Eat up, Toronto: Tikka masala poutine, sushi burritos and Rasta Pasta
It's unlikely the King's Noodle appears on any tourist maps of Toronto. Located in the scruffy Kensington Market district, where Downtown frays into alleyways that look as though they'd do you mischief, the nondescript restaurant with the faded signage doesn't appear to be the kind of place where tourists should linger after dark.
Suggest that to John Lee, however, and you'll be met with an exaggerated eye-roll.
"This is Toronto," booms the Harley-riding, ridiculously cool chef, his laughter bouncing off the eatery's Formica tables. "You're more likely to get hugged to death here than shot."
He's right, of course: last year Canada's largest city was named the safest in North America, and the eighth safest in the world. Like any major metropolis, it brushes up against the usual big-city crime, but it turns out all the cliches about polite, friendly Canadians are true.
Lee, our culinary guide for the day, has been visiting the King's Noodle since he was a child. Which could explain the steady stream of people who stop by our table. It's his favourite Chinese joint and, going by the line that unfurls around the block during our lunch-time stop, he's not alone.
We arrived in Toronto having had our breath taken away by Canada's big-hitters: Vancouver and the Rocky Mountains, Lake Louise's carpet of glittering ice and Banff, where thin blonde women stroll the streets with yoga mats tucked under their arms. In a nation well known for super-sizing its scenery, we gorged on snowy vistas and mountains bigger than our Kiwi eyes had ever seen.
But, and let's get this out of the way quickly, the food hadn't exactly thrilled. Once we'd eaten our body-weight in "proper" maple syrup, wrinkled our noses at a Caesar (vodka, hot sauce and Clamato, a mash-up of tomato juice and clam broth that tastes as awful as it sounds) and the calorific novelty of poutine had worn off ("Basically just French fries dressed up," says Lee dismissively of Canada's national dish), there was little left. What exactly is Canadian food, we ask Lee?
"That's a tough one," he says between bites of steamed shrimp roll. "There's the early, more austere British and Scottish influence, as well as the classic French cuisine of Quebec. But where it really gets interesting is in the 19th and 20th centuries, when successive waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia chose to begin life anew in this vast, empty land."
That's certainly true in Toronto, where half of the city's 2.6 million population was born outside of Canada and where a stroll down any street will throw up some of the 140 languages and dialects spoken. As locals never tire of telling visitors, the United Nations calls Toronto the most ethnically diverse city in the world. And where a multitude of cultures go, so their food follows.
Many of Toronto's 8000-plus restaurants are clustered around a series of clearly demarcated neighbourhoods (helpfully, the street-signs will let you know you're in Little Italy, Greektown, Portuguese Village or the Irish-influenced Cabbagetown). There is some cross-over, of course, and if you've ever wondered about exploring the outer limits of fusion cuisine, chances are a Toronto chef will already have done it, as evidenced by sushi burritos and the popular Italian-Jamaican eatery, Rasta Pasta.
But we've only got a few days to play with so we enlist the help of Lee, whose relationship with food started as a child in his parents' Korean grocery store. We meet early in May on a day when the weather should really have figured out that it's almost summer. Instead, we're wearing the same coats we left wintry New Zealand in.
Appropriately, our exploration of Toronto starts at St Lawrence Market, a red brick behemoth that sprawls lazily across two city blocks. Appropriate because this is where Toronto itself had its beginnings in 1793. Back then, the city was named York and the original market was a block north. But after a fire in 1849 razed most of the neighborhood, the market was moved to its original spot in Old York and, apart from 20 or so years when it fell into neglect, food and drink has been traded here for around 200 years.
In 2012, National Geographic named St Lawrence Market the best food market in the world and a stroll among the 120 or so specialty cheese vendors, fishmongers, butchers, bakers and pasta makers, strung like baubles across two levels, shows why. I curse the fact I've already had breakfast but find room to fit in a salmon and lox bagel from St Urbain Bagel, the first company to introduce true Montreal-style bagels to these parts.
We jump in a cab for the 10-minute drive to one of Toronto's most eclectic neighbourhoods, Kensington Market; thankfully, there's no evidence of the traffic that held us up for an hour on the drive from the airport the day before ("That's because the Maple Leafs were playing," says the taxi driver, referencing the city's adored ice hockey team).
Kensington Market lives by different rules. Located on the upper spine of Spadina Ave, one of the longest streets in Toronto, it was here that Jewish immigrants from Eastern European arrived at the start of the 20th century. They built modest brick houses, delis, tailors and Yiddish theatres, many of which are still standing.
Hippies followed in the 60s, but today the peace and love has made way for ethnic eateries, organic grocers and the kind of grungy-but-cool cafes that people with beards and flannel shirts seem to like. The independent spirit is still strong, though: when a Nike store tried to open, the community reacted by dumping dozens of running shoes splattered with red paint in protest at the treatment Nike's workers receive around the world. The store didn't last long.
Lee advises me to limber up; my stomach and I are in for an awfully big adventure. We start at Fika, a cafe which looks as though it was airlifted lock, stock and barrel from Scandinavia (the word Fika is, in fact, Swedish for "coffee break"). As if we needed any more confirmation of how achingly hip this cafe is, a fashion magazine photo shoot is taking place in the front room. It's not just blonde wood and white walls, though: the coffee is some of the best I've had since leaving New Zealand.
We smell the Golden Patty before we see it. Delicious aromas of curried goat and turmeric-stained pastry greet us long before we step over the threshold of this modest shop. Traditional Jamaican patties are one of the most underrated snack foods and I chase a buttery vege patty with hot plantain chips that I scoff so greedily I burn my lips.
I hardly need the calories but El Trompo Mondo's five tacos for C$9 (NZ9.60) tugs at my frugal DNA. The fact that I can't finish the freshly baked corn tortillas is neither here nor there: it's worth it to sit outside in the weak spring sunshine, listening to a busker do unmentionable things to Bob Marley songs.
It would be easy to spend most of our time hanging around Kensington Market and the adjacent Chinatown (one of six in greater Toronto) but thanks to liberal immigration policies, there's good food from all over the globe to be had all over this town. So I criss-cross the city to sample authentic empanadas, garlicky kielbasa, dim sum and spicy biryani, even sushi pizza (surprisingly not as horrible as it sounds).
You can't though, beat a classic and on my last night, stupefied by too many calories, I stumble into Poutine's House of Poutine (I realise that's a lot of poutine in one sentence) on Queen Street West.
The best poutine takes three humble ingredients – hand cut potatoes, cheese curds and gravy - and transforms them into sloppy, melting magic. Invented by those crazy Quebecois in the 50s, Toronto has, of course, pimped Canada's national dish with all manner of ingredients, from bacon and smoked brisket to lobster and pulled pork. There's even a tikka masala version.
But for my money, which tends to be limited, there's nothing better than tucking into a traditional poutine. This carnival of cholesterol is, like Toronto itself, fun, satisfying, and oh so good.
More information Adventure World's curated eight-day Western Explorer Rocky Mountaineer is priced from $3519 a person and includes two days on the world renowned train Rocky Mountaineer. Travelling from Vancouver to Calgary the price includes four-star hotel accommodation, many meals, local guides, sightseeing and more. See Adventureworld.com
The writer was a guest of Tourism Toronto (seetorontonow.com) and Adventure World.