Hours before I left for my first trip to Toronto, I was splayed out, face down in my living room on my niece’s disorientingly colorful foam puzzle mat. I’d had a lot to drink the night before. On the eve of Halloween 2015, Grantland, the sports-and-pop-culture hub where I’d spent my first two and a half years as a professional, had been shut down. After the rapture, Los Angeles staffers celebrated and mourned the only way we knew how: at a dark and dingy dive bar in Los Feliz, with wings and beer. The special monthly beer on tap was, fittingly, a double IPA from Oregon that had done me in plenty of nights in the past. It was only right. I set six alarms on my phone for my early flight, then faded into a communal oblivion.

What at first had been planned as a week-long birthday vacation to Toronto became a time to take inventory of what I’d learned and stall the anxiety about what my future would hold. I took notes, so many notes. I ate things, so many things. I made friends who have become lifelong travel companions. I found inspiration in my first Torontonian roti at Gandhi Cuisine; in a deep-fried chicken wing, deboned and stuffed with a pork-and-chive dumpling filling at Hanmoto; in the grilled whole octopus at Bar Isabel; in the utter gratuitousness of a San Francesco veal sandwich. Walking down Spadina Avenue in downtown at night, I saw my dad’s name twice amid the many luminous Chinatown signs: once as a jeweler, once as an optician. Two disparate fields, less than a tenth of a mile away from one another, bound by a single namesake. As I walked past my storefront surrogate fathers, I started to wonder: Maybe that can be me, too.

That midnight stroll augured what was to come: For the past three years I’ve been more than fortunate to see the realms of sportswriting and food writing meld into the two halves of my professional identity. The goal, in both fields, is the same: Do the story, and the people behind them, justice. Last month, I came back in Toronto to write about the Raptors, but really, to experience again one of the most diverse cities in North America the only way I’ve ever really known how to experience anything—through its food (this time, with friends both old and new). I wanted to figure out why Toronto felt like home to a native Angeleno—even before that maiden voyage—and whether the feeling could survive the negative wind chill of mid-January.

Here’s what I ate:

My Roti Place / Mona’s Roti

Toronto, for all its culinary splendor, doesn’t seem to have a consensus signature dish. The city’s staples have, over time, reflected the different waves of immigration the city has seen in the past two and a half centuries. The St. Lawrence peameal bacon sandwich is the indigenous creation of William Davies, who immigrated to Toronto from England in the mid-19th century and operated the largest pork processing facility in the British Empire; the veal sandwich—composed of deep-fried veal cutlets, cheese, peppers, and red sauce—was the product of a swell in post–World War II Italian immigration in the 1950s and ’60s. But if I had to conceive of a truly representative dish for the city, I would think of roti. The dish’s everlasting adaptation spans continents and time, from India to the slave ships headed for the Caribbean to Toronto, where commerce and cohabitation has allowed for South Asian and West Indian traditions to merge and mutate into something truly unique to the city.


Curry goat roti at Mona’s Roti in Scarborough
Danny Chau

Roti, as a stand-alone term, refers to an Indian unleavened flatbread, but in Toronto, it typically refers to the distinctly Caribbean preparation of using the flatbread as a wrap for a stewed curry filling. The best roti I’ve had in the greater Toronto area was from Mona’s Roti in the eastern suburb of Scarborough, a 16-year-old reincarnation of a popular roti shop in Trinidad and Tobago that first opened in 1983. Just off Sheppard Avenue in a strange strip largely surrounded by auto repair shops, Mona’s boasts an impressive operation; behind the service counter housing myriad curries and stews are no less than 10 aproned women at their respective stations, cranking out roti by the dozen. (Before opening in Scarborough in 2003, proprietor Mona Khan largely sold her roti wholesale to other restaurants.) There is a particular elastic quality to Mona’s dhalpuri, which, by definition, incorporates a layer of split-pea stuffing in the dough before being rolled and flattened. The dhal provides an extra bit of structural integrity and waterlog protection, allowing the roti to yield just enough to a fork and knife to serve as a proper steward for the impressive curries encased within. The kitchen takes up nearly the entire restaurant space; there are, at most, two small tables that are perpetually occupied. I cut open our curry goat roti on the hood of a Volkswagen hatchback. My Scarborough dining companions—a hearty mix of acquaintances and strangers—huddled inside, passing around the Styrofoam container and a few doubles, talking about the Raptors’ starting lineup with the Grateful Dead playing softly in the background.

The Trini-style roti is an important foundation of Toronto food culture, upon which many South Asian restaurants have established their own interpretation. (For those unable/unwilling to shlep to Scarborough, the 45-year-old institution Island Foods downtown will more than suffice, but be ready for long lines during peak lunch hours.) One of the most popular dishes in the city might just be the butter chicken roti, and while the separate components derive from two disparate lands, its specific union might be purely Toronto. My first Indian roti at Gandhi was a revelation. Put crudely, it is ostensibly a curry-filled burrito placed in a container that would fit a personal frozen lasagna. It is a vision of perfection.


Butter chicken roti at My Roti Place
Danny Chau

I’d hoped to make the pilgrimage to Gandhi for my first meal back in the city; unfortunately, the restaurant was closed for a weeklong winter break. Instead, I walked farther down Queen Street to My Roti Place, a build-your-own roti franchise that opened last year, shepherded by chef-partner Karthik Kumar, a former cook at Indian Roti House, one of the more acclaimed roti shops in downtown. The roti shell doesn’t quite match the pliability of what you’d find at Mona’s or Island Foods, but its sturdier form might be by design. Butter chicken is often a gateway curry, mild enough to wade into the waters without getting dragged too far off shore; still, East Indian curries are more pungent than their Western counterparts, and given that I had the heat level cranked up on my butter chicken, the roti’s extra heft helped re-establish a sense of balance. Perhaps the best thing about My Roti Place is it’s open extremely late. I’d never felt freer than when I picked up an order of lamb biryani at 2:30 a.m., sidestepping drunk, cold, and hungry pedestrians trying to sober up past closing time.

Canis

Canis, voted no. 15 on the Canada’s 100 best list of restaurants in 2018, was one of my first meals in Toronto, and I spent nearly half of my time in the city pronouncing the name of the restaurant wrong. To strangers, to bartenders, to friends—everyone squinted, tilted their head, and repeated the word back to me: Kenny? (I’d attempted to give it a French bent, or something.) That was what I deserved for unintentionally validating the France is the center of the culinary universe paradigm instead of digging into my rudimentary grasp of Latin. Canis—like Janice. Like, Latin for “dog.”

It’s a restaurant that would be easily missed walking down the street if it weren’t for its comically large white-and-black sign dangling over the sidewalk. Canis takes trendy, haute techniques and channels them into a tasting menu highlighting both the elegance and simplicity of Canadian ingredients. Menus are written as vaguely as possible, listing no more than three components to each course. Expect Nordic influences, like a steak tartare playfully served in a … tart, covered in gossamer-thin radish shavings ornately arranged like plumage. But also expect regional clams from the coast of Prince Edward Island, served largely unadorned.


Chicken liver parfait tart at Canis
Danny Chau

Tasting menus are admittedly not my favorite mode of dining. There are times when chefs wear their influences on their sleeves, wherein technical homage can distract from the ultimate purpose of the technique—to conduct flavor in a particular way. Of course, there’s an easy remedy: Make sure the food tastes good. What hangups I had toward the top of the menu evaporated by the final savory dishes. There was a gorgeous cut of beef short rib and maitake mushrooms, laced in a miso sourdough jus that underlines the synergy of the dish’s ingredients. There was squid where a pasta course might have been at a different restaurant, arranged in strands with the width of fettuccine, sitting in an abyss-colored well of squid ink romesco that’s far brighter in flavor than it looks. A whole roasted duck—its mahogany exterior glistened, even in the dark—was brought to the table for the final savory course. We were terrified. Of course, it was a playful stunt just to show off; duck is Canis’s signature item, served two ways, both far more manageable than dropping an entire bird on the table. We heaved a sigh of relief. As good as the meal was, I had to make it out to Hurricanes soon; there was a Raptors-Celtics game to watch.

Le Swan

Last May, Jen Agg, Toronto’s most influential restaurateur, announced the closing of The Black Hoof, her no-holds-barred flagship restaurant with smart and fun takes on challenging cuts like tendon and sweetbreads and horse meat, after 10 years of service. That was when I started plotting my way back to the city. I visited the Hoof twice my first time around, and I’d never been so smitten than when I had my first bite of their pistachio hummus and chicken livers. It was a brilliant balancing act: minerality tempered by an earthy, floral sweetness; the richness of the liver atop the bed of hummus provided structure. Indeed, most of my conversations with Agg over the years begin with an overture about just how good that dish was. She would agree, then demur. I get it: Sometimes you just know when it’s over, which can be difficult to parse for someone on the outside looking in.

I walked into Le Swan at 1 a.m. on a Thursday night after a basement show at the Dakota Tavern. It was completely vacant, save for an industry worker (who just happened to mention The Dave Chang Show on his way out). Le Swan is the latest reincarnation of Swan, a popular brunch spot on Queen Street West whose original run lasted from 1997 to 2015. It had been passed around in restaurant limbo over the past three years before Agg and her partners swooped in late last year. She reminisced about what it meant to Toronto’s restaurant scene back when it was one of the few hip dinner restaurants in town in the late ’90s. She called it a “dream space,” a place worth saving.


Open-faced tuna melt at Le Swan
Danny Chau

More than any of her restaurant projects in the past, Le Swan is an appeal to comfort, which provides a cushion for the whiplash of the past colliding with the present. (Le Swan opened a month after the Hoof closed, which allowed staff to transfer seamlessly to the new environs.) The menu reflects that full-circle ethos: high(ish)-brow French classics on the left side of the menu, and nostalgia-laden diner staples on the right—you can and should order French onion soup to go with your chicken fried steak. It’s a space where you can mosey up to the bar seated next to your childhood self. I ordered an open-faced tuna melt, carefully dotting the contours of the sandwich with Tabasco—yes, the staff rightly insists on Tabasco—like I would have 15 years ago; I paired it with a glass of Aligoté.

Bartender Lee Evans indulged me for most of my stay, offering restaurant recommendations and offering his thoughts on the city’s dining scene at large, but ultimately what I sought was affirmation. I mentioned my first trip to the Black Hoof, and I mentioned those chicken livers and pistachio hummus. I asked if, in any of the existing Jen Agg ventures, we might see something similar ever again. He laughed, and told me that the staff actually considered putting it back on the Hoof menu six months before the restaurant shut down. But they’d discovered that it didn’t have the same magic upon recreation, and so they didn’t. I walked out into the snow with a sense of closure.

Bong Lua


Bún riêu at Bong Lua in Scarborough
Danny Chau

One of my biggest pet curiosities in people is the point when a childhood revulsion becomes a treasure in adulthood. It is, if nothing else, a great way of assessing the passage of time. Growing up, I hated bún riêu, a Vietnamese crab- and tomato-based noodle soup. It had nothing to do with flavor and everything to do with what I now recognize as early-onset suburban malaise. Bún riêu is my mom’s favorite dish, and she used to make it incessantly—on her day off on Tuesdays, and every other weekend. On a good day, my older brother and I would taste it for what it was: a dish that deftly walked the line of sweet, sour, and pungent, the essence of crab in all its components reaching all the senses at once. But most days it was served, bún riêu was a reminder of just how routine our lives were. What would be considered exotic for most Americans was meatloaf for us. It wasn’t until we both left for college that the tedious familiarity of the dish became a balm for a world that got much, much bigger than we could have anticipated.

I never order bún riêu at restaurants: At best, it’s a reminder that I should probably call my mom more often; at worst, corners are cut left and right, and it ends up tasting more like a bouillabaisse of cat food and SpaghettiOs. There just isn’t a lot of upside in trying to figure out where one rendition fits between those two poles.

Yet, Bong Lua came up multiple times in my research, and Toronto dining authority Suresh Doss’s writeup last year revealed something I’d never seen before: Bong Lua’s proprietor Quy Huang Dang makes his own freshwater crab paste; most, including my mom, just go with a jarred version. I’d heard stories about how it was made in the old days: crab shell, meat, roe, and tomalley are obliterated in a mortar and pestle, seasoned with chili paste, fermented shrimp paste, and other spices—the end result is a bright vermilion concoction that serves as the soul of the dish. Bong Lua wasn’t only not cutting corners, it was striving to create a perfect bowl, made to order: The paste is added to a master chicken stock only minutes before serving, allowing for a brighter, more pronounced crab flavor to penetrate the palate.

It’s the best bowl of bún riêu I’ve ever had. I’d expected a Proustian moment to wash over me, but there was no callback to my childhood. I was too focused on savoring the present. I wanted to tell my mom all about it.

One2 Snacks

I watched a snow flurry unfold while seated along the front-facing window of One2 Snacks, a microscopic Malaysian storefront in an enormous Scarborough strip mall. I was struck by the uncanny: This was a parking lot lifted straight out of a far-east Los Angeles suburb, like the ones in Monterey Park or Rowland Heights, and dropped directly into a snow globe. My comfort zones were on an axial tilt; luckily, a bowl of laksa and a Styrofoam container of char kway teow was on its way. An elderly Malaysian man, seated behind me with a newspaper in hand, was guiding a fellow first-timer seated between us (seriously, this place is tiny) as he tried to take a noodle pull photo. “Laksa is perfect for this weather,” the old man said, smiling. “Because it will make you warm.”


Laksa at One2 Snacks in Scarborough
Danny Chau

Curry noodle soup is canon in the pan-Asian culinary oeuvre, though there are numerous variations on the theme. Vietnamese bún cà ri gà highlights lemongrass as its primary note on the palate. Burmese Ohn no khao swè leans heavily on the richness and sweetness of coconut milk. Northern Thai khao soi requires a litany of spices, but the aroma of makrut lime leaves often takes center stage. Laksa, a staple in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, finds itself at the nexus; that is to say, a great bowl of laksa harmonizes all of its aromatics in a precise balancing act. It has become a hallmark dish of the GTA, from Mississauga to Markham. One2 Snacks does it right. Upon ordering, patrons are asked for their noodle preference: needle-thin rice noodles that all but infuse themselves with the rich curry, thick Hokkien-style egg noodles that stand up to the heartiness of its surroundings, or both. I tend to go with both; it says a lot about a broth when it can support a veritable ecosystem of different textures and components (each bowl contains simmered bean sprouts, shrimp, chicken, fish balls, and fried tofu).


Char kway teow at One2 Snacks
Danny Chau

Perhaps even more impressive is One2 Snacks’ char kway teow, which might be a miracle of science. Char kway teow is not drastically different from its relatives pad see ew and chow fun—it is a crowd-pleasing dish of wide rice noodles, dark soy sauce, bean sprouts, scallions, and a protein. But I would have loved to watch the process of those simple ingredients come together in the eye of an inferno. Wok hei is a term that translates to “breath of the wok,” which explains, in almost mystical language, the cumulative effects of tossing food continuously in a wok set over a preposterously hot flame. The surface of each ingredient dries out, which allows caramelization to take place. All the while, smoke forms as particles burn (though the constant tossing prevents total carbonization) and bathes the ingredients in an intense second level of seasoning—that is the breath of the wok. We passed the container around and inhaled deeply; judging by the delirious looks on each person’s face, you’d think we were huffing paint. One2 Snacks’ char kway teow has a level of smokiness I’d only ever associated with pit-smoked meats—the kind that lingers with you through the day, the kind that seems to permeate every fiber of what you’re eating, leaving residual artifacts on its journey to becoming a flavor memory.

Parallel


Bright green falafel at Parallel
Danny Chau

I’m rarely affected by color in food; eating with your eyes was not something I was raised to do. Some of my favorite dishes are enveloped in dark, all-encompassing gravies. The most jarred I’d ever been by a dish’s palette was in high school, after ordering an unfamiliar Thai noodle soup called yen ta fo—a bowl of vivid pink broth (flavored with a fermented paste made of soybean curd and red yeast rice, hence the color) was placed on the table and it felt like an encounter of the third kind. But then I cut open a falafel from Parallel and stared into the most verdant, almost plasticine, shade of green I’ve seen in a prepared dish. Part of it is the effects of visual contrast; the falafel itself is fried a deep, dark brown, turning it into an emerald ore. The falafel gets its color from an abundant mix of parsley, mint, and other herbs (all from the garden built on the building’s second level), added in higher concentrations than most falafel doughs. It’s shocking, then, to find a plush, pillowy interior given all the additional fibers and water weight. It’s an extraordinary falafel, served on a bed of house-made tahini, made of sesame seeds ground on a Syrian volcanic stone press more than a century old. The restaurant exists within a tahini factory; the tahini is available for purchase, and it makes its way into every single dish.


Hammshuka at Parallel
Danny Chau

Parallel sits on a plot of land on Geary Avenue just above the Canadian Pacific Railway that seemingly separates Geary from the rest of the city’s core—it’s the reason the owners, the three Ozery brothers (Alon, Aharon, and Guy) chose the name. As an Israeli restaurant, however, the name suggests a level of irony: Israeli cuisine is its own self-contained kaleidoscope of countless intersecting and overlapping cultures. The hammshuka is a good example: eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, ladled over the restaurant’s signature hummus.

Parallel is a space reverent of its location; the rumbling of passing freight trains is built into the building’s ambiance. It is part of a new collection of factories along Geary, which include businesses like Famiglia Baldassarre, a wholesale pasta operation that supplies pasta to some of Toronto’s best Italian restaurants, and Blood Brothers, one of the best breweries in the city. Like so many scenes in Toronto, the development of Geary Avenue is immediately recognizable. The old warehouses and auto repair shops are interspersed with new craft breweries and restaurants. These are the growing pains of any expansive metropolis in the 21st century. Toronto’s rent crisis is as bad as most major cities in the U.S. Chinatown and Kensington Market, two adjacent neighborhoods long resistant to the insidious creep of gentrification, are now feeling the squeeze. Geary’s timeline follows a familiar pattern: industrial work fades in the outskirts of town, artists occupy the space and build its creative potential from the ground up with venues and exhibits, and then new businesses arise seemingly all at once. It is renewal that also reflects the shifting inequalities of the city.

Sakai Bar

There is so much that Stuart Sakai would like to tell you about sake. But first, a tokkuri of the good stuff from Okura Honke, precisely warmed in an immersion machine. It’s cold outside, after all—a perfect time to experience the structural revelations that hot sake can offer. Okura Honke produces its sake in the Nara prefecture, where ancient monasteries first established the codes and natural methods of spirit-making centuries upon centuries ago. Prod deeper, and Sakai might go long on Bodai-moto, a long-defunct method of starter yeast production that precious few breweries in Japan adhere to today. Then again, if all you want is a nice Suntory whisky highball, he can handle that, too—Sakai was a longtime bartender at Rhum Corner, one of Jen Agg’s enduring Toronto bars. “After I left to start my own place I told myself I’d never make another cocktail again,” Sakai told me, smiling as he fixed three highballs at once. “Yet, here I am.”

Given the intimacy at the bar, the best course of action is often just picking a direction (cold or hot, floral or earthy, crisp or soft) and allowing Sakai to take you where he thinks the night ought to go. I was given a pour of Shuhari, a sake that, from fermentation to storage, is produced in extremely cold temperatures; it is only during pasteurization that the product is evenly brought up to temperature, as though it were entering a sous vide machine. The result is a crystalline sake that pops with a shocking amount of effervescence. Then, I had a sake from Yamagata Masamune—my favorite of the night—which had such a soft texture that it nearly registered as weightless.


Katsu sando dip at Sakai Bar
Danny Chau

There are thoughtful bar snacks to serve as buffers between drinks; Sakai has been particularly proud of his tweak on the katsu sando, one of the trendiest dishes of 2018. The components are all there: a perfectly executed breaded pork loin with a juicy blush of pink at the center, shredded cabbage, lightly pickled cucumber, and a hot-mustard-inflected mayonnaise. Except, there’s an added component: a sweet, mild curry gravy for dipping—a handheld katsu curry with the ethos of a beef dip. I told Sakai I was from L.A., one of the epicenters of the modern Japanese sandwich craze. I’m sure they’re all delicious, he offered, but if anyone out there starts making sando dips, let them know I did it first.

Grey Gardens


Lobster and brussels sprouts in tandoori masala and lemon at Grey Gardens
Danny Chau

If a restaurant has a chef’s counter, or any kind of seating that places the diner in clear view of the cooking process, those are the best seats in the house. Eating at restaurants, unfortunately, often means erasing perspective: A waiter arrives, like a genie, takes an order, disappears, and then reappears with food, like magic. Taking in all of the behind-the-scenes work as it happens re-broadens the purview of the entire service industry ecosystem. To watch the magic happen in the kitchen is to learn that cooks have a much sharper, more intuitive sense of time than most do. Internal clocks are honed like knives. It’s what allows them to let dishes sit on the range unattended and trust that the end product will be perfect; most home cooks wouldn’t be able to shake the anxiety of a bubbling pot for long enough to actually go anywhere. Timing, balance, and flow are all on display; it’s practically sports.


Scallops with yuzu, mizuna, and caramelized cabbage
Danny Chau

Grey Gardens might be considered Agg’s new flagship: a natural wine bar that also happens to be one of the best restaurants in the city. We sat in front of chef and co-owner Mitchell Bates, who previously spent three years as the chef de cuisine at the two-Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko in New York. The ambient pan-Asian inclinations that come with being a veteran of the David Chang empire comes through in many of the dishes. Raw scallops are plated with bitter mizuna greens, slivers of intensely fragrant yuzu zest, and dark strands of caramelized cabbage so deeply flavored you’d be forgiven for thinking it were an XO sauce, an umami-laden Chinese condiment that uses dried scallops as a base flavoring agent. It’s a dish that makes a right turn just as it’s about to reach full circle. There is something of an unofficial ode to Scarborough in their lobster and brussels sprouts, cooked with the myriad spices that comprise tandoori masala, and livened up with a jolt of lemon—a South Asian spin on the increasingly popular Chinese seafood restaurant staple of the lobster combo.

Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun” came on as Bates plated a dish of immaculately seared duck on a bed of wild rice and sauerkraut. He couldn’t help but sing along. Catching himself in front of smirking observers, he briefly paused. I offered encouragement: “This song’s a banger.”

“Sheryl’s got nothing but bangers,” he said. And then he served our plate.

SumiLicious


Smoked meat plate at SumiLicious in Scarborough
Danny Chau

One of the most acclaimed classic Jewish delis in the GTA is owned and operated by a Sri Lankan immigrant, one of many who have had a significant hand in constructing a contemporary development of Toronto food culture. Sumith Fernando was a longtime employee at the legendary Montreal institution Schwartz’s. Before decamping for Toronto, Fernando spent much of his free time refining his own smoked meat recipe in hopes of opening his own business in a less saturated marketplace. His Scarborough restaurant SumiLicious has drawn heaps of praise in the past year from locals and critics, though I found myself underwhelmed—not unlike my first Schwartz’s experience a few years ago. Growing up in L.A. with a unique pastrami culture that sidesteps the conventions of New York City, I often found Montreal smoked meat balanced, but tepid; I’d come to expect a full-throttle, hypertension-inducing rush from my deli-smoked meats.

It’s hard to say the trip out to SumiLicious was a bust, though. Scarborough’s cultural bricolage can be staggering—generations of disparate immigrant cultures seemingly stacked on top of one another in a … melting pot? I hate that term. Cultures don’t ever fully homogenize, they vine and entangle and absorb and refract. Strip malls with some of the best food in the city sit adjacent to used car lots; Vietnamese, Afghani, Trinidadian, and the impressively diasporic Hakka cuisine—it can all be found within a mile radius. Salon workers stand in line at Shawarma Empire next to a man decked head to toe in Balenciaga with two spicy shawarma sandwiches tucked under his arm. SumiLicious is just another element to the wondrous jumble. Toronto Star restaurant critic Amy Pataki learned of the restaurant from her mother. “You’ve got to check this place out,” her mom told her. “It’s a Sri Lankan guy doing Jewish food for Chinese customers.” It reads like cultural Mad Libs, but really, it’s just Toronto.

Sneaky Dee’s


Kings Crown nachos at Sneaky Dee’s
Danny Chau

I was sitting at a bar with my friend Steve, plotting out the rest of my night. It was 11, and I was getting hungry. For years, I’d heard so much about Sneaky Dee’s nachos from just about everyone—the most respected chefs in the city, the Raptors’ public relations department, strangers at the bar. It held near unanimous approval. I mentioned the possibility, and Steve’s eyes went wide. His voice changed, warping into a thickly accented Canadian yawp: Oh, buddy. Yeah. Hell yeah. It’s midnight on a Saturday. We’re doing Sneaky Dee’s. He called his roommate, Blake, a Raptors beat reporter who was running on fumes. “If this late-night run was for literally anything else,” Steve told me as he hung up, “Blake would have gone straight to bed.”

There might not be a more alluring siren song in downtown than Sneaky Dee’s at midnight on a Saturday. It’s the sort of beckon that would revive a corpse. A few shots of Crown Royal, a few pitchers of Old Style (a Canadian pilsner not to be confused with the Chicagoan lager of choice), and a Kings Crown (a fully loaded plate of nachos with beans, ground beef, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa roja) will do that to you.

Sneaky Dee’s is a civic landmark, a Tex-Mex restaurant whose upstairs serves as an iconic music venue for some of the biggest bands in Canada. To stumble out of the restaurant with salsa stains is a rite of passage; to stumble back in hours later for a huevos rancheros brunch is to suffer from Sneaky Dee’s Stockholm syndrome. We sat at a table right by the windows, watching near-accident after near-accident slowly unfold on a College and Bathurst intersection notoriously bad in snowy conditions. Drunk men and women descended from the upstairs venue in weather-inappropriate clothing, huddling together as they waited for Ubers soon to be involved in other near-accidents. People watching past midnight, amid standard-issue chaos. It was 5 degrees outside, but I couldn’t imagine being more comfortable anywhere else.





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