich and a half salad for $10.

Best Music Venue: Horseshoe Tavern, 370 Queen St W
I love the Horseshoe for its atmosphere. The small venue makes performances feel intimate without losing the energy of a larger venue. When I saw Fucked Up during NXNE, the place was packed and the area in front of the stage was crazy. (So crazy, I saw a couple of high school classmates crowd surf by me.) The Horseshoe draws a good crowd with an interesting mix of people even on nights when there aren’t any big shows going on. It also feel really cool to go to a bar where Willie Nelson and the Ramones once played. There’s a reason why the Horseshoe Tavern is considered legendary.

Best Salad: Fresh, 326 Bloor St W and other locations
Fresh makes salads so good, my friend Alex and I often text each other about them even when neither of us are in Toronto. The Ironman is great salad if you want something more filling because it comes with  falafel. The Phytosalad is definitely the prettiest salad because it mixes greens with edible flowers.

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Best Sandwich: Uno Mustachio, 95 Front St E
Uno Mustachio serves enormous sandwiches in the basement of the St. Lawrence Market. I have had the chicken parmesan and the eggplant parmesan, and both were amazing. It’s a well known fact that Uno Mustachio’s sandwiches make the world a better place.

Best Tacos: Seven Lives, 69 Kensington Ave
At one point I would have argued for Grand Electric as the best taco place in the city, but Seven Lives is even better. They have a great range of fish and seafood tacos, as well as an awesome  mushroom cactus taco.

Best Thai: Khao San Road, 326 Adelaide St W
I’ve been to a number of Thai restaurant in Toronto and Khao San Road is definitely my favourite. If you’re going for your first time, order the squash fritters as a starter and the khao soi as a main. I recommend drinking the Thai iced tea or the Singha. The place is crazy busy, so I recommend getting there when it opens at five for dinner.

Best Veggie Burger: Fresh, 326 Bloor St W and other locations
Though it’s Fresh’s salads and bowls that are the most talked about, they also have great veggie burgers. All of the burgers are vegan but cheese can be added for a few dollars. I’ve gone back time after time for the BBQ burger. If you’re going for the first time, get your burger with a side of quinoa onion rings.

If you happen to be in Toronto, say hello to all my favourite places for me. Next time I’m in the city, I can almost guarantee you’ll be able to find me somewhere near Burrito Boyz. Until then, I’m on a mission to find the best burrito in Vancouver. If you know of any places I should check out in Toronto or Vancouver, let me know in a comment. I’m always out looking for a good cup of coffee or a good pint of beer.

Song of the Day: Crabbuckit by k-os

Story Time Wednesday: The Killer Pimp

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For years I have asked myself an age old question, Do pimps really carry canes? I do not ask this question hypothetically or unprompted. I think that many of us have a stereotypical image in mind when we think of pimps, and for the last four years, I have seen a man around Toronto’s Discovery District who exactly fits this stereotype. This particular denizen of the District is always wearing a two piece suit with a t-shirt underneath it and a fedora that exactly matches his suit. Over the years, I’ve seen him wear white, blue, orange and light yellow. I may have seen him in a black or grey suit, but that seems unlikely given the man’s penchant for pastel colours. The most remarkable part of his attire is not his monochromatic suits but rather, the duck headed cane I’ve never seen him without.

I first spotted this man three summers ago while I was taking a leisurely lunchtime stroll along King St. West. I returned to work stymied by his demeanour and attire, and promptly asked my coworker what she made of the man I had seen. We could not come to any conclusions about the man’s occupation but we agreed that he was certainly dressed in a pimp-like way. Since then, I have seen him on Queen West, on Bay St. and on Yonge St., always wearing a pastel suit and carrying the duck head cane. This post was promoted because I saw the man in late August in the Eaton Centre’s food court drinking tea from a clear mug at Aroma. While I put a lid on my coffee at the table next to him, several questions came to mind: Is the cane an aid or an accessory? Do you wear jewel tones in winter? Do you have something against collared shirts? What brings you to this area around lunchtime? How is the tea at Aroma? Are you a pimp or are you just trying to look like one? My questions went unasked and unanswered. I gave one last look at the man I called The Pimp and departed the food court with my coffee, sure that this would not be the last time I encountered this denizen of the Discovery District.

The title of this post is not meant to make assumptions about the man’s lifestyle or personality. Rather, it is in reference to a line from Risky Business: “I’ve got a trig midterm tomorrow and I’m being chased by Guido the Killer Pimp.”

Song of the Day: Sing by Ed Sheeran
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Guido the Killer Pimp by Tangerine Dream

Story Time Wednesday: A Night With Jack White

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Our plans had all the makings of a normal Thursday night when my mother and I unexpectedly found ourselves with tickets to see Jack White in Toronto. Being the wiley man he is, my father managed to win tickets for us just over twenty-four hours before the start of the concert. On the night of the show, my mother and I made our way to the Air Canada Centre where we encountered a large group of dissimilarly dressed people. People going to the same concert tend to be similarly dressed, the previous Friday’s One Direction concert being an extreme example of this, but this time it was hard to tell the kind of music that was going to be played based on the attire of the crowd alone. There were typical metal heads, hipsters and even a few people who were dressed like they were ready for a Brad Paisley concert. I didn’t know what to expect walking into the concert, but I certainly hoped we weren’t going to be faced with country music.

When we got into the ACC, we were directed towards what was essentially a private elevator. We talked to a friendly elevator attendant who took us up to the fifth floor, all the while lounging on a stool with his blue cotton girth facing upwards. When we arrived at the box, we were greeted by a perky blonde woman who told us that dinner was a forty-five minute wait but drinks could come immediately. We settled into the cushioned seats with our Caesars and waited for the opening act to come on. After the opening act finished, my mother ordered us both another Caesar while I went for an unsuccessful hunt for a burrito and got a little lost when I insisted on taking the stairs back to our section. A few minutes after I returned to my seat, the lights went down and the show began.

Truthfully, I know more of Jack White’s recent conflicts than I do of his recent album. Given what I had seen of his enthusiasm when he was recently photographed at a Chicago Cubs game, I expected him to be a miserable host for the evening. I was pleasantly surprised by his audience interaction. Given that Bob Dylan was one the solo artists I had seen in concert most recently, I was also pleasantly surprised by Jack White’s intelligibility. Though I could understand what he was saying, I didn’t know what the hell Jack White was playing half the time. Within the first seven or so songs, he covered nearly every musical genre one could reasonably play on a guitar. My mother and I started a bit of a country dance when he started to play what sounded like a square dance song. His guitar solos were often three times longer than the songs themselves but I didn’t mind. I was watching a vampire Jimi Hendrix rock out however he pleased. I wasn’t the only one excited about the show. The teenager boys in the box beside us were on their feet for most of the performance. I even saw a five person mosh pit down in general admission.

By the end of the show, Jack had played nearly every song off of his new album and played a number of The White Stripes’ and The Raconteurs’ greatest hits. He even somewhat inexplicably sang in a fake accent at one point in the show. To mark the transition from the main set to the encore, he came out and played “Icky Thump.” He closed the long encore with an arena singalong to “Seven Nation Army.” It was a great show that surpassed all of my expectations, but the best part of it was his closing words: “You’ve been amazing and I’ve been Jack White.”

Song of the Day: Lazaretto by Jack White

It’s a Great Day for IndyCar Racing

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A few weeks ago, I felt what might be best described as a need for speed. I realized that this need for speed could only be solved by one thing: race cars. I knew the Honda Indy was going to be in Toronto, so I decided to look into it. I know nothing about cars other than how to drive them and  when I drive, your grandmother could probably pass me on the road. Even still, I couldn’t get the thought of going to the Honda Indy out of my head. I was debating about whether I was willing to pay to go when it occurred to me that I could go for free if I volunteered. It was because of this plan that I found myself on a GO bus at 6:15 in the morning, surrounded by the denizens of the dawn, heading towards Toronto. If you hadn’t noticed for my post about NXNE, I tend to sign up for things without really considering what I’m getting myself into. That was definitely the case with the Honda Indy. Though I still can’t claim to be a race car expert, after two days of watching races, I’ve learned a few things. If you’re anything like me, a number of images come to mind when you think of IndyCar, many of which involve screaming eagles, gun clubs and middle-aged hoodlums who say Goddamn a lot. Rather than offer my retrospective race commentary on the Honda Indy, I have decided to present to you the myths and the realities of IndyCar racing so you can find out if there is any truth to the IndyCar stereotypes.

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Myth: Everyone at an IndyCar race is a red neck.

Reality: Admittedly, I was hoping that the Honda Indy was going to be full of hillbillies. Instead, I saw people from all walks of life and all backgrounds and was pleasantly surprised to see that the Honda Indy didn’t exclusively attract white males. Though I saw a lot of fathers and sons at the event, I saw a number of  mothers and daughters too.  With that in mind, I did see a number of people who had come from, say, small town Indiana and who had made the trip to Toronto without all of their teeth. I saw as many people with bad teeth as I saw  people with grills at the A$AP Ferg concert. All it took was a ‘Hey y’all!’ from a man with fence post teeth wearing an Indianapolis 500 muscle shirt to make it clear where the stereotypes about race car fans had come from.

Myth: IndyCar is Americacentric.

Reality: I talked to as many Columbians as I did Americans at the Honda Indy. Four of the drivers were Columbian and five were American, and the Columbians came out in droves to watch the race.  Surprisingly, the beer for sale at the event wasn’t Budweiser. The beer sponsors were Ontario craft brewers Amsterdam Brewery and Muskoka Brewery. Though the beer choice reflected local taste, the food certainly didn’t, as the food truck area was dominated by pulled pork and Texas barbecue. (The most remarkable dish I saw was the pulled pork parfait.) One might argue that the inclusion of Smoke’s Poutinerie make the Honda Indy a quintessentially Canadian experience, but all I wanted was a veggie burger.

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Myth: Everyone at an IndyCar race is a die hard fan.

Reality: Maybe Toronto’s Indy differs from some of the Indys in American cities, but I found that some of the people who attended didn’t know very much about racing. A number of people went so they could check out a major event going on in their city or so they could see something they hadn’t seen before. I talked to two women who came to the Honda Indy so they could check out the Firefit event that was part of the off-track action. There were even some people who came out mainly to watch the Stihl Timbersports competition, which I mistakenly called the Wood Olympics.  (Yes, there are people out there who call themselves lumberjack athletes.)   I’m sure there were also a few people like me in attendance, people who just wanted to be a witness a spectacle.

Myth: IndyCar races are really loud.

Reality: Yes, yes they are. However, I have been told that they aren’t as loud as NASCAR races, which brings me to the next myth.

Myth: All car races are the same.

Reality: There is a difference between IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One. Unlike NASCAR races that are run on ovals, IndyCar races are run on tracks that are irregularly shaped. This adds a level of complexity to IndyCar races both as a driver and as a spectator. For drivers, it means that each part of the track presents a different turn. For spectators, it means you can see the cars as they pass you and then you lose them for about a mile. This is a great convenience if you wish to have a conversation in the middle of an IndyCar race because you can still hear the person beside you half of the time.  However, it is an inconvenience if you wish to keep track of the race, which leads me to the final myth.

Myth: It’s easy to keep track of what’s going on in an IndyCar race.

Reality: Until the presentation of the trophies, I knew neither the leader nor the lap. When I found out the winner of the first race had lead the entire time, I thought for sure I knew which car that was. It turns out that the lime green car that I thought was back middle of the pack had actually led by as much as three seconds the entire way. This observation is probably the reason why no one let my join the Honda Indy social media team. Even though I didn’t know who won the race, I still had a fun time watching the red car I thought was the leader go on to a mid-pack finish.

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I had a great time at the Honda Indy and I’m really glad I took the opportunity to experience it. As much as I enjoyed it, I didn’t turn me into a racing fan.  I liked the speed and even the sound of the race, but overall, I prefer a spectator sport that makes the action easier to follow. In the future, if you’re ever looking for me at an IndyCar race,  I’ll be the one driving the Stadium Super Trucks. I’m just kidding. I’m not Danica Patrick. I probably won’t go to an IndyCar race any time soon, but if I do, I’ll be sitting in the Turn 3 Grandstand eating a veggie burger instead of a pulled pork parfait.

Song of the Day: Drive by Miley Cyrus

Looking for the Story: NXNE

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I walked in through the alleyway door of Tattoo and was immediately hit by a wall of sound. The sound check had already begun for the show that night. I arrived at the venue early in the hopes of getting some instruction for the days ahead but it was too loud for any conversation. I sat in a booth with the venue’s other volunteers, mute on account of the volume of the drum test. It seemed the drummer’s playing style was beating the shit out of the drums. A moment of silence came after fifteen minutes of booming, only to the broken again by the Sleigh Bells sound check. Their set up instructions read “The Sleigh Bells show is LOUD.” The sound check was certainly true to the show description. Finally, I was waved into the entrance way to get some instructions about the night to come. I was working the door as a NXNE volunteer at a Queen West bar that was the focus of a Red Bull showcase. Having been given provisional instructions, I stood awkwardly behind the closed dooring waiting to direct people. I looked like the festival’s female Huck Finn, wearing ripped jeans and Birkenstocks. At half past eight, the bouncer leaned into the doorway and said, “We’re ready.”

The hours that followed were filled with a cacophony of noises and split second encounters as I gestured people towards the appropriate lines. There was no conversation, just a directions or a brief exchange of words. Glances, gestures, and at 1:15, I was allowed to leave. I walked out into the Queen West night, thinking. I signed up for this to find a story, but there was no story, just four hours of synth pop. No faces stood out, no sounds. I couldn’t even give an adequate review of any of the shows. It was all a mess, and the only thing I could think to say was, “I’m tired.”

I arrived later the next night, and the crowd came earlier. I was tired of the synth pop soon after it started. I stood out in front of the venue with two of the bouncers, Justin and Rob, who were feeling similarly unenthusiastic about the music. After some time contemplating the setting sun, Justin asked me why I decided to volunteer with NXNE. I told him I was a writer and I mainly did it because I was looking for something to write about. Rob came back from checking up on everything inside and said of the performer, “He’s got the rhythm!” At least someone was other than the performer and his father standing in the crowd was feeling the show.

I had caffeinated well for the Friday night show, knowing that the people at Tattoo expected a big crowd for A$AP Ferg. The night started as the previous two had, with an initial rush and a period of calm. Tonight was the hip hop edition of the Red Bull showcase. From eight until one, I heard nothing but hip hop. When I told Justin that I appreciated the change, he said, “Just wait.” It was 9:30 on the longest day of the year when the sun started to set and the line started to form. I hurried back to my position inside — in sneakers, rather than my Huck Finn sandals — and prepared for the mob to descend.

I was in South Beach as a fourteen year old on the night of a Ludacris concert, and even that night could not compare to the number of grills I saw the night of the A$AP Ferg concert. It was like something out of a Nelly song when the people started to roll in. The hip hop duo on stage was screaming out “Fuck the police!” while I tried to keep the line flowing. By eleven, the venue had reached capacity, and my fellow volunteers and I were free to watch A$AP Ferg. I noticed a remarkable mix of men who looked like old school rappers and men who looked like frat boys. (The women varied a bit more.) When A$AP Ferg actually came on, no one was going crazier than the frat boys. The highlight of my night was watching a short guy wearing Lacoste hop on one foot while he sang out, “I got hella hoes!” The discussion that ended our volunteer shift was whether or not A$AP Ferg wore his grills while he smoked weed. Grills or not, he certainly managed to hotbox the basement of the venue.

I arrived for the what was supposed to be the craziest night at the venue with a coffee in one hand and a free granola bar in the other. The bouncers high fived me when I walked up to the venue. I met with the team of volunteers, then took advantage of the quiet before Tattoo’s opening to stand outside. “How’s the writing going?” Justin asked. “I haven’t found the story yet,” I replied, “but I’m getting close to it.” The line up started at 8:30 and went around the block by nine. We reached capacity long before Future Islands began, so I was free to watch the shows that night while the bouncer dealt with the chaos outside. Future Islands put on a great show for the capacity venue, adding to their welcoming address that they felt really bad for everyone standing outside in line. When their show ended around one, the mob that had descended hours earlier streamed out of the venue. In the crowd, I saw a mix of artists from other venues, local and national celebrities, and guys who seemed to have finally stumbled out of the venue after too much time partying with A$AP Ferg. (Read: more grills.) My friends the bouncers continued letting people in based on priority, so I was free to watch the Mac Demarco show. When he stepped on stage, he gave an opening of pancakes, blue balls, good to see you looking well, Toronto, before he went into “Salad Days.” By way of introduction, he said he was Mac Demarco and this was his band, but for the evening, we could call them “the Poo Band.” I couldn’t make something like this up. My fellow volunteer and I agreed that we hadn’t made sense of a word he had said since he stepped on stage. After a few more chilled out songs, I said goodbye to everyone I had worked with and took off down Queen St. eating an apple.

“The only way to prepare for a trip like this, I felt, was to dress up like human peacocks and get crazy, then screech off across the desert and cover the story. Never lose sight of the primary responsibility.
“But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad in drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

I decided to volunteer for NXNE because I heard about the opportunity and thought, What would Hunter do? I concluded that he would get inside, see the show and find the story. It only took me a few hours at Tattoo to realize that Hunter wouldn’t have been volunteering at a music festival. He would have been in the green room with A$AP Ferg or finding a way to get on Mac Demarco’s level. At the very least, if the Fear and Loathing days are anything to go by, he would have chewed up a couple of blotters in the bathroom. But that wasn’t my story. I had to find the story when I was given the opportunity to find it. I had to immerse myself in the madness in whatever way I could. An event is made a story through the act of telling it. What was the story? I have no NXNE story except the one you have just read.

Song of the Day: Seasons (Waiting on You) by Future Islands