Saturday, October 6, 2012

Tour of Toronto's Kensington Market and Chinatown

I know, I know...I am way behind on my blogging (*blush*), but work has been a little crazy so free time has been harder to come by!  In any case, back in August I spent a few whirlwind days in Toronto, my hometown.  I didn't have a lot of free time while there either, but I did manage to book a two-hour tour of the Kensington Market and Chinatown with Toronto Urban Adventures.

Why go on a tour in your own hometown??  For one, the food tours of the Strip District and the Dormont neighborhoods in Pittsburgh I've taken with 'Burgh Bits & Bites have taught me that any city, even your own, has many cool nooks and crannies to explore.  Secondly, I have always been curious to learn more about the unique Kensington Market neighborhood, so why not be a tourist in your own city?

I had actually done a bit of a preview of Kensington Market the day prior to the tour, when a friend I hadn't seen in a long time suggested meeting up at the really cool Cafe Pamenar in the heart of Kensington Market. Cafe Pamenar offers standard and not-so-standard cafe beverages as well as snacks and sandwiches.  There is seating inside, out back in the courtyard, and up front by the sidewalk.  We snatched a table in the front to take advantage of the gorgeous weather.  I ordered a Sekanjebin, which is a traditional Persian drink with mint, cucumbers, and lemon, and it was super refreshing and tasty.

Sekanjebin at Cafe Pamenar (Toronto)
Sekanjebin at Cafe Pamenar

The next morning, I arrived for the tour super early and met the group outside the Art Gallery of Ontario, just a few short blocks from Chinatown.  Our tour guide, Jason Kucherawy, is an affable, energetic fellow who obviously loves showing off his city to eager tourists.  As my major interest was Kensington Market, I didn't take as many photos of Chinatown, but there were definitely some highlights.

Our first stop was outside the Lucky Moose Food Mart, which used to be known as the "Lucky Ox," as its Chinese name still states.  I'm not sure at what point it changed its name to "Lucky Moose," but I think it might have something to do with the Moose in the City campaign back in 2000, where several hundred fiberglass moose statues decorated by local artists were spotted all over the city (I fondly remember a photo taken of me hugging the Mountie Moose at the CN Tower).  During the campaign, the Prosperity Moose stood proudly above the Chinatown market, and it has stayed there every since.

Perhaps more interestingly, however, was that Lucky Moose made headlines a few years ago when the shop's owner chased down a repeated shoplifter and kept him in a van before police arrived.  To the Torontonians' shock and outrage, the police charged Lucky Moose's owner with assault and kidnapping!  He was eventually acquitted amid strong public support, and this case has led to some recent changes in legislation, known as the "Lucky Moose Bill," making it legal for citizens to make arrests in the case of self-defense.

Chinatown (Toronto)
Lucky Moose

Young Coconut in Chinatown (Toronto)
Young coconut on the streets of Chinatown - a refreshing choice of beverage in the summer.

After a brief walk-through of Chinatown, we crossed Spadina Avenue into the Kensington Market. Kensington Market is a unique neighborhood with an interesting history, which started in the 1800s when a British soldier bought and developed land in the area.  In the late 1800s, the Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived, building Victorian style row houses on small plots of land.  When the Irish and the Scottish moved up the socioeconomic scale, they also moved out of the neighborhood, and the Jewish and Italian immigrants made Kensington Market their home.  The new immigrants would set up shops in the bottom floor of the building and live in an apartment upstairs, and many buildings of this layout still remain today.  By the mid-1900s, the Jewish and Italians had moved out, and immigrants from Portugal, China, Africa, Central America, and other areas moved in.  I have always considered Toronto to be the most multicultural city in the world, but its embracing of immigrants really started in Kensington Market.  Today, Kensington Market is considered a historic site and is frequented by artists, writers, tourists, and hippies and yuppies alike.

Kensington Market (Toronto)
Kensington Market

Kensington Market is also known for its murals and graffiti.  The murals are absolutely stunning, and adds to the distinct character of Kensington Market.

Miles Ahead Wall Art in Kensington Market (Toronto)
Miles Davis, featured in this art piece named "Miles Ahead"

Wall Art in Kensington Market (Toronto)

Wall Art in Kensington Market (Toronto)
Gorgeous work!

Wall Art and Garden Car in Kensington Market (Toronto)
Mural and "Garden Car"

At the corner of Augusta Avenue and Oxford Street is where I spotted the intricate Asian-themed mural pictured above.  And parked right in front of this mural is a hippy-looking community garden car, in which herbs are planted and anyone walking by is free to grab some to munch on.  Yeah, seriously.  Also, Augusta Avenue is now a pedestrian-only street on Sundays; the big silver block at the front of the photo is a barrier that swings out to block the traffic.  Gosh, I kinda wish I lived here!

I do not proclaim to know much about graffitis, but our tour guide, Jason, happens to know a lot, so much of the tour was focused on graffiti, and truly gave me a whole new respect for what I used to consider shameful defacement of public property.  In short, graffiti is considered a style of writing as opposed to art, and that the purpose of graffiti is for the artist to mark their territory.  As such, graffiti often depicts the artist's name, though honestly it reads like a whole different language to me!

Graffiti in Kensington Market (Toronto)
In this alleyway, graffiti is legal on one side and not on the other. When graffiti is illegal,
the artist have little time to devote to their work, so the graffiti ends up looking not nearly
as sophisticated and colorful as legal graffiti. Gotta say, legal graffiti is quite pretty!

Graffiti in Kensington Market (Toronto)
Graffiti on a garage door

Graffiti in Kensington Market (Toronto)
Graffiti on a wall

Graffiti in Kensington Market (Toronto)
This is a particularly creative one. Jason, who amazingly can read graffiti, claims that it says
"Bacon" as the artist's name is Bacon. And so this particular graffiti depicts "Smoked
Bacon." Clever!

Interesting neighborhood aside, as this is a food blog, it would behoove me to say a few words about the food in Chinatown and Kensington Market! First, let's start with Kensington Market. Its rich history and immigrant-friendly reputation means that the neighborhood is home to many restaurants serving a variety of ethnic foods, sometimes even a seemingly random mix of two different cuisines together (like a restaurant we walked by called "Hungary Thai.")  Kensington Market is also staunchly supportive of local, independent businesses - a big box store that tried to open here was driven away by the residents who wanted Kensington Market to maintain its community-oriented character.

The Toronto Urban Adventures tour ended, conveniently, right at lunch hour, and I decided that it would only be right to try out one restaurant in each neighborhood.  First stop: The Grilled Cheese in Kensington Market - a small shop featuring different kinds of fancy grilled cheese sandwiches.

The Grilled Cheese (Toronto)
The Grilled Cheese in Kensington Market

While many of the options on the regular chalkboard-scrawled menu sounded awesome (The Dill-Licious was specifically recommended by Jason), I decided on the special of the day: Cheddar, Caramelized Apple, Onions, Bacon, & Avocado Sandwich. Mmm...cheddarlricious!

The Grilled Cheese (Toronto)
The Grilled Cheese

Cheddar- Caramelized Apples- Onions- Bacon- & Avocado Sandwich at The Grilled Cheese (Toronto)
Sandwich Special at The Grilled Cheese

In contrast to the ethnic diversity in Kensington Market, Chinatown is, well, very much Chinese, though there are other Asian ethnic cuisines mixed in as well, most notably Vietnamese.  There are actually several "Chinatowns" in Toronto, as Chinese immigrants started to move away from its original downtown location. From what I understand, many current inhabitants of this Chinatown actually came from Vietnam, which explains the abundance of Vietnamese cuisine in this neighborhood.

Despite being rather full from a whole grilled cheese sandwich, I was determined to try some dumplings at Mother's Dumplings in Chinatown, which also came highly recommended.  The restaurant was buzzing, and I got a seat in an oddly secluded area in the back.

Mother's Dumpling in Toronto
Mother's Dumpling, interior

Mother's Dumplings offers a variety of fillings for their dumplings, as well as other traditional Chinese fare.  I apparently neglected to make a note on the kind of dumpling I got, but I know the meat was pork, and I think it came with chives.  In any case, these were just absolutely delicious.  The wrappers were perfect - thick enough to not disintegrate after a bite, and thin enough to not taste too doughy. The filling was juicy and nicely seasoned.  Despite having just had a whole mac daddy grilled cheese sandwich, I devoured all 10 dumplings. Yowza!

Dumpling at Mother's Dumpling at Toronto
Mother's Dumplings

Dumpling at Mother's Dumpling at Toronto
Mother's Dumplings

After the tour and the lunch feast, I made my way back to the Art Gallery, but had a few hours to kill before my evening plans with my siblings.  I decided to hang out at this little shop across the street from the Art Gallery called Eskimo Iced Fruit House to take advantage of its free wifi.  I also couldn't resist getting a Taro Milkshake, which tasted like soft taro ice cream, and who doesn't like that??

Taro Milkshake at Eskimo Iced Fruit House
Taro Milkshake at Eskimo Iced Fruit House

All in all, I am really glad I did this tour and got to learn more about Chinatown and Kensington Market, and I would highly recommend it to anyone.  I also can't help but think that the 'Burgh Bits & Bites food tour concept would work super well here.  Does any entrepreneur wanna use my idea and cut me a share of your profits? :)

Map of Kensington Market and Chinatown:

View Larger Map

Cafe Pamenar on Urbanspoon The Grilled Cheese on Urbanspoon
Mother's Dumplings on Urbanspoon Eskimo Tea House & Dessert on Urbanspoon