Toronto is only as big as you make it. As creatures of habit, we often stick to where we know: our go-to coffee shop, that old faithful sandwich joint. For me, east of Yonge feels like travelling to a different planet, so going east of Victoria Park Avenue to Scarborough was like another galaxy — one that’s still in Toronto (technically a district of the city) and a haven for foodies.
After WWII, Scarborough was a promising destination for new immigrants. Today, the majority of the district's population is composed of people who’ve immigrated to Canada, making Scarborough one of the most diverse areas in the GTA.
Where there is culture, there is flavour. There’s no other place in Toronto where you can find a chef from Sri Lanka making Jewish-style smoked meat at a suburban Chinatown deli; a "Shawarma Row”; or a strip mall fish house that's been transformed into a street in Osaka, Japan. If you're going to visit Scarborough, make sure you arrive hungry. I've come to find, it's always worth the trip.
Must-try Scarborough restaurants
1. Mona’s Roti
4810 Sheppard Ave. E.
"Roti in the sunshine — there’s nothing better," Reesa Khan says as she walks by the sunlit counter at Mona's Roti. We're the only ones perched there, filling our faces with plump curry chicken roti wraps and warm doubles — a one-hander of stewed chickpeas and tamarind sauce sandwiched between flash-fried bara (flat bread).
It's a Monday afternoon on Sheppard Avenue East, and the door hasn't stopped opening to let in patrons. But Reesa, Mona's daughter who runs the front-of-house, is content as she prepares roti after roti, chatting with customers on the other side of the glass partition like they’re family.
Mona — of the eponymously named eatery — is in the back, along with several kitchen staff, rolling, folding and shaping dough to Trini soca music and the beat of clapping wood paddles (to aerate the roti while it cooks on the hot tawas).
"I'll be 74 soon," Mona beams as she stuffs the dhalpuri roti with split peas and tells me about the roti shop she had in Trinidad before moving to Canada in the 80s. While roti is a must, Mona's is also known for their rice and tender stewed oxtail with creamy pumpkin as sunny as this side of Sheppard.
2. SumiLicious Smoked Meat & Deli
5631 Steeles Ave. E., Unit 5
The intoxicating, peppery alchemy of smoked meat envelops you the moment you arrive at SumiLicious. On this corner of an unassuming suburban shopping plaza, it's all about low and slow.
Long before you first bite into Sumi's stacked Montreal-deli-style sandwich, its juicy hunks of brisket were dry-rubbed with owner Sumith Fernando's secret spice blend, left to marinate in the fridge for 10 days, smoked for 12-hours and steamed for another six.
The result? A beyond tender, buttery-tasting beauty that made me emote only in sounds and curse words until my brain caught up to my taste buds.
After moving from Sri Lanka, Fernando cut his teeth for 17 years at Montreal's smoked-meat mecca Schwartz's Deli. It was Fernando’s and his wife Shalika's dream to open their own place, which, dare I say, Schwartz doesn't hold a candle to.
You're going to want to get Sumi's smoked meat sandwich combo — thinly sliced layers of hand-cut brisket stuffed between two slices of soft rye bread and slathered with yellow mustard. The smoked meat poutine isn’t included in the combo, but it’s worth the extra meat sweats.
3. Le Spot Billiard Lounge
4531 Sheppard Ave. E.
“You know, we’re just a pool hall, right?” Marco Lu responds, almost like he’s trying to convince himself. I’m not buying it. I’ve seen him and his Sheppard Avenue East pool hall Le Spot Billiard Lounge on CNN. Marco isn’t bluffing; he’s just humble.
Before he bought the place 25 years ago, Lu would come to Le Spot and watch snooker legends like Cliff Thorburn light up the room. Then, pool blew up, and Le Spot became the place for chums and champs to shoot the cue (do people say that?). Today, Le Spot still looks like it’s in the 90s with its drop ceiling tiles, cherry red vinyl bar stools and checkered carpet floor. The pool tables? Mint condition.
Growing up, pool wasn’t the only thing Lu had his eye on. He would spend hours making Filipino meals with his family, and you can get a taste of his freshly cooked comfort food when you swing by after 4 p.m. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Marco’s fried rice is the city’s best. Don’t get me started on the light, crunchy and juicy chicken wings — seasoned with his secret spices and served with homemade Guyanese-style hot sauce for dipping. Not just a pool hall, indeed.
4. Kin Kin O-Ka-Ne
325 Bamburgh Cir., Unit A103
Hidden beneath the beige awnings of Bamburgh Plaza, lies a sea of colour and neon lights inside Kin Kin O-Ka-Ne by Oo-Kinza Fish House. Decorated after the narrow lanes and glowing billboards of Osaka’s lively Dotonbori district, this fish market and restaurant stops me in my tracks.
It’s quiet when we arrive before the dinner rush, so we can really look around. Every time I blink, I see something new: a giant hand-painted crab, a floating puffer fish, colourful milk crates that moonlight as seats. “We did it all ourselves,” says co-owner Emmy Chan. “Having a designer would have looked too polished.”
She scurries into the kitchen and brings out a giant wooden basket of seafood. There’s a sushi boat carrying delicate squares of imported sashimi inside the basket.
I’m overwhelmed and worried it’s a bit too much. Then I realize, “too much” is the point. When we deconstruct the basket, I’m pleased to find it’s not Instagram food. The rich sashimi is fresh and perfectly cut. Pieces of fatty hibachi and smooth tuna slowly melt on my tongue. I want to shrink inside the tiny sushi boat and never leave.
5. Shawarma Empire
1823 Lawrence Ave. E
On this particular strip of Lawrence Avenue East, between Warden and Pharmacy Avenues, you’ll stumble upon “Shawarma Row.” It’s not an official name, but an affectionate one used to describe the cluster of Middle Eastern shawarma shops that line the street.
Tucked inside a brick-walled strip mall is Shawarma Empire, a go-to spot for beef shawarma, which seems harder to execute than the marinated chicken version that’s had more time to develop flavour.
I don’t know what it is with Scarborough restaurants, but they like their secrets here, and I dig that. The thinly sliced, slow-roasted beef at Shawarma Empire is lightly seasoned with a secret blend of spices, olive oil and salt. That’s it.
Instead of a thin wrap, the shawarma sandwiches come packed into a thicker pita bread — this is how they’re made back in owner Ahed Darwish’s home of Tulkarm, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. Pita or plate, the taste of their soul-soothing shawarma will stay with you for a long time — so will the garlic sauce.