Hunter's Vegan Eats

Tsuchi Cafe is a tranquil hideaway with a star chef who's changing the game

I sink my teeth into exceptional, Japanese-inspired pastries with fine-tuned flavours at Tsuchi Cafe, Toronto's only vegan Japanese café. 

Vegan cafe | Beignets at Tsuchi Cafe in Little Italy

When I first enter Tsuchi Cafe, I feel like I’ve been smacked by a ton of bricks. Soft, pillowy bricks wrapped in silk and spritzed with vanilla essential oil, maybe. I’ve never been in a space this immediately relaxing before. 

The architecture of this cozy café in Little Italy is stunning. Scandinavian-Japanese design inspirations immaculately blend together; dark wood trimmings, rough-edged shelves and benches imbue an earthy feel. "Tsuchi," I learn, roughly translates to "soil" in Japanese. Greenery and dried flowers sprout out of oddly shaped pots and vases perched on the walls. Art, teapots and books have been tucked into cozy hidden niches; glass cases display an assortment of stunning cakes, pastries and sandwiches. The air here, tinged with ground coffee and freshly baked bread, is divine.

I’m soaking it all in when I spot chef Haruna Makino behind the counter. Hair pulled back by a headband, she’s slicing loaves, wrapping pastries, sautéing onions on the stove and sliding trays in and out of the oven. Her workstation reminds me more of a restaurant kitchen than a traditional café. She sees me too, and lights up with a grin and a wave.

I first met Makino at a cooking class she was leading, where we shared a few laughs over my mediocre onion sautéing skills. Originally from Osaka, Japan, Makino got her start as a pastry chef in an Italian restaurant. She moved to Toronto in 2013, studied at George Brown’s renowned culinary program, and opened Tsuchi Cafe in 2020 along with owner Koji Zenimaru (Ramen Isshin, Kingyo Fisherman’s Market). It’s the first and only Japanese plant-based café in the GTA, and undoubtedly one of the best vegan restaurants in Toronto.

Tsuchi cafe | A kare pan, curry bread cut open at Tsuchi cafe in Toronto

Tsuchi Cafe: What’s on the menu?

Makino’s creativity, culinary mastery and razor-sharp attention to detail are plastered all over Tsuchi Cafe's menu. She’s constantly in the kitchen testing recipes, she tells me, fine-tuning new flavours and nailing perfect textures. The latter isn’t easy, any plant-based chef will tell you — a lot of vegan food, particularly anything aiming to replace dairy with nut milk, often falls miserably short. Her solution? Substituting with soy, to deliver that same beloved fluffy, fatty mouthfeel as cow's milk in baked goods. 

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Makino’s food is some of the best you’ll find in a Toronto café — and it just happens to also be completely vegan.

Tsuchi’s baked goods change often based on the season, or when Makino develops a new recipe, but Tsuchi has a few staples that have become customer favourites. Expect to find fresh loaves of shokupan (Japanese milk shortbread), neatly wrapped in plastic; crispy curry-filled kare pan, deep fried to perfection; and katsu sandos with soy “chicken” cutlets and Japanese mustard.

Fluffy flavoured cream squirts out of pillowy beignets, and creamy tarts are delicately decorated with rich whips and fresh fruit. There's also a whole savoury menu; the Tsuchi signature burger squeezes a meaty plant-based patty and fresh toppings between two fresh, pillowy burger buns. The gluten-free breakfast sando, slathered in a house miso mayo, is a delight to vegans who miss egg-related breakfast foods.

Tsuchi cafe | Matcha and espresso tiramisus at Tsuchi cafe in Toronto

Makino pours her Italian restaurant experience and love of Japanese flavours into adorable glass jars for Tsuchi’s iconic tiramisu, in matcha and espresso. I pop the lid off the matcha version, dig a wooden spoon into the thick soy whipped cream and scoop delicate sponge into my mouth. It’s light as a feather, and decadent without an overbearing sweetness — my eyes practically roll back in my head. It’s one of the best tiramisus I’ve ever had.

Visit Tsuchi Cafe to discover what they’ve made fresh that day, or head to their website to order goodies and even whole cakes from the online shop.

Tsuchi Cafe: What’s on the drink menu?

Oat milk adds luxurious creaminess to Tsuchi’s hot drinks, at no extra charge. I highly recommend the regular or iced matcha latte, which uses authentic matcha imported from Japan. That uji matcha powder is also available for purchase.

Tsuchi cafe | Two iced lattes at Tsuchi cafe in Toronto

The miso caramel macchiato is a treat straight out of our wildest food daydreams, and the hojicha latte is brewed with green tea imported from Kyoto.

Keep an eye on Tsuchi Cafe's Instagram for specialty drinks launches, like their recent moku moku tiramisu with cream cheese whip, garnished with a hearty shower of espresso powder.

Tsuchi Cafe: The verdict

Tsuchi Cafe is the only Japanese plant-based café in Toronto, and they’ve set the bar high. The baked goods are the stars, complemented by chef Makino’s culinary expertise and attention to detail. After repeat visits, I can confirm that her experiments with finely tuned, delicate flavours will reap huge rewards for your taste buds.