A vacation isn't over until I'm splayed across a hotel bed, rubbing my belly in equal parts satisfaction and agony. So as I venture into Parkdale — an unhurried neighborhood in Toronto, lined with vegetable markets and diners lit by vintage neon signs — I know I've found a foodie haven to explore.
The area has been largely isolated from the rest of the city since the opening of the Gardiner Expressway in 1965. The rows of squat brick buildings and retro Village of Parkdale signs lend to the feeling that this place hasn't changed much since then. But affordable rent has done a good job inspiring artists to move to this neighborhood. As I take it all in, I pass fashionable young students in expensive sneakers and old-timers with push carts of fruit — I could see myself living here.
The urban renaissance has been particularly strong in the culinary community, a fact that's obvious by the number of bars and restaurants that pack the sidewalks of Queen Street West. My stomach can hardly contain itself, growling as we stroll past cafes and ethnic eateries just opening for the day, their spicy scents wafting into the sidewalk. But I have a specific spot in mind.
Bernard's Filipino Specialties is the best possible start to my food tour. A mirror image of the city, the store is unassuming, diverse and surprising. I have come here for the lechon — a whole roasted suckling pig.
Bernard, the polite 81-year-old owner, lets his customers order the staple dish of the Philippines by the pound in case eating a whole pig isn't your style. He serves me a plate highlighted with lemon grass, salt and garlic. After one bite, I can see how the recipe has earned him the unofficial title of Toronto's "lechon king." While I couldn't possibly imagine devouring a whole pig, members of the large Filipino population across Toronto are often seen leaving the store with one.
Full for the moment, I make my way east along Queen Street West — technically a few minutes outside of the neighborhood's borders. It's here I find the Drake Hotel, the welcome wagon of Parkdale. Originally a 1890s D. A. Small's Hotel, it's now known as the city's top boutique packed with cultural events, a permanent art collection painstakingly handled by an on-site curator, and a revolving showcase of exhibits.
But I've walked all this way for its gift shop, aptly called the Drake General Store. Kitschy Canada-pride items crowd the space, including Toronto Public Library T-shirts, Radio Canada bags and granola from the hotel's own kitchen. The friendly staff has been known to dole out cups of hot apple cider in the colder months.
After scouring the shelves, I leave the store a little brokenhearted. I couldn't find one of the Seth Scriver sock dolls the hotel is known to stock in their guest rooms. I decide to eat my feelings at one of the Drake's five popular restaurants, attempting to sample the savory chicken and waffles at the Corner Cafe & Bistro.
For the last meal of my adventure, I head to in-demand Keriwa Cafe. Run by a descendent of Alberta's Siksika Nation, the dishes here focus on in-season and local ingredients like roasted squash and wild leeks, and a juicy bison burger I attempt to finish. I heard rumors about an appetizer of pemmican, an aboriginal dish of melted fats, but I regrettably never work up the nerve, or stomach space, to order it. (Due to flooding, Keriwa Cafe was closed at press time for renovations.)
There's always next time. I already planned my next trip here, and I can't wait to see what new plates await me.
» Go Local. Bacchus Roti is the kind of establishment that divides friendships in Parkdale. Though there's stiff roti (Indian bread) competition everywhere, this spot serves two types of chicken roti that neighborhood residents are shocked to find, and then can't live without. 1376 Queen St., W, 416-532-8191
» Embrace Fall. Local restaurants and bars host Toronto Beer Week (Sept. 13-21). Activities include the 11th annual Golden Tap Awards, which highlight the best beers and breweries from throughout Ontario. torontobeerweek.com
» Eat. Grand Electric was created by the former team behind Black Hoof, arguably the most popular restaurant in Toronto, and is the sister kitchen to barbecue joint Electric Mud. The Baja tacos and people-watching are worth the long lines. 1330 Queen St. W, Toronto, 416-627-3459, grandelectricbar.com
» Play. The organically inclined will spend hours shopping at the ramshackle Good Catch general store, where crates of vinyl records sit side-by-side with brown bags of fair-trade coffee, Canadian jams and a variety of gluten- and dairy-free products to take home. 1556 Queen St. W, Toronto, 416-533-4664, goodcatch.ca
» Stay. Built in 1889, the Gladstone Hotel is a modern boutique in a vintage body. Each room in this cozy spot showcases different artists' work, ensuring a unique visit each trip. 1214 Queen St. W, Toronto, 416-531-4635, gladstonehotel.com